Saturday, June 8, 2013

The 5 essential elements for every good story

By Keith Ogorek

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to be part of three Book-to-Screen Pitchfests where authors  learn how to pitch their book as an idea for adaptation for film or television and then have the opportunity  to pitch to entertainment executives in a speed-dating like setting. They have been great events for the authors and the entertainment executives alike. There have been hundreds of requests for different books.  One has been optioned and there are a number of others that are under consideration.
If you break down every great story, it has these elements
What has been most interesting to me is  no matter what the genre, there are some common elements to every great story. The books that get noticed have these elements. The books that Hollywood execs often pass on are missing one or more of these.  In fact one exec said to me, “If you break down every great story, it has these elements”. So what are they?
1.          An inciting action. This means open the story with some event that sets the characters and action in motion.  Get my attention in the beginning and give me a reason why I am going to care about the people and the story going forward.
2.          Conflict. There needs to be some challenge to overcome or some quest or mystery. The character or characters need to have some type of struggle.
3.          Resolution. Make sure the conflict gets resolved by the end of the book and don’t come up with some crazy way to solve the matter. One thing I have noticed about authors’ books that get close to being requested, but often get a pass is the resolution to their story doesn’t make sense. They set up the conflict, make the characters interesting and then resolve it with something that comes out of the blue. In their efforts to be creative, they end up making the ending implausible and that hurts the story.
4.          Protagonist. Give me a character I want to care about and can understand. Help me understand why they do what they do. Sounds simple, but it is very challenging.
5.          Antagonist. Life is often about struggle and opposition and so great stories present those challenges as well. Many times it takes the form of a person. As with the protagonist, make the antagonist interesting. Help me understand why he or she presents the opposition.
Now none of these five elements should be surprising, but I have been somewhat surprised at how some books are missing one of these elements, have them underdeveloped or make them implausible. How about your story? It would be could to do a quick review of your manuscript to see if you have these elements included. All good stories do.


  1. Dear Sophie,

    I couldn’t agree more with the premise of your post, and yet am deeply disturbed by the thought process it stirred in my hungry mind.

    In my business life, I require an air-tight business plan before investing any resource allocation in a project, no matter how enticing the proposal, no matter how seducing the idea. In that respect, I wholeheartedly agree with the notional concept of defining the requirements that will make our creative process, not only thoughtfully crafted, but also poised to satisfy the taste of a discriminatory audience.

    This mentally agreeable presumption, however, does not comfort my heart in the necessary leeway that, as an artist, I am bound with to both recognize in myself and express to others the emotional wealth whose form and content are dictated by my soul; a soul that is marching to the sound of my fantasies like a deaf drummer guided by his blind inclinations. For, indeed, the nascent artistry that one is capable comes from places that our conscious selves rarely are let to contemplate, the creation of art can only come from the docile acceptation of its anonymous sources in our deeper selves.

    Of course, as an author, it begs the questions as to how, and how much, to compromise between being true to ourselves and accommodate the more practical, sometimes mercantile, aspect of the distribution of our work. In other word, it forces us to constantly evaluate how much art needs to be compromised in its creative process to fit a distribution model or please a broader audience, or how much, as author, we can be ourselves against, or despite, our need and want for our art and view of it to be seen by most and shared by many.

    Your comment fascinated me and inspired me to resolve for myself the difficult reconciliation of the need of a solid structure to ensure the broader possible impact of a literary work with the aspirational necessity to let creation be a process that, although supported by sustained discipline, emerges from the unknown depths and unforgiving tyranny of this soul of ours that dictate to our heart the emotions we translate and to our conscience the duty to share them.

    Kindly and respectfully,

    Susan Nire

    1. Hi Susan,
      Thank you for deepening the discussion with your truly thoughtful comments. Let me respond by saying that I don't believe the two concept are mutually exclusive. In essence, I don't believe that your need for artistic free expression and a novel's need for 5 essential elements are incompatible notions. As an artist, you must draw your stories forth from the subconscious, that's one of the most important aspects of being a writer, but once the first draft stage is complete, the real writing begins with each subsequent draft, when you form and shape the text to give it greater life, more depth, richer subtext, a deeper emotional core, and better flow. A great book that I would love to recommend to you is "How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author" by Janet Evanovich. She lays out all the rules in clear, concise, easy-to-follow language. Above all, experiment with both styles of writing and come up with your own hybrid model. Your stories will flourish and you could be onto something really big!

  2. Thank you for your sensible response Sophie. I do agree with your view, but only intellectually. My feeling is otherwise conflicted as I have always struggled to reconcile the almost physically painful creative process with a conscious effort to model the creation under a given form. I know that in essence the form, or a fleeting notion of it at the very least, is needed to let an audience immerse itself in it; but I have never trusted myself fully to, out of a conscious effort of my mind, correct the sometimes cryptic productions of my soul.