Why the 6 Elements of Story Are the Key to All Great Stories


In order to edit a story, you need a story structure system that works for you. My favorite approach to story structure is the Six Elements of Story.

I use it in every story I edit. Why?

In this article, I’ll show you three reasons why this simple structure is incredibly powerful. Who knows? It just might become your favorite story structure, too!

Great stories are built on great story structure. And last week, I shared with you my favorite approach to story structure.

It’s called the six elements of story. And in that article, I went through all six elements and broke down how each one contributes to a story arc.

But while I mentioned that this is my favorite story structure framework, I didn’t tell you why.

Why do I love the six elements so much?

Why do I find them so useful?

Why do I use them with all of my one-on-one clients?

That’s what I want to share in this article.

You don’t have to love them like I do. You’re under no contractual obligation to love all the things I love. (Although one of the things I love is editing, and I do hope that listening to this podcast helps you come to love editing too!)

That said, I think that the reasons I’m going to share here are pretty compelling, and you might start to see the appeal.

So in this article, I’ll start off with a quick recap of the six elements. Then, I’ll share three reasons why I love this approach to story structure.

The 6 Elements of Story

First up, the recap.

Like I said, I did a deep dive into all six elements in last week’s article: The 6 Essential Elements of Every Novel, Act, and Scene.

Here’s the short version. These are the six elements of story:

  1. The inciting incident: Something disrupts the character’s “normal” and kicks off the action of the scene.
  2. Progressive complications: The conflict escalates as more complications happen. These events might make things better or worse, but they certainly make things more complicated.
  3. The turning point: The largest, most problematic progressive complication, which forces the protagonist to respond in some way.
  4. The crisis: In order to respond to the turning point, the protagonist must make a difficult choice. This is a choice between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods).
  5. The climax: The moment when the protagonist takes action on the crisis choice and experiences the consequences.
  6. The resolution: The “new normal” after the climax. Something has changed since the scene began with the inciting incident, and readers want to see what the world looks like now.

I use these six elements in literally every single story I edit.

Want to apply them to your own story? I have a free worksheet you can download. It’s called the Scene Analysis Worksheet, and you can get it by filling in the form below:

3 Strengths of the 6 Elements of Story

So what’s so special about this? Why do I love these six elements so much? Why is this structure so incredibly useful?

1. This structure is specific, yet flexible

First, this story structure is both specific and flexible.

It’s specific: there are six elements, and they each progress in a predetermined order and contribute to the story in a clear and unique way.

This structure won’t leave you high and dry with no idea what goes in a certain part of the story. Each element serves a specific purpose and leads into the next element.

And at the same time, this structure is flexible. It’s not so rigidly prescriptive that you’re locked into telling just one kind of story. It won’t tell you what must happen at each plot point. You can apply it anywhere you want, and it will work.

Which brings me to the second advantage of this structure:

2. This structure works for every type of story

This structure works for every type of story. No matter your genre, no matter your setting, no matter whether your story is character- or plot-driven, no matter the age of your readers, this structure will work.

Why? Because stories are about change. And these six elements simply describe how one arc of change occurs.

At the beginning, things are one way. The inciting incident disrupts that one way and the progressive complications escalate that disruption. But really, all through this stage, we’re still trying to maintain that original beginning state.

And then there’s a tipping point, a point where things shift. That’s the turning point, where it becomes impossible to hold on to that beginning state. Now the protagonist is forced to make a choice and take climactic action.

And in the aftermath of that action, we’re left with a new world order, a new “after” state. Things are different now from what they were before.

Something has changed.

That right there is one arc of change. Things start one way and they end another way.

And because all stories are about change, that arc of change works in every kind of story, from romance to horror to murder mystery to anything you can dream of.

All you need to know is what changes. What’s the world like at the start? What’s the world like at the end?

The way I think about that change is in terms of value shifts. That’s another foundational concept that’s really helpful when it comes to applying these six elements.

If that term is new to you, or you’d like to dig deeper into this idea of determining what it is that changes in your story, I recommend my full article on value shifts.

And if you know what changes in your story, you can plot this six-point arc to take you from start to finish.

Which brings me to the third thing I love about this story structure:

3. This structure is recursive

The six elements of story are recursive.

What in the world does that mean?

Well, to explain, I first turned to Wikipedia to define “recursion.” Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

“Recursion occurs when the definition of a concept or process depends on a simpler version of itself.”

When I say the six elements of story are recursive, I mean that they apply at every level of story.

