Have you ever wondered how the elements of story impact your book's genre? Do some elements of story have greater importance in a book because of the book's genre?
I can think of several times when I’ve gone to a restaurant and been served something so delicious that I chew slowly so I can experience how each of my senses is impacted by the food: from taste to smell to sight.
The level of importance the elements of story have on genre isn't so different. We all have certain tastes—factors that appeal to us in different ways on our taste buds—and it’s the same with our reading preferences. I came to understand this in a profound way when I worked for our local library system. Readers crave certain “flavors” and genre helps them define what they like and discover more of it.
How the five elements of story vary in level of importance because of the genre may impact your perspective—and in a good way, for writers trying to satisfy their target readers!
Looking at Genre From a Different Perspective
In my last article, Book Genre: Why Figuring Out Your Genre Will Help Your Story Succeed, I explored the reasons genre is so important to readers, writers, publishers, and marketers. I also pointed you to some resources to help you learn more about genre.
One superb way of studying genre is to focus on the obligatory scenes and conventions inherent in each genre.
I remember how excited I was when I discovered Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid. By the time I finished the first chapter, I knew my life as a writer was going to change in wonderful ways. The podcast is fabulous, too.
As much as I highly recommend studying these aspects of genre, in this article I’m going to take a different approach, by looking at genre according to the story’s components.
Five Elements of Story to Include In Your Book (And Consider When Determining Your Genre)
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on five components that go into every story.
By plot, I mean the order of events that create the rise and fall of tension as the story progresses. This is where you’ll see those obligatory scenes make an appearance.
Ask yourself: what is the story arc of my plot, and how does this move the action of my story forward?
Setting must be well-developed through the five senses, the opinions, and the emotions of the POV character. Setting is also one of the elements of story that is important in making your story unique. Consider how the surroundings of your character's world can impact their actions and decisions.
You might also be interested in how to sketch setting in Scrivener, which we teach in this post.
Ask yourself: how is my story similar to others in its genre, but differs in setting? Why does this setting attract the readers of my genre?
The important characters in the story need to be memorable and engage reader emotions. In addition, the reader should not be in doubt about whose story it is—knowing the difference between what makes a protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters can also be directly related to the genre.
Character development is crucial to any story, and undoubtedly one of the most important elements of story. This is what makes readers of your genre care about the book.
Ask yourself: how does the story arc challenge my protagonist, and why do my protagonist's wants and needs directly conflict with the antagonist(s)?
This is how you put words on paper. It has to do with factors like sentence length and structure, thick or thin texture, vocabulary, types of details and imagery, etc.
Style is one of those elements of story that is difficult to teach, but a good trick involves focusing on sentence length variation. For instance, Dr. Seuss had an extremely unique style that made his books timeless, which you might be interested in learning more about by reading the linked post.
Ask yourself: how do my sentences vary in length, and how does this support and develop a voice appropriate for my genre? For example, thriller suspense books will usually have shorter sentences, since there's higher action and readers of this genre naturally look for fast-paced reads.
Here, I mean character voice, rather than author voice. Surprised you! Didn't I?
I believe you can create character voice by various means, whereas author voice comes through best when you’re not trying to control it at all.
Like style, voice is one of the elements of story that is hard to teach.
Ask yourself: how do each of my characters sound different from one another? Why do their unique voices support the tone and depth of my book's genre?
P.S. If you're curious about how to strengthen the voice of your characters, you might enjoy this post.
The 5 Elements in Action
When considering your book's genre, these five elements of story come into play in different ways. Now let’s take a look at some popular genres to see how they add up.
Romance is probably the biggest genre in terms of sales, numbers of books, and the readers who read them. It produces a massive amount of bestsellers and features a myriad of sub-genres which may slightly adjust the balance of these components.
In the romance genre, character comes first—by a long shot.
Readers must fall in love with the characters as the characters fall in love with each other.
The second component is plot. Leave out an important obligatory scene, like the “Meet Cute,” the “First Kiss,” or the “Proof of Love,” and romance readers will bring out the pitchforks.
Readers of your genre want these moments, and it's your job as the writer of this genre to understand not only the important elements of story, like plot obligatory scenes and conventions, but also how to apply them into the plot and structure.
Setting comes next, followed by style and voice. These last two are roughly interchangeable as to importance. If you’re determined to write romance, be careful not to overemphasize setting, style or voice—doing so will kick your romance into another genre, such as literary (which is strictly defined by its more descriptive, melodic prose), or historical fiction (basing setting and plot on something real in history).
