Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

4 Things Every Story Needs

If you’ve spent any amount of time Googling “how to write a story” or “how to write a book”, then you’ve probably encountered some of the myriad frameworks writers have devised as a diagnostic tools for successful stories. From books to blogs to special software, everyone seems to have their own pet theory, each with their devoted following.

Before you jump down to the comments, let me be clear. I’m not here to bash or replace [insert your favorite framework here]. If you follow a certain method that you read about in a book or on another blog, and it works for you, that is wonderful. Keep using it. The purpose of this post is to point out something that all of the frameworks I’ve read fail to mention.

So here it is – the four things every story needs.

  1. A beginning
  2. A middle
  3. An ending
  4. A message, or what others would call a theme

Wait. That’s it?! You must be joking.

No, I’m not. Every story you have ever heard – every story you have ever told – is comprised of these four elements. The first three broadly describe the structure we learned by listening and then reading the storytellers around us as children, just as they inherited it from the storytellers before them. The fourth encapsulates the reason why we are telling the story in the first place, whether we are consciously aware of it at the time or not.

Here is the dilemma. Every good story has these four things, but not every story that has these four things is good. This is where things like character, character arc, setting, and word choice come into play. These are the things which make a story good. They are important but not essential.

As writers, we focus our attention and efforts on what makes our stories good, and often lose sight of the underlying structure. This isn’t without reason, of course; making a story good is the hardest part of writing. I’m not trying to dumb down or undermine all the work that goes into the writing process. I point this out as a reality check and a note of encouragement.

You can tell a story. You already have. You’ve told hundreds if not thousands since childhood if you stop and think about it. Honestly, it’s not that hard. Telling a good story is harder – much harder – but not impossible.

So if you’ve received a lot of negative feedback or you’re experiencing writer’s block, take a moment and check your story’s foundation. Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Why are you telling this story? What message does it convey? If you can answer these questions, then don’t worry. You’re on the right track. You don’t have to demolish the whole building. Try ripping out the carpet or painting the walls a different color.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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