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The 5 essential elements of a great story

As part of my career over the past decade, I’ve had the enjoyable opportunity to interact with most of the Big Five publishers in the U.S. and around the globe, as well as a multitude of Hollywood agents and producers. During those conversations, I’ve found they both have a very similar set of criteria they look for when trying to find the next great story for page or screen. Sadly, what they tell me is most of what they read lacks one or more of the five critical elements essential to every great story.

The essential elements

So what are those essentials elements they look for?

An inciting action

This needs to happen very near the beginning of the story. It is the action that draws me in and makes me want to care. A body is found. A bank is robbed. A person is kidnapped. Children meet a friendly dragon in the forest. Whatever it is, it sets the story in motion and introduces me to the main character or characters. It also helps me understand what’s at stake for the rest of the story. Will the hero stop the asteroid from hitting the earth? Will the two lovers, separated by war, get back together? All great books and films have an inciting action. So take a critical look at your story. Do you have an action that draws me in at the outset?


Once it is clear who the main character or characters are and what’s at stake, I want to know what obstacles they face that prevent them from accomplishing what is set before them. I want to know if they can overcome challenges and beat the odds even if they are stacked against them. So review your manuscript and see if the conflict is clear and immediately identifiable.


This is probably one of the most neglected elements of the five. Too many first time writers just don’t finish the story in a satisfying way. They set up the conflict, make the characters interesting and then resolve it with something that comes out of the blue. In their effort to be creative, they end up making the ending implausible, which hurts the story. Even if you are writing a series, you need to bring some closure to the story. You can still set up the next book, but you don’t want to leave readers asking, “What?” So this is where an outline can help as you write. Think of it as a GPS for your story. Write where the story starts, what turns do you take along the way, and most importantly, where do you end.


There needs to be a main character I care about. That means you have to do more than just writing a description.  I want to understand why he or she does what they do. Sounds simple, but it can be very challenging.  However, it is critical if you want to keep an audience interested. Also, don’t be afraid to expose flaws or struggles. Often times that is what draws us to a character. We can identify with their humanity or human weaknesses.


Life is often about struggle and overcoming opposition and so great stories present those challenges. Many times the resistance comes from another person, an antagonist who prevents or impedes progress. As with the protagonist, make sure you don’t just describe the antagonist. Help me understand their motivation for opposing the protagonist. Most times, the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist is a struggle between good and evil, but it doesn’t have to be. The antagonist is an oft-overlooked piece of your story, but it remains one of the essential elements to great storytelling.

Now, none of these five elements should be surprising. But what is surprising is how many books and stories are missing one or more of these crucial elements.

How about your story? I suggest you step back from your writing and see if you can identify these five essential elements in your work. If you can, that’s great. If not, take a moment to make sure your book has all the hallmarks of a great story.

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The Author Learning Center (ALC) is a one-of-a-kind online author education community designed to help educate, motivate, and support you at every stage of your writing and publishing journey, including marketing your book. The ALC offers content on writing, editing, publishing and marketing from a variety of industry experts, agents, best-selling authors, publicists, and editors. In addition, the ALC gives you access to unique tools, the Book Launch Tool and Author Circles, to help you reach your goals.
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4 thoughts on “The 5 essential elements of a great story”

  1. HI Paul,
    I note in your response to Carolyn, the comment…’with little or no assistance in actually selling the book.’
    I might be missing the point here, but thereafter I see nothing about what lulu does to assist in selling the book. A well written and skillfully edited book stands a better chance of succeeding than a ‘scrappy’ one, but with good marketing even ‘scrappy’ books seem to do well.
    I have a cracking story to tell – meets all your criteria and even has its Hollywood ‘roadmap’ in place courtesy of Producer, Wendie Margolis. It has yet to be published in book format (it will be 3 books – the triumph over adversity or antagonists ‘come uppance’ is not yet complete in real life, but we’re getting there!
    I’d like to get the first 2books published, but am concerned about ‘the selling’ side. I need to make sure the books do well, or the film might flop too. Is this something with which lulu can help?

    1. Hi Linda,
      The quoted line is in regard to companies that charge you for services such as editing, layout, design, and marketing. Often times this “marketing” effort the author purchases cannot be delivered on in a way that justifies the cost.
      Lulu is a print fulfillment service first and foremost. We provide the tools to make your book available through a variety of channels – Lulu’s bookstore, your own website, selling by hand, retail distribution – but we do not generally engage in actual marketing for our authors. Precisely because these efforts are over-priced, difficult to measure the success of, and will always rely heavily on the author regardless, we aim more to empower authors than to act as a crutch.
      If you’re book is already lined up with a screen adaptation, I would hazard your next big push will need to be marketing the book. You may find that Lulu is right for your print and fulfillment needs, but you’ll still need to engage heavily in marketing the book yourself. If you do opt to go with a different self-publisher, I caution you to look very closely and critically at their marketing offerings before buying anything.
      Best of luck with your book project!

  2. carolyn dearen

    I have written a contemporary inspirational romance. I have even gone as far as submitting it to a self publishing publishing company. I worked with them for a long time. But all they wanted was my mony. So the book has only generated just a few copies sold. There are still a few changes I need to make. Can you help me find a way to help me get my book out there on the market?

    1. Hi Carolyn,
      It is a sad fact that a number of self-publishing organizations do extract substantial fees from authors with little or no assistance in actually selling the book. I’ll briefly outline the ways you might use Lulu.
      If you want to make the changes on your own, you can do so and use Lulu to print, ship, and distribute. There’s no cost to do this aside from purchasing a single copy to review prior to submitting to distribution. If you’re not comfortable editing the file yourself, or if there is some more intense editing and design that needs to be done, I suggest trying the Author Learning Center. They do charge an annual fee to access their wealth of author information and author planning tools, but you can try their services free for 30 days.
      I hope this is helpful and that you’re able to get your book published just the way you want!

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