Characters: Who is the story about?
Setting: Where/when does the story take place?
Conflict: How do the characters relate to each other and their surroundings?
Plot: What is happening?
Theme: Why is the story being told? What does the author want us to think about? This is the most abstract of the questions above and we will discuss this in class later in the unit.
There are three basic categories of character:
- Protagonist – the “main character”. Generally speaking this is the character who we follow through the story and whose point of view we identify with. Often the protagonist is the “good guy” in the story although not always.
- Antagonist – a major character who is trying to stop the protagonist in some way. Usually the “bad guy” although also not always.
- Supporting – other characters in the story who do not have as important roles. Often help the protagonist or antagonist but sometimes have their own agendas.
Characters in stories, particularly the protagonists, will often go through a change during the story. They will begin the story behaving one way, but events in the story will change their personality in some way so that by the end of the story they have a new outlook on life. This is known as a character arc. In short stories, these arcs are usually less obvious than in longer stories or novels.
When/where the story takes place. The surroundings of a story can have a significant impact on the characters and the way in which the story develops. Additionally, a well-described setting helps the reader to create a mental picture in their head of what is happening. One of the reasons Harry Potter is so successful is the highly detailed and well-described world JK Rowling creates around the characters.
While the “where” is usually what we think of with setting, it is important to pay attention to the “when” as well. There are three possible options for when a story is set*:
- Past – these stories have the benefit of hindsight; we know what happened already so the author can use this knowledge to make a point about the society of the time and how it relates to our own (either favourably or unfavourably).
- Present – setting a story in the present can give an author a chance to speak about an issue which is affecting us right now.
- Future – futuristic stories often mean an author is trying to write about a current issue by imagining how this issue might be resolved. Often they are warnings – if we continue down the path we are on it will not end well.
*NOTE: This is in reference to when the story was written, not when we read it. So a story written in 1950 but set in 1980 has a futuristic setting even though 1980 is in our past as readers.
Almost all stories are built around a central conflict. There are many different types of conflict, and not all take place between two people. Some of the most common include:
- Person vs. Person: a conflict between two or more people with competing thoughts, beliefs, goals, wants, etc. Eg. The Lion King (Simba vs. Scar).
- Person vs. Society: a conflict between a person (or group of people) and a rule or moral belief in the bigger society. Eg. Romeo and Juliet.
- Person vs. Self: a conflict between one aspect of a character’s personality and another which interferes with their ability to be happy/successful. Eg. Any character with an addiction.
- Person vs. Nature: when the environment around the character provides and obstacle to success/survival. Eg. Castaway
The structure of stories often follows a similar pattern
Inciting Action: The event which starts the main action of the story. This will take place near the beginning of the story but is not necessarily the first thing to happen.
Rising Action: The series of events which escalate the story and push it towards its resolution. Tension builds through this section.
Climax: The most important moment in the story – whatever conflict the story has been building towards is finally resolved.
Falling Action: After the climax, anything which is necessary to wrap-up the story.