The Four Basic Story-Telling Ingredients~ Another Story Ramble From A Sponge

Hey there, friends!

It’s me- your favorite sponge.

I am, first and foremost, a story sponge. We all know this. Stories are the deepest part of me, and I wouldn’t be here without them.

So. Let’s talk about stories.

The point of this post is in here somewhere…

If there is one thing I have noticed about stories over the years, it is that sometimes I love them, and sometimes I…don’t. For some reason, instead of just getting over that fact and moving on with my life, I often find myself wondering about it.

I realize of course that there are all sorts of factors involved in whether or not one likes any given story, such as personal preference of style, personal connection with themes, and personal feelings about burritos (I’m sure that last one is very important), but those aren’t the things I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about, is the pieces you have to put together to create any kind of story in the first place.

Actually not any kind of story. A book kind of story. I want to talk about books.

What I want to know, really, is what makes a good book a good book.

There are books all over the place, covering shelves and floors and garages and that space underneath your refrigerator- and most of them won’t effect your life at all because you won’t read them, and even the ones you do read have a chance of not mattering at all. When it comes to books, only a few will really matter in the end.

Just wait one more moment, I might finally be getting to the point.

The way I see it, stories inside books are comprised of Four Basic Ingredients (like the Four Basic Food Groups- except that I know what the story ingredients are and I don’t actually know the Four Basic Food Groups off the top of my head). These Four Basic Ingredients are like pillars that hold the story up. If one of the pillars is weak, the entire story suffers.

So, what are these Four Basic Ingredients/Pillars of a book? I will tell you.

1) Concept/Themes (the idea)

Well, would you look at that, I just cheated and put two in one. Oh well.

I put these together because both are overarching and conceptual, really. The concept and themes for the story are important because without them, what is the point?

This is the “what if?” scenario. The concept doesn’t have to be some super unique/fancy idea that no one has ever thought of before, like self-aware doughnuts or a post-apocalyptic world where humans have started spontaneously turning into penguins. The concept can be as simple as a family dealing with the death of a loved one, or a child opening up a lemonade stand in their front yard. But there has to be some concept, some idea.

And when I say “themes” I don’t mean “and the moral of the story is.” I just mean themes like death, for example. Or lemonade. Lemonade can totally be a theme.

Basically, themes and concepts are an idea, or group of ideas, that you want the characters to have to wrestle with.

This ingredient is important because it’s encompasses the purpose behind the story’s existence. If you don’t have a reason for writing the story, the reader can tell.

Writing Tip: When you are writing a story, figure out what concepts and themes are at its heart, and let them be a springboard into what you write.

2) Characters (the humanity)

Characters are what drive the story forward. They are the piece of humanity that you attach yourself to and with which you go on a harrowing quest or a hilarious romp or an emotional journey. Without them, you have nothing to grab onto to ground you in the story. A story without characters is like a fish bowl without any fish in it.

The concepts and themes are navigated by the characters. The concepts inform the characters and the characters inform the concepts. You have to be able to get inside the characters heads and understand their responses to things. The concept is the backdrop, and the characters create the action in the play.

If you have a dazzling concept but cardboard cut out characters, guess how awesome your story is going to be? Not very awesome.

Writing Tip: Take time to develop your characters until you know how they would react in any given situation. Don’t use them as a pawn to get the story from point to point. Let their character arcs inform the plot.

And speaking of plot…

3) Plot (the journey)

As I said, it is important for characters to inform the plot- but the plot stands as a key element on its own.

Even if you have produced the best character EVER, the story can get boring if nothing happens to them. They won’t get the opportunity to confront problems and change in the process. Often the creation of certain events and circumstances can help you shape your characters. Putting them through a little plot can help them grow and take them to places they never thought they would go.

So, in a way, plot informs character as well as character informing plot. Nifty, eh?

The plot is either an equal running partner with the characters, or an underscore to them, but either way it’s imperative to a story.

And yes, a plot can be as simple as two people sitting on a porch talking. The shape their conversation takes could be all the plot you need.

Writing Tip: Whatever your plot is, no matter how complicated or basic it is, make sure it challenges your characters. Make it something they have to overcome.

4) Writing (the vehicle)

Yes. The words. On the page. MATTER. SO. MUCH. Don’t waste them.

Newsflash, the words you use to tell the story aren’t simply a means to an end. They’re not irrelevant. I have read so many books that wanted to be movies- the words were used like they were disposable, just a way to let you know what was going on- and it saddened me awfully. (Not that movies don’t require good writing too, of course. But there’s a certain emphasis on writing style in books that isn’t there in movies, because we see more words than just dialogue.)

