The 9 essential elements of a story

In my last blog post, I argued that you need to care about story. Because "story" can mean so many things, let me shed some light on which central aspects of a story can be beneficial for you when you write a scientific paper. 

Narratives are not only central to books and films but also crucial when you tell someone about your research. Be that “someone” your neighbour who you are chatting to on the doorstep, or your research peers to whom you communicate via a journal article. If we are communicating, we need to care about our readers or listeners. Story-telling is so useful here because we have evolved to understand and remember stories more easily than facts and are entertained by them at the same time. So, what makes up a story and how does story-telling work? 

With the help of a TV show, I will use this blog post to guide you through the elements and rules of a good story. In the next post, I will then show you how you can implement this in a research paper.  

You’ll probably find somewhat varying definitions of what elements a story has to contain in order to be a story. But I think some of the most important ones are the following:

  • Main theme

  • Characters

  • Setting

  • Tension

  • Climax

  • Resolution

When these elements are arranged in a certain structure, they will combine to yet another fundamental element:

  • Plot

The vast majority of plots in TV series, films, novels and even non-fiction writing adheres to those essential features, and I want to exemplify this with the TV show “Stranger Things”, which has recently been quite popular. (There will be minor spoilers here but nothing that will ruin the show for you.) If you indeed haven’t seen it, think back to a film or series you watched recently, and try to identify the story elements in that instead.

Of red threads  

The main theme is the overarching motif that a narrative is about. Even if many small stories are told within that, the main theme spans over the whole length of it. For speakers of a Germanic language, the expression “red thread” – translated from the German “roter Faden”, the Swedish “röd tråd“ or the Dutch “rode draad”– comes in handy here as a metaphor of the main theme weaving through the narrative. In “Stranger Things”, this corresponds to the mystery around the monster in the Upside Down.

The first episode of a season introduces all the characters who will play a role in the story – both familiar and new faces. The second season of "Stranger Things" starts off with showing what all the characters are up to, from Hopper and Nancy to Kali and Max. The first episode also shows you where the story will take place – in other words, it introduces you to the setting. We’re in the 1980s in the fictional town of Hawkins in the US state of Indiana.

But it’s not all perms and Dungeons & Dragons. There is an element of tension too, something one could also call a conflict. This doesn’t need to be just one singular conflict, in most narratives there are usually a few, but there is always a central one. Watching “Stranger Things”, we are introduced to the main conflict of the second season early on, when Will has a vision of the huge spidery creature outside the arcade. Another conflict is presented when Mike and El unsuccessfully try to contact each other and there is – in fact – one conflict in each of the character’s lives. The tension elements make things exciting and when they appear, we start to get curious about what's going to happen next.

In a TV drama, most of the remaining time is now left to the action. This often doesn't follow a linear structure of things becoming increasingly worse. Instead, the characters usually go through ups and downs and resolve smaller problems along the way – and/or create bigger ones. During the action part, the tension builds up until it ends in the climax, which is a turning point. Often this is a bigger event, like a fight or a party. Here, answers to the previously raised questions are given. But enough with the “Stranger Things” spoilers – go figure out yourself what the climax element in this show could be.

Once the main conflict in a story has been solved during the climax, the resolution part follows. There, (most) remaining conflicts are solved and we learn how the characters are off after having overcome the obstacle. We see the effect that the solution has on their lives. 

story spirals

One way of visualising a plot structure that contains these elements is in a triangle, often referred to as the Freytag’s pyramid. I find it more suitable to illustrate the plot of story as a small part of a spiral instead:

The plot of a story divided into three parts (acts) with all its essential components.

The plot of a story divided into three parts (acts) with all its essential components.


In the sketch you can easily see how the story is divided up into three parts. It starts with the first, where characters and setting are introduced, which finishes with a tension element. The second part is where stuff happens and it is complete when we reach the climax. In the third part, the conflicts are resolved, which typically ends when the characters go back to their normal lives.

I like the spiral image better than the more conventional pyramid because it shows that the beginning and end of a story are often similar – only differing in that the characters have undergone change through solving problems. In books, films and TV shows that are in serial form, the next episode or season builds up on where things were left in the end of the previous one and the story wraps around once again.

why and when

In order for a plot structure like this to work, there are two more rules that a story typically adheres to:

  • Purpose

  • Chronology

Purpose means that things happen for a reason, which is also the requirement for having a “red thread” in your story. In very few stories, you’ll find random events or characters that are not connected to the plot. In other words, the “Why” has to always be answered. Because of this logic we rely on chronology. Our plot needs to follow the order setting -> tension -> action -> climax -> resolution to make sense.  

So, keep in mind that you need a main theme, characters, setting, tension, climax, resolution, plot, purpose and chronology for a powerful story. There’s only one thing left to do then: To translate the dramatic story elements into the structure of a killer paper.

I’d love working with you to get the story right in your manuscript or proposal. Just send me a quick message or check out the different coaching and editing packages I offer.

About the Author:

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite)