Writing Lessons (2): The Building Blocks of Stories

Four Circles copy

At least since Aristotle, writers and critics have identified four building blocks that storytellers use to spin their tales: plot, character, setting (atmosphere), and tone (point of view). Stories are a (1) series of events that happen to (2) someone in a (3) particular place as told by a (4) specific narrator. We learn these categories in elementary school, but we writers spend a lifetime trying to master them.

Many critics argue that stories must favor one of these elements over the others. Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint sets up the “MICE Quotient,” suggesting there are four types of stories: emphasizing either milieu, idea, character, or event. Although “idea” stories do not line up with “point of view,” the other three are directly connected: milieu to setting, character to character, and event to plot.

NERMUntold numbers of literary critics have used these categories to analyze and pigeonhole stories over the centuries. One of the more intriguing of these critics in recent years has been Wesley Kort, who built a career off of showing how these four “narrative elements” each contribute to story structure and make claims about the nature of time (plot), the limits of human choice (character), the qualities of the world around us (atmosphere), and the overriding presence of interpretation (point of view).

When we surrender to the storytelling process (whether we read, listen, or watch), we enter a world and discover the rules that govern our understanding of meaning. What does this story tell us about where we are headed (the trajectory of time/life), what we are capable of (our character), how the world around us receives us (atmosphere), and how we relate our experiences to each other (point of view)?

These comments may seem too heady or philosophical for some artists who just wish to jump into the deep waters of creation, but I believe it does help from time to time, as you are constructing your own worlds, to remember that you as a writer do make certain choices about where your story is going, who inhabits it, what rules govern the world in which those characters interact, and how you will tell the story? Why do you make these choices? How do they contribute to the overall narrative world you are constructing? Do you have a message you wish to communicate through them?

51oOV8s3IaL._SY300_{Side note: Some critics would immediately throw up red flags on the last question, claiming that stories do not depend upon “authorial intention.” They would rather emphasize the integrity in the work itself (Cleanth Brooks and students). Or more trendy in the last decades (Stanley Fish and company), vocal critics wish to argue that stories are what readers construct. My response is stories always encompass author, text, and reader. Entering into a story is always a complicated dance: I bring (1) my own experiences into the receiving of the (2) words/images that the (3) author has selected.}

All of the above questions about the choices we make as we build our worlds obviously connect back to our reasons for writing. There are practical, and perhaps cynical, writers who say they only sling their fingers across the keyboard to earn money; they will write whatever they think their audience desires. Other writers, though, have a sense of calling or an artistic vision that pushes them. We should be aware of how simple choices about plot, character, setting, and point of view do have significant impact on the worlds we are creating and the experiences we are initiating for our readers.

We will unpack each of these building blocks in future posts. Until then, may your stories challenge and inspire you!

2 thoughts on “Writing Lessons (2): The Building Blocks of Stories”

  1. Thank you for the post. It is thought provoking and is causing me to look at how I construct my own writings.

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