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The 5 Key Story Elements

Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield, Content Writer

A lot goes into writing a banger of a story. That’s why the creative 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 important elements of a story for Lord of the Rings.

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But when you boil it down, each story is actually made up of five basic story elements:

  1. sparkle
  2. sparkle
  3. sparkle
  4. sparkle
  5. sparkle

When you're watching a feature-length film or reading a short story, you see all these essential elements of a story in action. Each story 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.

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These story elements are not just checkboxes; they're the bones of the narrative body. Characters are more than names on a page; they embody desires, face challenges, and evolve, serving as our guides and avatars in the narrative world. Conflict, the heartbeat of the tale, propels the plot forward, creating tension and driving the characters to act and grow. The plot itself is the journey we embark on, a carefully crafted path of events that unfolds with precision and purpose. The setting, far from a mere backdrop, shapes the world of the story, influencing characters and events with its unique characteristics. Lastly, the theme, often a subtle undercurrent, weaves through the narrative, offering insights and reflections on the human condition.

These story elements intertwine, each influencing and enriching the others, creating a complex, living tapestry that captivates and resonates with the audience. Whether it's the sweeping epic of "Lord of the Rings" or the concise punch of a short story, the dance of these key elements across the pages or screen makes the magic of storytelling come alive.

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 storytelling.


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, supporting characters who only pop up to engage with the main character. 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:

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

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

Characters aren't just movers of the plot; they're the heart and soul of the story, designed to evoke empathy, anger, love, or any number of emotions from the audience. They're meticulously crafted, from their backstories to their quirks, ensuring that their journeys resonate on a personal level with viewers or readers. Supporting characters, though they may not always be in the spotlight, play a crucial role in enriching the narrative, providing depth to the protagonist's journey and enhancing the story's world.

Whether they're facing external battles or internal demons, characters reflect the complexities of real-life individuals, making their stories not just entertaining but profoundly relatable. Through their triumphs and failures, characters teach us about resilience, courage, and the human condition, making them unforgettable long after the tale is told. Integrating characters with other story elements like setting, plot, and theme, enriches the storytelling experience, making each narrative element inseparable from the whole.


Conflict is the problem in the story. It's also act two of a three-act 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 external 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.

Conflict not only drives the narrative forward but also interlaces with other story elements to create a rich tapestry of storytelling. For instance, how characters respond to conflict reveals their true nature, serving as a catalyst for character development. The physical location can amplify conflict, placing characters in environments that test their limits. The theme of the story is often deeply intertwined with its central conflict, offering insight into broader societal, philosophical, or personal issues. Conflict is not just a hurdle for characters to overcome; it's the crucible that shapes them, making it inseparable from the narrative's very fabric and a central pillar among the story elements that hold a tale together.


Plot is what happens in the story. It's the content. The meat on the bones. The plot structure includes the entire series of events that unfold at different parts of a story, like the introduction, rising action, conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution tying up all the narrative's loose ends. The elements of plot are generally centered on a timeline beginning 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). After this inciting incident, 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.

Adding to the narrative richness, the plot intricately weaves together with other essential story elements to create a compelling tapestry. Characters are developed through their decisions and actions within the plot, which in turn drives the story forward. Conflict is interwoven with the plot, acting as a catalyst that propels the narrative toward its climax and resolution. The setting enriches the plot, offering a backdrop that influences the events and outcomes of the story. Themes are explored and revealed through the unfolding plot, adding layers of meaning and reflection. Together, these elements work in harmony, with the plot acting as the skeleton that supports the body of the narrative, providing structure and direction to the story's unfolding journey.


Setting is where your story takes place. Both the physical location and 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.

The setting does much more than just define the physical and temporal backdrop of the story; it intertwines with the other key story elements to enhance the narrative’s depth and impact. The setting influences the characters, shaping their behaviors, attitudes, and even their conflicts, reflecting the environment's challenges and opportunities.

The harsh, icy landscapes of Russia in Rocky IV not only test Rocky’s physical limits but also mirror his internal struggle, amplifying the story's emotional intensity. The setting also plays a pivotal role in advancing the plot, as the unique challenges and obstacles presented by the environment drive the story forward. The temporal aspect, being set in the mid-1980s, adds another layer of context, reflecting the cultural and political tensions of the time, which subtly informs the theme and the characters’ motivations. The setting is a crucial thread in the fabric of the story, weaving together with characters, plot, conflict, and theme to create a rich and immersive narrative experience.


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.

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

Theme is not just an isolated message or a didactic lesson but a thread that weaves through other story elements, enhancing and being enhanced by them. For example, the characters in a story embody and challenge the theme through their actions and growth, while the plot can serve as a vehicle to explore various facets of the theme.

The setting can reinforce the theme by providing a backdrop that echoes the thematic concerns, whether through its time period, cultural context, or physical environment. In the interplay of these story elements, the theme becomes a living part of the narrative, offering audiences a nuanced and immersive way to engage with the story's deeper meanings. Through this intricate dance of key elements, stories like Rocky IV transcend their immediate plot to ponder broader societal questions, making the theme an integral pillar among the essential story elements.

Bring all the basic 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 storyboarding & animatic software for modern video teams. We'll help you simplify your pre-production process with storyboards, scripts, and animatics – then gather feedback – all in one place. Turning a good story into an incredible one has never been easier.

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