The writing style shouldn’t be thrown away. It informs everything else about the story, and everything else about the story informs the writing style. Am I speaking gibberish yet?

If the writing style is boring, dry, just something to slog through so I can find out what’s going to happen, I will hardly ever enjoy the story.

Writing Tip (in metaphor form): Instead of thinking of the writing itself as a generic subway train, taking you from one stop to another in a streamlined fashion, think of it as a living, breathing, creature (like your own personal dragon or unicorn or giant salamander) with its own unique gait, its own rhythm- a creature that can take you anywhere, and show you perspectives on things you never noticed before.

Epilogue

I boiled stories down to these four ingredients, but that isn’t to say there aren’t many more. Stories are made up of countless elements, and they are all interwoven. Doing a poor job on any one piece can cause the entire story to crumble. We should strive to craft stories with intention in every area of storytelling. It’s not easy (in fact it’s monstrously difficult, good grief), but it’s something to think about.

What do you think of my Four Basic Ingredients/Pillars that hold up a story? Is there another element that you think is more important than one of the things I listed, or one you’d like to add? Do you think that any one ingredient is the most important or do you think they all have equal importance? When you are writing/reading stories, do you think about these elements at all? I would love to hear all your opinions on stories and writing in the comments!

30 thoughts on “The Four Basic Story-Telling Ingredients~ Another Story Ramble From A Sponge

  1. I find the characters to be more important than the plot. Here is why I said that: it might be a good plot, but the characters formed the plot and it is their story.

    The main overacting theme in Tale of the Cattail Forest is friendship. The plot is about a friendship formed and how to keep it strong- after all, my antagonist is trying to break things up.

    When first writing: here is a tip: start writing and don’t think- that is for the first draft. Then for drafts after, that is where you can go and do the more editing.

    A good book made you form an emotional connection. Sometimes I have no idea why I liked a book- sometimes I literally know this was a really good book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you that characters are more important than plot! I find that I enjoy stories where characters are emphasized over plot, or where characters and plot seem equally important, but if plot is emphasized over characters, I lose interest. Characters bind everything together in way that I don’t think plot can do. I agree that characters need to form the plot for the plot to be good.
      Friendship is a great theme! I like to explore friendship in my stories as well.
      Excellent writing tip! It’s important to just write and not be afraid that it won’t be good.
      I absolutely agree. There has to be some kind of emotional connection to the story, and I think that often it is characters that create that connection.
      Thank you so much for commenting!

      Like

      1. Tale of the Cattail Forest has multiple friendships- some existed before the story kicked off

        Sparkle (my main character) and Misty- best friends

        Darcy and Felipe- best friends

        This is the one that kicked off the plot:

        Sparkle and Marge- they become friends and soon these two come up with the idea of having all the Fairy Frogs befriending all the toads

        So more friendships form, but Sarge tries to break things up

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It is crazy to think of that- friendship dynamics aren’t the only ones going on. I have family dynamics going on as well- in some ways the relationship between all of the Fairy Frogs is like a family.

        However, in an actual family:

        Aries and Darcy are uncle and nephew

        Effa and Rudy are identical twins

        Marge and Sarge are cousins (which is the most complex one and why there even is a story- Marge is my catalyst character while Sarge is my antagonist).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It is hard to think of what is going on between the two- because the backstory is heartbreaking

        Marge and Sarge’s fathers are brothers. That is how they are cousins. Marge is the younger of the two at only 12 while 17.

        Their fathers grew up in a loving family, but something went wrong. While Marge’s father is loving- look at Sarge’s: unloving and abusive.

        Sarge was mistreated from 4-13. That was after his mother left him. At 13, his father left him. Sarge only had one source of comfort- it was in The Bog- his father could not find him there; he was truly happy there- he treated the place like a playground. What happened to Sarge led him to be the bully he is in my book with his cousin being his easiest target.

        Growing up, Marge was never allowed to see her uncle- her father was trying to protect and did not like seeing his nephew being treated like that- he wanted to help, but could not find a way to keep his daughter safe. Marge constantly is standing up to her cousin and deep down I think she has some love for her cousin. She really wants them to have an actual cousin relationship- not what is going on.

