Once there was a little girl who loved stories. She told herself stories in her head as she played alone outside her suburban home. She told herself stories in her head as she gazed out the window during school. She read stories as soon as she got home again. She told her stories to her friends, to her family, and sometimes to strangers. Soon, she learned to keep her stories to herself.
People thought she was a strange child. And she was, but mostly she didn’t mind that so much, because, in her stories, she could be any kind of child—or no child at all. She could be a princess or a rabbit as she chose. She could even be the princess of the rabbits if she wanted to be. She could be in a grassy field or on a mountain top. She could be where magic worked or where technology was far advanced from the things she knew. She could be anything, anywhere, doing anything at all.
One thing remained the same for this strange little child: Good triumphed over evil, but not easily. Pain hurt, but could be endured. Hardships befell on good people, but could be overcome. Taking from others what was rightfully theirs was never just, nor did it ever come out well for the takers.
The little girl grew bigger, and she read bigger books. She read thick books and thin books. She read single books and stories that spanned several books. She read stories that were only imagined and stories of things that really happened and stories that were neither fiction, nor fact, but allegory or parable or metaphor. She read a lot of stories.
Through the stories the little girl told and through the stories the little girl read and re-read, she learned how to dream, how to struggle, how to overcome adversity, how to love, and how to live. Now, through the hardships and pain of life, the little girl—a grown woman now—returns to stories again and again for inspiration, and for relief. Good still triumphs over evil. Pain is still endured. Hardships are still overcome. Justice still prevails. The girl-grown-woman lives the lessons she learned through the stories that touched her heart and made her imagination soar.
Stories have four elements: plot, character, milieu, and theme. Even a short, whipped-together story like this has all four elements. The longer the story, the more developed each element should be.
There are a lot of writing skills that make up our craft. We often hear about suspense and intrigue as necessities of plot. They’re not. They help, certainly, but plot is simply the key events that give a story a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Not to be confused with structure, which has to do with if and when those key events are revealed.) Likewise, character, milieu, and theme can all be developed using certain techniques which make for an arguably better story.
But don’t mistake these techniques for your story. If you are writing a suspense novel, then yes your story has to be suspenseful. But the suspense is merely a technique to carry readers through the story.
Character, plot, milieu, and theme are all necessary. They are the essence of story. You decide which and how many techniques you utilize to develop these necessary elements. Sometimes you need very little. Sometimes you need a whole lot. But these techniques are NOT your story.
Your story consists of your plot, your characters, your milieu, and your theme. Sometimes you need more of one than the other. Sometimes the story dictates its needs to you, forcing you to change your mind about what you thought you were writing. But you need all four to have a cohesive, complete story.