There are probably as many different answers for what elements make up a good story as there are writers and readers, but I think most of these can be boiled down into what I think of as the “holy trinity” of a story: character, plot, and setting. A story, to me at least, is different from storytelling. Storytelling is the way a story is told, and having a good story is only one part of good storytelling. The language, images, pacing, clarity, and balance also matter a great deal, but in this post I want to focus on the elements of a good story, separated from the art of storytelling as much as possible.
The Holy Trinity are all interconnected and reinforce each other, but they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. A good story has strong characters, a well-developed plot, and a well-thought out setting, but many writers specialize in one, or two, of these areas. Some authors, particularly in the realm of science fiction, do very well with one or two of these elements, and are noticeably lackluster with regards to the other. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, for example, have brilliant plots and settings, but their characters are extremely forgettable. Going further with this example, I would say Asimov specializes in setting, and Clarke in plot, and that their proficiency in these areas helps make up for their deficiency in character.
That being said, it is important define exactly what I mean by characters, setting, and plot. Characters are the agents in the story, who the reader can identify with and who give the story a soul. Good characters are consistent, well-thought out, and understandable. They need to feel human, even if they are not. If they’re not human, then even though the alien/inhuman characters are characters, they do not contribute to the character element of a story; instead, they contribute to its setting, as they function as part of the larger world instead of as characters.
So characters give a story soul.
What, then, does plot give a story? Plot gives a story mind. While characters breathe life into a story, it is the plot that gives it intelligence. A plot does not have to be complex to be good; indeed, overly complex plots are the downfall of many stories (I’m looking at you, Moffat’s Doctor Who). An intelligent plot, like a character, should also be identifiable, and it should allow the reader to think about what is going on. It should be understandable, but also thought-provoking; the plot should present situations that the reader could envision themselves in, and can think of their own solutions to. If your characters are well-done, then hopefully their reactions to the plot won’t be the same as the readers, which can lead to tension.
If characters give a story a soul, and plot a mind, then the setting gives the character a body. The setting contains both the characters and the plot, and yet is also separate from them. It is the medium on which the other two exist, and it is what gives the characters context and the plot meaning. The setting is what fleshes out the story, and gives it a feeling of reality – or alternate reality. The setting consists of all of the background, the places, the social structure, the laws of physics; the setting is what allows you to feel as if you are no longer a reader, but an inhabitant of this other place.
But which of these elements is the most important to a story, I hear someone ask (or is that the voice in the back of my head)? All three are important, and what is the most important depends entirely on the reader or writer’s opinion. I recently watched a show (the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica), and was somewhat underwhelmed by it, much to the shock of the show’s fans who had recommended it to me. A discussion on the relative merits and demerits on the show led me to realize my opinion of the show was so different because I watched the show differently. I watched the show differently because, to me, setting is paramount, plot second, and characters last. The fans in question, however, viewed characters as paramount, and on further reflection the character development was very good, but because characters don’t matter as much to me as setting or plot (which was not nearly as well-thought-out or consistent as the characters), the show fell a little flat for me. So, in the end, it is up to the reader or writer to decide what is most important, though keeping all three in mind is always good.
For me personally, though, because I view setting a defining both the plot and characters, I see it as the most important. For me, setting can make or break a show. Plot, to me, is almost as important because it usually makes me think more than the other elements, and that thinking is why I like to read (and write). Characters are the least important to me, and I am more than happy to tolerate bad characters if the setting and plot are phenomenal. Of course, this is personal, and I don’t claim that any of the trinity are intrinsically better than the others; I just value them differently.
As I said before, all of the three are interconnected, and when done well reinforce each other. Minor characters, while part of the characters, are also often part of the story’s background and thus contribute to its setting. Major characters drive the plot forward. Mysteries and secrets woven into the setting can allow a plot come into being, and events in the setting’s past can motivate a character to do whatever it is she wants.
Sometimes, one element of the story can trump the others, and yet still bring the others to high heights. One way of creating a plot is to choose a setting and put the characters into it and see what happens. A writer could develop a plot, match it to a setting, and then fill it in with the appropriate characters. One could also develop a character and create a plot around his life. Another way – my way – is to create a world with some fundamental aspect that is either unknown or that changes, and then build a plot around that element, and create characters to fill the necessary roles in the plot. One could also come up with a neat idea for a plot, fill it with characters, and then decide where the plot would best fit in.
I believe most writers start with one element, and then match the other two to it. All writing starts with an idea, and the nature of this idea is what defines the beginning element, the story’s seed, and often its strongest aspect. An idea along the lines of “what if the world looked like this?” is often a setting seed. One that sounds like “what if this happened?” is often a plot seed, and an idea like “what would someone like this do?” is a character seed. All three beginnings are equally valid, and yield great results.
And so I think that all stories begin with an idea seed, and that thus all stories contain an idea at their heart. This idea is what makes a story interesting, and is what makes it resonate (or not) with the reader. For me, the interesting ideas lie in setting (doubtless an influence of my historical and sociological training), while others may find plot or character ideas more interesting. It’s all up to the reader.
In the end, the point of this long-winded ramble is that I think all stories begin with a seed based around a setting, a plot, or a character, and that the other elements grow from there to form a full story. While no part is greater than the other, different readers and writers value them differently. And I shall leave you with that, and welcome any comments.