        It is complicated

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow, I liked this post! I enjoyed seeing it all boiled down like this-I do agree with you on these points, and especially on that last one! I think a lot of people forget that the writing does matter as much as the characters and the plot. Characters and writing are probably the two that I focus on the most when I read a story, and also when I write-although I should be working on my plot a little bit more. XP Thank you for sharing!!! (And also-I kinda get the feeling that you may have been hungry while you were writing this? X’D But YES lemonade can totally be a theme. X’D)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you muchly, I am glad to hear it! Yes, I often find that the importance of writing is overlooked, but it’s so, SO important. I am glad you feel the same. Haha, I actually relate to that: I focus the most on characters and writing, and then forget that plot is supposed to be a thing. For me, bad writing just sours the other elements, and if you don’t have good characters than nothing else matters anyway. So yeah. Those two are the most important to me, and plot and concept just help support them.
      You are most welcome, I am so happy that you enjoyed it!
      (Yes, well… I am always hungry. Now I want to write a story where lemonade is a theme. It could work.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really love everything you have to say here. And THANK YOU for knowing the difference between a theme and a moral, because it drives me bonkers when people confuse them. It also drives me bonkers when people think a plot has to be super complicated. No! You can have a nice little plot about fantasy scientists exploring new worlds and researching dragons! You don’t have to introduce a government conspiracy for it to be valid! (Although a book about fantasy scientists and a government conspiracy DOES sound kind of fun, now that I write it out.)

    I tend to think a lot about themes, and I find them very interesting. They’re the backbone of a story, and you can really do a lot with them, and I like thinking about them so much šŸ–¤

    I’m a little bad with plots, to be honest. I know a good plot when I read it, but I have trouble working out how to get from point A to point B in my writing, or (the hardest part for me) how to plot an ending. I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually.

    Anyway, this post is amazing! Thank you for writing this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, and you are welcome!!! I am thrilled that you liked this! Indeed, there is a good deal of difference between a theme and a moral (though a theme can often have to do with the moral, there doesn’t have to be a moral for there to be a theme). It is important to differentiate them.
      And YES, plots can be very simple and still be very good! I think that sometimes people focus way too much on making overly complex plots, like that will automatically make their stories good- it doesn’t. (Your fantasy scientists/government conspiracy idea sounds intriguing though. šŸ˜‰ )
      That is awesome that you think so much about themes. I have a hard time with them, until I have my characters. Usually with both plot and themes, the characters have to tell me what they are. Otherwise I get hopelessly lost… I usually get hopelessly lost anyway, actually.
      I am TERRIBLE at plotting. My stories are always character driven- if they are driven at all. Sometimes I surprise myself by coming up with interesting plots, but it’s always more about character development than anything else.
      Hopefully we can both figure out how to plot someday.
      Thank you so much again! Your comment made me very happy. šŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome!! Themes and morals are different things, even though they’re related to each other somewhat. I see people confuse them sometimes and it always bugs me, every time.

        I love simple plots. I also LOVE complex plots when they’re done well, and it can be so fun to piece together what’s happening and try to keep up with all the plot twists and schemes and machinations (and try to guess what the characters are going to do next, etc., etc.). But I’ve certainly read some books that seemed like they would have done so much better with a simpler plot, but they tried to force themselves into a complex epic fantasy structure and fell flat on their face. (I have no idea why I’m talking about the books as if they are alive.)

        I guess I like thinking about abstract stuff anyway. I blame Plato, I had to read him in school. It did take me practice to figure themes out, but they are really fun. It’s kind of like piecing out the threads of a story, and figuring out what it’s really about and why it works. (Or why it DOESN’T work. Stories with themes that don’t make sense at all when you consider what’s actually happening in the rest of the story are…fun.) I also really love motifs.
        Having characters tell you what’s actually going on is an amazing way to write, tbh. I love it when they do that to me.

