The basics of every story ever

When you get into writing stories, sooner or later people come along that try to fill your head with all sorts of nonsense about what every story “needs”. Most of the time, they are well-intentioned but wrong.

You may have heard about the so-called “three-act structure” (which is a scriptwriting technique); people may try to say that every story “needs” a villain; you may even hear that every story needs a main character. None of these things is universally true.

Every story needs only this

Every story is, at its heart, this: An entity wants something while another entity is moving in the opposite direction. They contend until one prevails.

More often than not the first entity is a person because we like stories about people. But the entity could be a group, a community, a civilisation, a computer program… anything that can want something. that is because the definition of a character is “someone who wants something” and the definition of plot is “what they overcome to get it”.

To put this in terms of character: There once was a person that wanted something. Someone or something opposed that desire (for a reason). Eventually, one of the two prevailed. 

Everything else is optional

The three-act structure is not needed in every story

The three-act structure is not needed in every story. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that it is deeply unhelpful as a story writing guide.

Why not, for example, start the story where the characters already know about a pending invasion. We follow the characters for almost the entire book. We get to know and love them. Then the battle arrives. Every risk, every loss, and every minor victory we, as readers, would feel deeply. However that story ends, it should touch us, as the youngsters like to say, in the feels (our emotions). In that story, we skipped “act one”, compressed “act three” and were all the better for it.

Not every story needs a villain

It is very short-sighted to say that every story must have a bad guy. If only because it just is not true.

The someone or something that opposes our character or characters need not be evil nor even a person. There are at least five basic struggles that a character can go through in a story and only one is another person.

  • Person vs person (or group of people)
  • Person vs society itself
  • Person vs nature
  • Person vs the gods or fate
  • Person vs themselves

Alternatives to villains in stories

Person vs person is the classic hero and villain setup and yes, you could at least argue that this calls for some kind of antagonist. The Terminator film, for example, sets a machine in the role of a (super) man that wants to kill a woman; the hero wants to save her. The story is only over when one of those two things happens. However, there are a lot of other things that a character could wrestle with.

Take, for example, a story of two men who fall in love in 1965 – two years before the decriminalisation of sexual activity between men (in England and Wales). That’s a person (or people) vs society story. As would any story of an outsider at odds with the world they live in.

Andy Weir’s “The Martian” (and the film of the same name) is a man vs nature story. A story with a protagonist trying to survive on a mountain until they are rescued is, again, man vs nature.

The overall arc of the Harry Potter series – while overtly a man vs man story – is also two men contending with fate (a prophecy) from opposite sides. The novel “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. is often cited as a pure example of man vs God.

Some of the best conflicts for character development comes not external to the character but internally. The story of an addict struggling to overcome their own addiction is a person vs themselves story. The X-Men comics often present us with conflicted characters wrestling with their own nature.

I’m sure you can think of more examples.

Not every story needs a “main character”

While this may sound radical, it is nevertheless true. World War Z (the book not the movie) had no central protagonist. While it told us human stories of people vs nature (the undead) the overarching story is that of humanity coping with a change in the world. It has an entity – the human race – which wants something – to survive. Humanity is opposed by something else – zombies – that wants the opposite – to eat them. The story resolves at the point that humanity starts to reassert their dominance on this world.

Not every story needs a setting

I will grant you that a setting makes a story so much easier to tell. A setting certainly makes it easier to project yourself into the shoes of the character(s). However, a setting is simply the place where the story happens.

The setting can be a character in its own right. Some writers like to make that an important part of the story. For others, though, the setting is entirely implied.

Take, for example, “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis. The whole story is told in the form of letters from a senior Demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. The setting is never really mentioned because it is not important to the story.

Everything is optional

As long as you have two somethings at odds for some reason and that opposition resolves through one or more actions that those somethings take, then you have a story.

I admit that strong characters, good settings, well-motivated antagonists, clearly motivated protagonists, explosions, car chases, and huge spaceships are all things that you could put into your story – none of them is vital. Each and every element of a story – beyond the two opposing “wills” – is optional.

For example, a good writer could tell the story over millions of years of the sea vs a cliff. It would, I admit, take some serious skill to make that a compelling story but it could be told – it has the minimum elements of a story.

Recap: What every story really needs

Every story needs three things and only these three things:

  1. Someone or something that wants something.
  2. Someone or something with a want at odds with the first want.
  3. The struggle and resolution of those two desires.

Over to you.

  • What else have you heard people claim “every story needs”?
  • Do you agree with me or do you have a counter argument?
  • Is there a form of antagonism that I should have included in my list?

Use the comments section to share your thoughts. I love to hear from you. Interesting comments make me a very happy blogger.

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