Toolbox – Storytelling

The 5 key story elements

A lot goes into writing a banger of a story. That’s why the writing process takes so long. But when you boil it down, each story is actually made up of five basic story elements.

A lot goes into writing a banger of a story. That’s why the writing process takes so long.

Spare a thought for poor J. R. R. Tolkien, who allegedly spent between 12 and 17 years nailing all the elements of a story for Lord of the Rings. But when you boil it down, each story is actually made up of five basic story elements:

  1. 1) Character
  2. 2) Conflict
  3. 3) Plot
  4. 4) Setting
  5. 5) Theme

When you’re watching (or reading) a story, you see all these story elements in action. Each element has a vital part to play, but the most important thing is how all the elements interact. If you change one story element, you’ve changed the whole story.

We’re going to unpack these key elements with the help of Sylvester Stallone – superlative muscleman, unparalleled actor, and writer of the Rocky film franchise. We looked at the original Rocky film in our piece on story structure. Today, we’re going to fast forward to 1985, and the majesty of Rocky IV. It's a simple story, but it's one of the best – a masterclass in the basic elements of story.

Rocky IV trailer


Character

Characters are the people (or animals, or even inanimate objects) who have a role to play in the story. They might be important characters at the very centre of the action. Or they might be smaller characters who only pop up to engage with the main characters. Writers use characters to act and speak the dialogue of their story. Their job is to push the story’s plot forward.

There are a bunch of wonderful characters in Rocky IV:

  • Rocky Balboa, our lionhearted protagonist, who’s back again and ready to fight.
  • Ivan Drago, our antagonist, a mean-spirited and strangely robotic Russian boxer.
  • Apollo Creed, the antagonist of the first Rocky film, and now Rocky’s coach / BFF.
  • Adrian Balboa, Rocky’s wife, whose presence fails to help the movie pass the Bechdel test.

Let's enjoy key character Apollo Creed entering the ring to the sweet sounds of James Brown.

Apollo's entrance on YouTube


Conflict

Conflict is the problem in the story. It’s also act two of a story structure – the turning point where everything kicks off. A conflict can be internal, like when a character’s battling with their inner demons. Or it can be external, like when a character’s battling something outside of themselves – another character, or extreme weather conditions. If there’s no conflict, you don’t have a story. The conflict is the engine.

This film was always going to be a peach, with Rocky taking on an emotionless machine of a man who dwarfs him in size. But a dreadful sequence of events, where Rocky's coach Apollo Creed is killed in a 'friendly' match against Ivan Drago, elevates the conflict to new levels. Think about it from Rocky's point of view. His opponent has killed his best friend. Yep, we've got conflict in spades.

Here's the harrowing moment where Drago takes Creed down.

Apollo Creed vs Ivan Drago on YouTube


Plot

Plot is what happens in the story. It’s the content. The meat on the bones. It includes all the things that happen at different parts of a story, like introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. A typical plot begins with a problem and ends with the story’s resolution.

In Rocky IV, our hero accompanies Apollo Creed to a boxing match against Russian boxer, Ivan Drago. Drago beats Creed so badly that he dies (this bit gets the tears flowing). Rocky blames himself for not stopping the fight and decides to take on Drago himself. With the help of Creed's former manager, Duke, Rocky travels to the U.S.S.R. for his most brutal fight to date. And that, people, is how you write a great plot.

Now, a training montage that sums it all up.

Rocky IV training montage


Setting

Setting is where your story takes place. Not just the physical location, but the time it’s set in, too. It’s the where and the when of the story. Sometimes you’ll explicitly tell your audience where the action is set. Otherwise, you might just leave small clues that hint at the time and place.

With it being the fourth film in the Rocky franchise, Stallone and team knew they had to mix things up a little. (Not too much, mind. It's still vintage Rocky.) So they gave Rocky a new nemesis from a new country. A setting that's colder, harsher, and meaner than anything our hero has faced before. And we sure as heck know it's 1985 from those enviable costumes and the sublime soundtrack.

Here's Rocky taking it to the limit in the Russian countryside.

Rocky scaling a Russian mountain


Theme

Theme is the main idea of your story. It’s the reason why you bothered to spend hours grafting away on this piece of work – to the detriment of sleep, relationships, and keeping up with zeitgeisty shows on Netflix. Simply: what’s it all about?

Your theme is what you want people to take away at the end of the story. Perhaps it’s a moral or something you learn about life. Or just a central idea that you think is vital for the world to know.

While each Rocky film is a masterpiece in its own right, the films all share similar themes. They're about grit and determination, persevering when the odds are stacked against you. They're about championing the underdog and upsetting the status quo. They're about family and friends, looking out for the people you love.

Admittedly, Rocky IV lets itself down by slightly polluting those noble themes. There's a pervading sense of anti-Soviet propaganda throughout the film, with Rocky's Russian antagonist Ivan Drago characterised as a cold, heartless fighting machine. Nonetheless, it's a masterpiece.

Let's watch Rocky close out the story with a beautiful, if political, victory speech.

Everybody can change on YouTube


Bring all the elements of a story together with Boords

Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes. Rocky needed Apollo, Duke, and Adrian. Maybe you need Boords.

Boords is the online storyboarding app for creative professionals. We'll help you simplify your pre-production process with storyboards, scripts, and animatics – then gather feedback – all in one place. Creating incredible stories has never been easier.

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