May 8, 2014

Five Essential Story Ingredients, or What I Learned from Brian A. Klems

By Susan Knight


When I took a writing class not too long ago, the professor asked us to skim through magazines such as Writer’s Digest, write a blurb about an article we read, then present it to the class. I think that’s a very good idea. Writing helps us remember. And, as I'm writing, I want to remember this Writer's Digest blurb, taken from Brian A. Klems', The 5 Essential Story Ingredients.

First of all, what is a story? It is more than sentences put together to tell us something. Any recipe can do that, but a recipe is not a story. Nor is a menu or a catalog. However, he did compare writing a story to baking a cake. Mix up the ingredients in a specific order and the ingredients transform into something delicious.

He writes that one does not have a story until something goes wrong. Tension is needed, an antagonist is needed, scene, empathy, etc.

To “bake up a story,” Klems writes that a story has to have origination, an escalation of conflict and a resolution. A little more than pre-heat oven; bake for 35 minutes; serves six.

So, to bake a story, these five ingredients, according to Klems, are needed:

Ingredient #1: Orientation—the beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention, orient to the setting, mood and tone, and introduce a protagonist readers will care about.

Ingredient #2: Crisis—we’ve heard of throwing rocks at our characters, but the protagonist must be able to pick him or herself up and solve the problem the rocks cause. The crisis could alter the protagonist’s life for the better, or worse, but his or her life will be changed. A crisis should encompass the antithesis of the protagonist’s desires. Crises can be interwoven internal and external predicaments. The more rocks, the better.

Ingredient #3: Escalation—the main character must change in some way. She will fail. She will try again, but she will fail again. During this ingredient, main characters should try to take steps to solve both types of crisis, internal and external. Let them both have the same conclusion. . . or not . . . which leads to the next ingredient.
Ingredient #4: Discovery--the main character makes the discovery that will change his life. It's the climax of the story. Discovery comes from choices. I love Klems' words: "In one of the paradoxesf storytelling, the reader want to predict how the story will end (or how it will get to the end), but he wants to be wrong. So, the resolution of the story will be most satisfyingen it ends in a way that is both inevitable and unexpected." Beautifully sai. It's the kid of reader I am.
Ingredient #5: Change--Klems compared this ingredient to a caterpillar entering the cocoon stage. There are only two things that can happen: it will become a butterfly, or it will die. B will never be a caterpillar again. The old life is forever changed as the main character moves through the struggle ot the discovery into a new and different life.

Happy writing!


  1. Hmmmm almost but not quite like a math equation.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Susan! I was trying to figure out what I was missing from a short story/essay! Now I know what it was! hugs~


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