Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Three Building Blocks of a Story

There are lots of different ways to define a story. Depending on where you are in the storytelling process, one may be more useful than another.

Little Miss Muffet and a dinner guestThe other day I wrote about the basics of plotting. That's one way to look at your story. It helps you find the crucial moment in your story, and it can help you decide what kinds of action need to happen around it.

But suppose you aren't that far along? Suppose you're still trying to come up with a story? Or suppose you have an idea but don't know what to do with it?

In that case you need a more basic concept of what makes a story. I like to think of a story as being built from three blocks:
  • character
  • world
  • plot
Or if you prefer:
  • Who are they?
  • Where are they?
  • What are they doing there?
You might think I’m leaving a lot of things out. I am. Things like genre, for instance. While a sci-fi story is somewhat different from a western (unless you're writing Firefly or Star Wars), I’m just looking at the things all good children's stories have in common regardless of the genre.

These are the basic building blocks because you don’t have a story without them. Or, put another way, these three things are the bare minimum you need to create a story. Take, for example, the stirring adventures of Little Miss Muffet:
“Little Miss Muffet
Sat on her tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.”
You can't get much simpler than that, can you? It's just six little lines but all three building blocks are there.

As you can see, we have characters: Little Miss Muffet and a spider.

We have a world: We can see a tuffet (that’s a stool) large enough for two; curds and whey; presumably a bowl holding said curds and whey and a spoon for eating them; and a spiderweb, presumably near enough to said tuffet to make a neighborly visit practical.

And we have a plot: Miss Muffet’s dinner is interrupted by the untimely arrival of a spider and, terrified, she runs away. (Granted, knowing why she’s so terrified of spiders might make for a more interesting story but this is a decent plot for a nursery rhyme.)

That's a relatively complete story and yet it leaves lots of room for individualization. For example, a story built around the more typical image of Miss Muffet at the beginning of this post will be quite different than one built around the following image! (Note that this image provides a why!)

Miss Muffet meets Arachnophobia

So if you feel lost when you start work on a story, stop and make sure you've got all the basic building blocks. You can't finish a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces, and you need all the pieces of a story if you don't want to end up confused.

The top picture is from and the bottom picture is from

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