They apply on the level of a novel as a whole. You can read a whole book, then identify its inciting incident, turning point, etc. on the scale of the whole book.

But if you zoom in and look closer, you’ll find that the six elements appear again. If you divide the story into acts, each act also includes the six elements.

And if you zoom in even closer, you’ll find that each scene is built on the six elements, too.

The Nesting Dolls and Fractals of Storytelling

One way to picture this is like nesting dolls. The story as a whole is a great big doll.

But if you pull the top off the doll, you find another doll inside—that’s the acts of the story. If you open that doll, you’ll find another doll inside: sequences. If you open that doll, you’ll find another doll: scenes.

And on and on, smaller dolls hidden inside larger ones.

Or another way to picture this is as a fractal. I like to think of the Sierpinski triangle.

The large triangle is the novel as a whole. Then it’s broken into acts, and then into sequences, and then into scenes, and then on down.

The six elements of story are made of . . . the six elements of story, just at a smaller and smaller scale the more you zoom in.

How I Edit With Fractal Story Structure

Honestly, this right here is my favorite aspect of this structure. No matter which part of your story you’re working with, the six elements will help you structure it. And if you discover a hidden opportunity within your story, you can zoom in and apply these six elements there, too.

A lot of times, I’ll be working with a scene that’s maybe 2000 or so words long. It includes all the six elements: at the beginning there’s the inciting incident, then there are a few progressive complications, the turning point will happen somewhere in the middle of those 2000 words, and then there’s the crisis and the climax and the resolution.

It’s a full arc of change.

And the resolution will be, say, 600 words long. Maybe it’s a conversation between a couple of characters that sort of rounds out everything that’s happened in the scene.

And I’ll think, hmm, this conversation is fine. But it could be way more interesting.

So I’ll pull out the six elements to study those 600 words. And I’ll see that within this little segment of story, we have the opportunity to craft another arc of change.

That conversation between a couple characters becomes even more interesting when we identify the value that’s changing here and craft a mini-turning point, crisis, and climax within this little interaction.

Remember, the scene already had the six elements all present and working in it. So if we didn’t change the 600 words of resolution at all, the scene would still work.

But when I see a space in a story where we can make something even more interesting and make it contribute to the story even more, why skip it?

If you’d like to see this recursive-ness at play, and how you can zoom in and out and find the six elements at all levels of story, check out episode 34 of Your Next Draft:

In this episode, editor Kim Kessler and I analyze a scene from the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And we each have different takes on where the scene starts and ends, and on how multiple smaller arcs of change nest within the scene.

To jump straight to that part of our conversation, start at 1:09:57.

Recursion: Your Editing Secret Weapon

There’s one more wonderful thing about this recursive nature of the six elements that I want to point out to you. Maybe you’ve spotted it already. If not, you’re in for a treat.

Since this story structure is recursive, it means that if you learn it once, you have the tools you need to edit every level of your story.

You’ll edit your acts using the same tools you use to edit scenes. As you practice editing scenes, you’ll develop the same skills you’ll need to edit the structure of the novel as a whole.

There’s so much story theory out there, so many story structure systems you could learn. And they’re all great!

Plus, you can layer them with the six elements of story. For example, you could plot your story arc with Save the Cat!, then zoom in and refine your acts and scenes with the six elements.

But the great thing about the six elements is that you don’t have to be an expert in a bunch of different story structure systems in order to edit different parts of your novel.

Learn these six elements, learn how to craft an arc of change, and you’ll be equipped to write and edit any arc of change that appears anywhere in your novel.

My Favorite Story Structure

So there you have it: three reasons I love the six elements of story structure.

Here they are again:

First, this structure is specific, yet flexible. It gives you enough structure to guide your story without being overly rigid or prescriptive about what any specific plot point should be.

Second, it works for every type of story. These six elements describe one arc of change. As long as something changes in your story, this structure will work.

And since story is about change, something must change in your story, or you don’t really have a story.

And third, and best of all, this structure is recursive. It works at every level of story, like a fractal that just reveals more the more you zoom in.

And when you practice applying it at one level of story, you develop storytelling skills that will help you at every level of story.

Like I said at the beginning, you don’t have to love this structure like I do. There are a lot of ways to think about story structure, and the best one for your stories is the one that works for you.

This one works for me. I encourage you to give it a try and see what it could look like in your stories.

And don’t forget, you can download my worksheet with all six elements by filling in the form below:

Until next week, happy editing!

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