The Basics of Storytelling: Plot, Character, and Setting

The Lord of the Rings popularized many concepts that now seem cliche. Part of its success owes to an incredible balance of the three essentials of storytelling: plot, character, and setting. We’re going to talk about how all three essential ingredients, and what you can do to maintain balance between them. 

When you break down a story into its basic components, there are really only three parts: plot, character, and setting. Some would also lump theme and style with those three, but I see those more answering questions like how and why, instead of what. So for now, let’s just focus on the what.

Plot

Plot is perhaps the most obvious part of a story. Most plots consist of the following: rising action, conflict, climax, falling action, and a resolution at the end. But even more basic than that, a plot is just a series of actions and reactions. An evil overlord wants a ring to rule the world >>> you get rid of the ring. And an epic plot is formed…

The Lord of the Rings actually has one of the most cliche plots in history, but that’s because it’s what started it all. The hero’s journey exemplified in The Lord of the Rings, is hardly new, but Tolkien was able to take that journey and popularize it. Most fantasies followed in Tolkien’s footsteps as a result.

Character

Character is my personal favorite part of a story, especially when you can really identify with them. Characters can fit many roles. We have heroes, anti-heroes, villains, sidekicks, gray characters, or foil characters to name a few. Obviously, there are as many types of characters as there are people, so try not to restrict your characters into limited roles. While you can have stereotypical characters to prove a point, usually you only want them to show how your protagonist interacts with stereotypes.

Characters come in all shapes and sizes. They can wear good or evil on their sleeve, like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, or they can have a multi-layered psychology like my favorite character in all of the English language: Hamlet.

Setting

Setting can inform so much of the story. In fantasy or science fiction we call this worldbuilding, though you will find a need for setting in every genre. In fantasy or sci-fi, the setting is fabricated by the writer. Again, Tolkien was a master of this art, even going so far as to invent over a dozen languages to make his world seem more real.

In other genres, especially historical fiction, the setting requires a lot of research. One of the reasons why the film Apollo 13 is so amazing is because it clearly focuses on the setting or conditions that the Apollo 13 astronauts experienced. Most of the science portrayed in the film is accurate, adding to the realism and by extension our investment in the film. The better the setting, the more of an immersive experience we get as consumers.

Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than what I’ve mentioned. For example, the three core elements of a story often interact. The culture (or setting) a character grows up in would largely affect their motivation. I’ll get into more detail on each of these aspects as we go along. 

I’d love to hear any comments you guys have about plot, character, setting. Let me know what you’d like me to cover, any questions you may have. In the meantime, live your dream, and tell your story.

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