Character & SettingEdit
The characters and the setting of a story come first. They set the stage for action to happen by providing a world in which that action can exist. When the action of a story begins, the characters and settings are in what is called their natural state. This is kind of the way they were in general as opposed to the way they become when the action of the story begins. What is New York City like normally, before the aliens invade? Who are you in general before a wolfman bursts into the room and starts chasing you? Do you have curly hair, or straight? Do you live in an apartment or a cabin? Are you shy or gregarious?
ConflictEditTo that mix, we add conflict! Conflict is the heart of every story because it is what drives every story. Without conflict there would literally be no stories to tell because there would be no reason to tell them. Let me explain. Conflict is defined as two opposing forces. Two things fighting for the same outcome. It could be as simple a conflict as whether to eat pizza or a sandwich or as gargantuan as good versus evil. The reason that we want to tell stories in the first place is because we want to express change: a world outside of the one we are used to. We want to communicate the things and events which take us out of our natural state, because life is about constantly being taken out of your natural state. No one ever tells a story about going through an ordinary day, "I woke up, took a shower, ate breakfast, went to school, came home, played Xbox, ate dinner, did homework, and went to bed." No one ever tells this story because it doesn't communicate anything. Our lives are defined by the out of the ordinary moments, and therefore stories are too.
So now we've got conflicts, characters to play out these conflicts, and setting for the conflicts to play out in. This "playing out" of conflicts in a sequence adds up to what are called events. And the events of a story make up what is called the plot. It's pretty much as simple as that, but I should note a very smart man named Gustav Freytag noticed that many stories follow something called 5 part dramatic structure.
Story StructureEditWhich brings me to my next element. Fiction is not confined by space and time the way the real world is. One chapter of a novel can end in Arizona and the next chapter can begin in Antarctica (CONFLICT!). Likewise a story may begin in a dark room with a smoking gun just fired and a man bleeding on the ground, then fly back in time three days to show the events that lead to the murder. In these cases, the storyteller is moving around the events of the story, the plot, in order to exaggerate conflict. This can be done in lots of different ways for different reasons; the element is called story structure. In the movie Memento, the story structure is reversed, so the last scene to happen in the chronological version of the events is the first scene the audience sees when they sit down to watch the movie (See Fig. 1). I know it's confusing. Medieval storyteller Geoffrey Chaucer did something very cool with story structure in The Canterbury Tales (See Fig. 2). He tells one big umbrella story about a bunch of people telling stories! It's a story contest in fact. So a knight tells a story, then a miller tells a story, then a nun tells a story, then a monk. . . It's a really sneaky way of getting to tell a bunch of different kind of stories from the point of view of a bunch of different kinds of characters. And the stories told reflected the kind of characters they were. Apparently, the miller was not a guy to take home to meet grandma.
Theme is a doozy. This is because theme is the product of all the above elements mixing and clashing up there. I'll explain what theme is first, then how it works. Theme is the many ideas, morals, emotions, notions, connections, etc that boil around in our brains when we read, listen to, see a story. And these themes appear in our minds without our control. Here's how it happens. Stories are just full of details. Details can be characters, conflicts, scenes, props, dialogue, voice. . . all that stuff. Well, when we witness a story, we pick out lots of those details and focus on them. We notice that Sue is driving the red car to her mother's house. But when the details we notice come in to conflict with one another, our brains get working trying to predict outcomes. These predictions are what encourages you as a reader to move forward in the story. We want to find out what will happen. This is where it gets really cool. While your brain is working on outcomes, it is thinking about the conflicts in a real way. This is because as humans we are problem solvers, and one of the main strategies we use to solve our problems is to mentally put ourselves in a situation in order to imagine how we would react. Therefore storytellers work to create conflicts that you can relate to on some level in order to connect you to the text. For example: Sue is driving to her mother's house, but it is because her mother is very sick and needs her help. In this case, the opposing forces are Sue's love for her mother versus her mother's health. This conflict creates emotion in any reader who has ever worried about the health of a loved one. Interestingly, this is generally why people only enjoy stories in which they can relate to the conflicts going on.
The last element is a little separated off from the rest. It's the way that a story is told, and it's called voice. Voice can be very quiet, "Jim had blue eyes, straight brown hair and freckles," OR it can be very, very loud, "the castle sat high upon the hill and loomed over the small Bavarian village like a phantom." Voice can relate to who is narrating a story, or how the writer chooses the words a character will say. But it's easiest to think of voice the way you think about your own voice. It is a unique pattern in the way you speak and the words you choose to use. Lots of great writers have a strong signature voice. Dr. Seuss does, so does Bill Waterson (the writer of Calvin and Hobbes). Shakespeare's voice has been imitated for centuries.