Basic Elements of Short Stories

By Eric Moll

Short stories have six basic elements, all of which they share with longer works of fiction. These basic elements are setting, conflict, plot, characters and character development, theme and point of view. All stories have some version of all of these elements although not necessarily in the most literal manner. A story's main "characters" could be bacterial cells or pieces of furniture, for example. Literature is flexible and open to experimentation.

Setting

A story's setting is more than just its physical location. It includes the time in which the story takes place, whether it's the span of an hour or a lifetime and whether it takes place in modern times, the future or the distant past. Setting refers to the world the characters inhabit, which includes things such as weather, architecture, social expectations and legal practices.

Conflict

Generally speaking, all stories have some sort of conflict. Some conflicts are more blatant than others, clearly pitting characters against each other, against society in general or against nature or some external force. Other conflicts are more subtle, taking place mostly within a characters own mind: their view of themselves, their view of the world, their morals, their emotions. The conflict in a story is generally what makes it interesting or compelling. If nothing is at stake, a story will not typically be very interesting, even if the writing itself is good.

Plot

A story's plot consists of all its events, laid out in chronological order. Plot is often broken up into five basic sections. Most stories will follow this structure. The first is the introduction, when the characters are introduced. Next comes the rising action, when the story's conflict is revealed and it really starts moving. Sometimes, this happens at the very start, essentially combining the introduction and rising action. The climax of the story is its most pivotal point, when the conflict could swing one way or the other and the characters are tested. Some stories have multiple smaller climaxes. The fourth section is falling action, as the conflict is either resolved or left open. Finally, the last section is the denouement, or the end, when the final outcome is explained--or left for the reader to wonder about, depending on the story.

Characters

Most stories have one or more protagonists, which is another way of saying "main character" (or characters). Some stories have clearly defined antagonists, or villains, whereas others do not. Sometimes the line between protagonist and antagonist is blurred, as in the case of an anti-hero. Characters can be either round or flat. Round characters are fleshed out like they are real people. The reader is given many realistic details about the character. Flat characters are less complicated and stereotyped or caricatured. We don't see them from more than one angle, either because they aren't centrally important or because the narrator is only concerned with one aspect of their personality or because the narrative mode is satirical or ironic. Characters can also be either dynamic or static. Dynamic characters change as a story progresses. They learn new things, change their minds, grow as people, mature, have breakdowns, insights or epiphanies. Static characters stay pretty much the same throughout a narrative.

Theme

Theme is the most abstract of these basic elements. Theme is, essentially, what the story is about. This is not to suggest that all stories are about only one thing or that once you have figured out the theme of a story you have somehow cracked a code or solved a problem. Themes can be complex, and the important thing when analyzing literature is not what the themes are but how they are created and developed. Theme is not to be confused with moral--some stories have morals, but many do not. All stories have themes. Themes can include death, redemption, challenging gender roles, overcoming fears, prejudice, hatred or the shortcomings of language. Most stories can be shown to have more than one theme.

Point of View

Point of view is a question of who is telling the story and how. In a first-person story, the narrator is a character who uses the pronoun "I." Sometimes, the narrator speaks in first person, but the real protagonist is another character. In a second-person story the narrator uses the pronoun "you" and addresses the reader directly, as if he or she is a character; this point of view is quite rare. Third person refers to all of the characters as "he" or "she"--the narrator is not part of the action. Sometimes, a third-person narrator is omniscient, meaning he knows what all the characters are doing and even describes what they are thinking. Other times, the narrator only shows things as they would be seen or heard but doesn't go inside the characters' heads; this is known as "limited" third-person point of view. There are many ways to experiment with point of view, and different stories may employ very different techniques, including switching between narrators or modes of narration.

About the Author

Eric Moll began writing professionally in 2006. He wrote an opinion column for the "Arizona Daily Wildcat" and worked as an editor for "Persona Literary Magazine." He has a Bachelor of Science in environmental science and creative writing from the University of Arizona.