Example: The Notebook
P.S. One more thought—romances must include a happy ending. Don't forget this!
Like in romance, character comes first with Mystery.
It is a critical component as the character and reader work closely together to solve the mystery.
Setting comes next, and includes the crime. You must pull the reader right into the story with sensory detail, opinion, and emotion. All of these are clearly defined by the genre's target readers, all of whom are expecting a certain edge and suspense while unraveling the why of the mystery and crime.
The plot in a mystery is also hugely important because that’s where most of the clues are laid out. Voice and style can be almost neutral, kept very low-key, depending on the sub-genre of the mystery.
The ending must provide a solution—or at least a satisfying resolution—to the crime.
Examples: Agatha Christie books, Sherlock Holmes books
Thrillers live and die on style. That’s number one, and encompasses the pacing necessary in a successful thriller.
Next comes plot. Most thrillers incorporate an intricate plot with lots of danger, but ensure that the good guys win, in the end.
Character, voice, and setting hold roughly equal positions of importance and can be tweaked up or down according to preference, as long as they don’t overpower style or plot.
Examples: The Da Vinci Code, The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl
As you might guess, the number one component of fantasy is setting.
The story takes place in a made-up world and pulling the reader into that world is all-important.
In positions two and three are plot and character. You can bring these two elements of story up or down as you please, but never elevate them with a higher importance than the unique, fresh contribution of setting to the story.
Style is important, but not critical and voice can be kept neutral, or not. But if you want your book to sell, you should make certain the good guys triumph in the end.
Examples: The Name of the Wind, Harry Potter series, Uprooted
As in Fantasy, setting is the most essential component of science fiction—and can include style, in a way. Again, you are pulling the reader into a strange, new world and that setting is crucial to the telling of your story.
Next comes plot, the mechanics that come into play and drive the story forward.
Third is character, followed by voice in fourth place. These are notable elements of story in science fiction, but support the setting and plot rather than dominate the story.
And style can float up or down on the scale, depending on how you want to write it.
Example: Star Wars saga
It’s fairly obvious that setting will take the top position in the historical fiction genre.
Style and plot are next, and interchangeable in terms of importance.
Last come character and then voice, since the characters often support the historical event the plot is based on, and the voice is expected to have a somewhat literary tone.
Of course, the lower ranked components can slide up and down according to sub-genre and writer preference.
Examples: The Nightingale, Water for Elephants, Before We Were Yours
The literary fiction genre calls for voice and style to the extreme—since the prose is an acquired and important taste.
Readers and writers of literary fiction stories love to be enthralled by lush language, compelling characters, and exquisitely beautiful turns of phrase. But the voice and style of these books is expected to promote further discussion, which is also why it's not surprising to find these titles in school curriculum.
Character and setting follow voice and style, with plot holding the last position in most literary fiction. However, keep in mind that ALL elements of story are needed for a good book, literary fiction or any other genre.
Examples: The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird
Character is the most crucial component in a young adult book—the character must be of a certain age—which is also why most of these stories show a coming of age arc.
But voice runs a very close second. Very rarely do you find a YA book that isn't in first person limited point of view, since the attitude of the character is crucial to its uniqueness. Keep in mind, readers of YA fiction love a character with a strong, fresh, interesting voice and an opinion about everything.
Setting, plot, and style move up and down the spectrum, but never trump voice and character.
Examples: The Fault in Our Stars, The Hate U Give, New Kid
How to Use Elements of Story for Your Book's Recipe for Success
The next time you’re savoring a novel, consider how the different components are coming together—like ingredients in a recipe— to satisfy your target reader's craving for a certain type of story.
As a final reminder, these are:
All of them are crucial to defining your book's unique aspects, and while the level of importance in how they define your book (according to genre) varies, you need ALL of them to polish a book that your target readers will love.
For a more detailed study of this subject, consider taking the Genre Structure Workshop offered by WMG Publishing.
In my next article, we’ll take a look at how readjusting the amounts of these five crucial components can change the result from one genre to another, giving the story a different flavor and appealing to a different audience.
See you next time!
How do the elements of story work in your story? Do the genre analyses above hold true for your genre and book? Tell us about it in the comments.
Today, pick one of the five elements of plot and practice it. Will you engage us with a vivid setting or introduce us to a new bold and sassy character?
Pull out your work in progress and write with a focus on one of the five elements. Or, choose an element and focus on it as you write a scene based on this prompt:
She'd expected climbing the mountain to be tough, but she hadn't bargained for this.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you're done, share your writing practice in the comments below, and don't forget to provide feedback for your fellow writers!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.