Story Elements

There are certain story elements all new novelists learn if they want to write compelling books. One such element is R.U.E, meaning resist the urge to explain. Too often, new writers fill their first chapters with the myriad details they think is necessary to explain who the characters are and what brought them to their predicament instead of simply diving into the story and trust in the intelligence of the reader to put it all together.

Another major element, perhaps THE major element, is conflict, conflict, and more conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. It’s just a meandering anecdote, though even an anecdote, to be interesting, needs a bit of conflict and some sort of resolution to the conflict.

A third element is . . . the magic of threes. You know about threes, you learn it as a small child with tales such as the three bears and the three little pigs. In fact, you can’t escape threes. They are everywhere. The Three Stooges. Three outs. Best two out of three. Three Faces of Eve. Three Days of the Condor. The Three Musketeers. The magic of threes even works in essays such as this. As you can see, I laid out three story elements rather than two or four.

Apparently, although new writers do well to incorporate such elements in their writing, long-time authors with over a billion books sold (not an exaggeration) don’t have to pay attention to any story elements. The most recent example I came across was so horrendously awful and amateurish, it was laughable.

Throughout the entire book, all the author did was explain. In the first chapter, she must have repeated at least a dozen times that the woman was in love with her house, that she’d had to give up her first child at sixteen, and that a later son was now dead. I got it the first time, and I’m sure even the most unexacting reader would have gotten it by, oh, the second time. The second and third chapters were repeats of the first.

When the story finally got underway, there was zero conflict. In fact, the woman decided to look for her daughter again, even though the first time she searched, many years previously, she’d been told the records had all been burned. So she went to the town where the institution for unwed mothers had been, talked to one person who happened to have been there at the time, and the person told her that she only remembered three names of possible adoptive parents (out of possibly hundreds) because they’d all been famous actresses. So the woman looked up one of the actresses, found that the woman’s daughter (now a grown woman) resembled the birth mother’s mother, and contacted her, and it was the right person.

That’s it. That was the story.

Too much explaining, zero conflict, no magic of threes. The first person she talked to at every step led her directly to the next step. You’d think such a simplistic storyline would presuppose conflict later in the book, but no. That was all there was to the story. The daughter and mother loved each other. The two mothers loved each other. The birth mother’s new boyfriend loved all of them. At the end, the actress dies, which makes the remaining two women sad for a few paragraphs, but then comes the giddy ending that left the original mother and daughter back together where they should have been all along, and loving it.


To be honest, I can’t really fault the author. The main goal of the publishing industry is not to put out good books but to make money, and apparently, other people don’t mind such execrable writing. I’d just made a mistake in getting the book. I knew what a terrible writer she was (I once studied her books to see what made them so popular, but the only conclusion I came to was her overuse of the word “love.” Her characters love everything). But I am a sucker for the “lost child” genre, and I let myself believe that perhaps she actually had written a book worth reading.

Luckily, there are readable writers out there. In fact, I recently read a science fiction book that still makes me smile. Reminiscent of the movie Enemy Mine, two people from different worlds become friends and allies as they try to save both of their worlds. In this case, admittedly, there was too much conflict and too many plot twists because everything they tried didn’t work at first, which got a bit old. (The magic of three to the third power seems to have been this author’s goal.) But he did a good job of only explaining what needed to be explained at any given moment, mostly the science part of the fiction. But any faults in the execution were negated by the perfect ending.


What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

5 Responses to “Story Elements”

  1. rodmarsden Says:

    Three is important in Japanese Noh theatre. They go from three to six to nine and so on with staging with three always in mind. It works too! Editors sometimes do push you to explain sooner than you would like to do so.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s odd. I’ve never heard an editor say to explain. It’s always about showing, not explaining. But I suppose all editors have their own way of doing things just like writers do.

  2. Marion Marchetto Says:

    Terrific explanation of repetitive prose. Some authors I’ve read and/or worked with insist on explaining ad nauseam or in one case retelling scenes from a second character’s point of view. Too much repetition. I’ve also found the other extreme to be true as well. Some new writers will give little to no explanation when a bit more would be useful. Balance would be key. Thanks for such an insightful post.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      When an author insists on retelling the story from a different POV, I quickly learn to skip that person’s story. Lawyer novels are particularly bad when it comes to repetition. You know the whole story except for the ending, but in the trial portion of the book, they insist on repeating the story ad nauseum.

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