The Most Important Story Element

In the beginning, I was a software developer, not a writer. And if you’ve read any open-source documentation, you know how badly software developers write. So you know how wide a chasm I had to jump if I wanted to learn how to write fiction.

The fiction bug first bit me in 2002, when I had an inspiration for an idea I wanted to write about, and I knew I had to explore the idea from within a story, because it was the only way to make the words personal, concrete, not just to explore an abstract idea. So I sat down to pen the great American novel…

NOT! Yes, I tried. I knew the theme of the story, and I came up with a basic plot and character sketches. But my novel fell flat on its face, because I just didn’t know what I was doing. So I started writing short stories instead, because during this learning phase, if I wrote a bad short story, I would have lost little. If I spent a year writing a bad novel, I would have lost a whole year. Of course, my journey so far has gone on much longer than that.

Back then, I thought the most important element of fiction was story conflict, because conflict is what drives a story forward and makes it worth reading. But I was wrong. I wrote story after story, most of which sucked. Occasionally, I would hit on one that was worth keeping. The first story I wrote that I was proud of I called “In the Past,” a story about a guy who meets a childhood crush and questions his marriage. Looking back at it now, it makes me cringe, because I made mistake after mistake after mistake. And someday I’ll rewrite the parts of this story that make me cringe. Even back then, I knew what I didn’t like about the story, but I didn’t know how to fix it, because I just wasn’t a good enough writer. Still, despite all the mistakes I made, this story is still readable, even today. It’s not going to win any literary awards. But it does work. Even then, I knew it worked, but I didn’t know the real reason why.

Why does the story work? Not because of the story conflict, or because of the plot, or because of the story idea, or because of the use of language, or because of the mood or pacing or choice of point-of-view or the quirkiness of the characters or pop-culture references or anything else usually attributed to story success. Here’s how I know. Let’s look at these one by one:

My point is that I could have made significant goofs in all of these areas–indeed I did make significant goofs–and the story could still be salvageable. But there’s one thing I have screwed up in other stories, a critical flaw that permanently destroyed my early stories. Some of these stories were based on really cool, mostly original ideas. Or were moody as all get out. Or had well-defined conflicts. But they were missing this most important story element. Even though I hit on it occasionally, by accident, I missed it frequently, because I didn’t know what it was.

And then I discovered Holly Lisle. Specifically, I discovered her Create a Character Clinic. I was so excited by the feature list and the free chapter, I immediately ordered and downloaded a copy. Little did I know, however, how important this one resource would become to me, and how it would change my writing forever.

Because the one thing I did right with “In the Past” was that the characters had character. I didn’t know it at the time, because I just based the characters on traits I saw in real people. And I based the characters’ desires and reactions on how I thought real people would act. What I was doing without knowing it: I had created a deep (for a short story) character that readers could sympathize with. But Holly Lisle had analyzed the problem and created a process that I could use anytime I needed to add depth to any character. As I read through the Character Clinic for the first time, the whole problem, and its solution, just clicked into place. Just like that.

Here’s an example of the power of character in stories. A friend of mine, an aspiring filmmaker, asked me to consult with him on a script for a short film. As a favor to a friend, I took a few hours pro-bono to help him. The first thing I did was to open up Holly Lisle’s Character Clinic and apply it to his protagonist. We started throwing around ideas just for the first section of the clinic, “character need.” And a light bulb went off in his head. His voice became more excited. Suddenly, things were clicking. His character started jumping off the page for him. And his story engaged him. Just like that. He finally ended up with a much better, more engaging screenplay, which I pray he commits to film.

Character is the most important element of fiction. At least it’s the most important thing a writer needs to keep in mind. Your readers may point to other things as being more important to them. But none of these would work if you didn’t have deep characters.

Asking questions, that’s where the Create a Character Clinic starts. And that’s what took my writing to the next level.

If you don’t have a copy of the Character Clinic, click here to find out more about it from Holly Lisle’s site. And remember that the ebook is eligible for my special offer: If you get it through the link on this page, send me a copy of the emailed receipt and ask me to subscribe you to my exclusive “Writer’s Tips” e-Newsletter.



A slightly belated Merry Christmas, Tim! I hope your new year is filled with wonderful stories to tell!

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There is no definition of story element i tried everwhere.

Thank you! This helped me a lot for my elements of fiction essay.(siding with characters as the most important element)
and for my work cited.

I believe a good story is a good story.

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