Friday, May 8, 2020

The Six Critical Elements of Story Crafting

In my journey to become a published author, I have heard a lot of advice on story crafting. There’s so much it’s hard to keep track of it all, and the parts that spread the most readily are not necessarily the best. So this week I thought I would take a break from the science and philosophy and talk about the six major elements I focus on while writing a story, and which determine for me how good a story is. And also to plug some of the good books I’ve been reading lately. Let us begin.


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Every medium for stories has its strengths and weaknesses. A book or short story’s only tool is words, and the strength of words lies in their power over the readers imaginations. To achieve the element of presence, a writer must paint a picture with those words so vivid that the readers forget they are looking at paper and ink, and instead feel like they are there with the characters.

I felt present in stories a lot more when I was a kid, perhaps because my imagination was more active in filling in the gaps. As an adult, I haven’t felt this as much, although it may be more prevalent in the more literary genres. Of those I have read, H. P. Lovecraft was a master of presence in his horror stories crafting the entire experience of each around a mounting sense of dread. On a more adventurous note, Dune by Frank Herbert has quite vivid presence, if I recall.


Subtly different from presence, the element of immersion is how believable the story is. Not necessarily how realistic it is, but how well the world and characters fit together and feel like something bigger than what is written on the page. Immersion breaks when the characters act uncharacteristically or too one-dimensionally, when laws of science or magic are carelessly broken, when the economic or social systems make no sense, and when there are plot holes.

The great fantasies, such as The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, and The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson, excel at immersion. For near-future sci-fi, David Brin is a master of immersion in Earth and Existence.

Aesthetic stimulation

Concept art for the Avatar movies by Dylan Cole
Writers are not limited by trivialities like funding or the laws of physics. We can make statues a mile high, space ships the size of continents, the most gorgeous natural environments imaginable, exotic aliens, plants, and animals, and everything and anything we can imagine. I personally like messing with space and gravity. I am of the belief that even with our culture of today immersed in science fiction and fantasy, we have still barely scratched the surface of the aesthetic potential of our imagination. I’m including emotional stimulation in this category.

Pioneers into literary aesthetics include Shad Brooks in Shadow of the Conqueror, as well as Brandon Sanderson in The Stormlight Archive, particularly book 3, Oathbringer. On the older side of things, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons had their moments of incredible aesthetics.

Intellectual stimulation

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I love to think, and stories are a great playground for thought. The element of intellectual stimulation includes themes, moral dilemmas, scientific and philosophical concepts, and new perspectives on things we’ve come to take for granted.

Intellectual stimulation is important, but as we all know, stories are not essays. If the description or dialog waxes on about a scientific or philosophical idea, it’s boring. Stories have the unique ability to explore ideas through setting and the actions of the characters, and keep readers engaged that way.

Science fiction is great for intellectual stimulation. First and foremost, Earth and Existence by David Brin each put a large number of the struggles of our present society and contemporary philosophy into accessible story-rich juiciness. Ursula K. Le Guin paints a fantastic social thought experiment in The Left Hand of Darkness. Iain M. Banks set his Culture series in a galactic utopia, exploring a lot of the questions we easily overlook in our present societies as our attention is occupied by other things. And along those lines, I’ll throw in a TV show too: Star Trek is all about exploring the spaces of mind, meaning, and humanity.

Structural Coherence

Novels are collections of scenes and beats, and these all have to go together in ways that make sense when viewed as a whole. There is a lot of craft that goes into the element of structural coherence, including pacing, the ordering of the scenes, and which scenes are included and which left out. At the end, a structurally coherent story has everything it needs, no more and no less.

Most successful novels are good at structural coherence, so it’s especially jarring to find one that isn’t. We might find extra scenes or conversations bogging down the flow and which should have been cut, or topics that did not receive as much attention as they needed. A set of stories that do structural coherence surprisingly well are the I Am Not a Serial Killer series by Dan Wells. These book feel like they wander, but when we get to the end, we see how every scene has been deliberately used to serve the plot and the character development.


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Themes, character arcs, plot threads, major features of worldbuilding, and flavors of the story should all be explored in many dimensions, and come to a culmination at the climax. It is not only at the climax where this matters, but all of the foreshadowing and development along the way as well. The payoff may be the most critical of the elements, as it is what will determine the emotions the readers leave the story feeling, whether they are inspired to look at life differently, and how psyched they will be to read more of the author’s stories.

The Wheel of Time had some of the best payoff of any story I've read at the end of the series, though it lacked a little during the middle. Most of Brandon Sanderson’s books have great payoff, particularly regarding the development of the magic systems. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a masterpiece of payoff through and through. And Artemis by Andy Weir makes very good use of many dimensions of its setting in a moon colony.

These six elements are the breath of life for a good story. Pacing, characters, setting, prose, the reason all that stuff is important is to serve these elements. Stuff like the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and tropes and archetypes are, I believe, tools of analysis of finished stories, not things that are necessary to worry too much about when constructing them. For me, a story is good if it feels present, immerses me in the world, stimulates aesthetically and intellectually, is structurally coherent, and pays off on all the things that make it unique. Any rules, models, and guidelines are, in my view, meant to support these things.

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