        Oh yeah, I LOVE character-driven stories, and I mainly write those too, but unfortunately I have trouble with…everything about plots. I don’t know what it is. They frustrate me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “When they’re done well” is my favorite genre. šŸ˜‰
        How else would you talk about books? Of course they’re alive.
        Hehe, yes…I can see how that would be fun. I actually love talking about and picking apart themes in other people’s stories, I just have a hard time coming up with my own. Abstract concepts are sometimes my favorite thing to talk about.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ahahaha. I like this post very much.
    After I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking… what other aspects ARE there in a book?
    Those are truly the four pillars of masterpieces. If they are done well that is. šŸ˜‰
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like this. šŸ™‚
    Very valid and true list. Thank you for this great reminder!
    I read somewhere (and I can dig up with originator of this idea if you wish to know but I can’t really remember it off the top of my head) in one of KM Weiland’s writing guides that the 6 fundamentals of story are: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, & writing voice.
    But I really like how you boiled it down to the very basics of concept, characters, plot, and writing.
    I certainly think about all of these elements. The best and greatest and most epic stories must either do all of these beautifully or at least the majority of these elements exceptionally. Examples: Marvel – of course, Inception the movie, LoTR, Narniad, Till We Have Faces, and I’m also super impressed with Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Tales of Goldstone Woods series – especially with the type of themes and morals she try to convey through the characters, and the unique settings/world, and also I admire her writing/prose/diction very much. It’s rather traditional third POV but it’s not overtly slow/detailed so it still grips your attention.) Disclaimer: Stengl’s first book Heartless is not the best work but it has unique aspects, so I’m referring more to her other works like Starflower, Dragonwitch.
    As a writer, I’m currently struggling with characters and plot the most. I have baby ideas/concepts… many of them in fact, but making them into a coherent and gripping story is def. NOT easy.

    Lastly, I don’t really think any one of these elements can do without the other. If you have a great character but no decent plot or concept, it’s hard to follow the story through, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, I am very happy to hear that you like my list!
      Yes, those six elements make a lot of sense as well. I love picking apart what goes into a story and what makes some stories engaging and others not, and I like to see what other people have come up with when doing the same thing.
      Yes, when I think of the best stories, these elements are all strong- some are stronger than others, but all are well done to some extent, and I agree that you need them all. Like you said, if you have a great character but no plot, it’s hard to follow. How can you join the character on his or her journey if there is no journey? The elements are all woven together and they feed off of each other, each making the other better than it could be on its own. It’s fascinating. I love how character can inspire plot, and plot can inspire character, and character can inspire writing voice, and concept can inspire character, and so on. I geek out about this stuff.
      I struggle a lot with plot. I like to create characters, but they flounder because they have no direction. I don’t know what to do with them. I come up mostly with characters and concepts/scenarios, but plot eludes me.
      I hope that your baby ideas/concepts grow into fully fledged stories someday as you continue to try and create the character and plot pillars!
      Thank you again for the comment, I really enjoyed reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Now I want to read a post-apocalyptic story where people turn into penguins.
    I have a list with the same main ingredients. Except I couldn’t help but slip in a few spices for each category. For example, I like writing (called style on my list) to be flavoured with wit, irony, and wonder.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Personal feelings about burritos have often caused me to pass judgment on a story, indeed. *nods sagely*

    It makes me happy that you included writing/prose in your Four Pillars. Quite surprised me, actually. As we went from theme to characters to plot, I was like yep, yep, the basics of story…I wonder what the fourth one will be? And then it was the writing itself and I smacked myself in the forehead for not thinking of that. šŸ˜›
    But yes, I too have read far too many books that thought words were a disposable means to an end. And it is sad. To go along with your wonderful metaphor, if you HAVE a green spotted dragon, why would you use him as a car and not glory a little in his dragon-ness? And if you’re writing a book, that means YOU ARE ALLOWED TO WRITE BEAUTIFUL THINGS WITH YOUR WORDS. So do it!! (This kind of contradicts what I was saying about The Clockwork Three, but…well, also be good at words, I guess.)
    Anyway, I greatly enjoyed this post. And methinks you have a bit of a bias in favor of characters over the other elements? (Not that I don’t approve. What can be better than a good character? The theme is to frame them, the plot is to grow them, and the writing is to illustrate them in their most authentic colors. Characters are the best.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew that the burrito element would be important. It always is.
      Thank you! Yeah, the writing is so important! I don’t think it necessarily contradicts what you said before about The Clockwork Three. You can use a lot of fancy words but not use them WELL, and that’s when things get awkward and clunky. Something can be super impressive sounding and still not serve the story. Excellent writing is often very simple- which is different than streamlined, if you take my meaning. Showing restraint is actually an important attribute of a good writer. Having a mastery of words, to use them as little or as extravagantly as is demanded by the story, is the key.
      Ah, so you noticed. šŸ˜‰ Yes, I do have a bias towards characters. Since they represent us, it’s like they are the reason for any of it to exist in the first place. A story without characters isn’t a story at all.
      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow this is a wonderful summary of the key elements in stories! I personally find characters to be most important. Before I write I like to go in depth brainstorming my character’s qualities and personality, and really get to know them like real people, so my readers will know them as real people as well.

    I really love how you said to think of your story!!! If you treat it like a living breathing creature, your story really does come to life.
    As always, wonderful post. XD

    Liked by 1 person

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