Elements of Fiction: Why?

I've been reading this book, Blue Like Jazz, where Donald Miller talks about his Christian journey in decidedly non-religious terms. It's refreshing, and I highly recommend it, whatever your beliefs.

At one point, he talks about a lecture he went to on the elements of literature - setting, character, conflict, climax, and resolution - and he (and I) began to wonder why? Why do stories have to have these elements? Nobody invented them. Nobody said, "This is how it shall be done," and so we all do it that way. These elements are in the core of our being. Humans of all cultures identify with stories that contain these elements and have trouble with stories that do not (literary fiction, I'm looking at you).

The real reason (and this isn't my idea, but Miller's) is that these elements speak to things inherent in the human condition. Let's take a look at them.

Setting. This one is obvious. The fact that we exist means we exist somewhere. We cannot experience life without a setting in which to experience it.

Character. Likewise, there is no life but it has characters in it. Even the most secluded hermit has himself in his own story.

Conflict. Life sucks; it has hard things in it from the beginning. Pain. Loss. We want something, but there are always obstacles. There is no life without conflict.

Climax. As we face more conflict and more obstacles, eventually things come to a make-or-break point. Will I ask her out? Will I try out for the team? Will I propose? Will I win the contest? Will I have a baby? We must make a choice, we must act out that choice, and the experiences and decisions we've made up to that point all play a part in determining how each climax plays out.

Resolution. Whether the climax was a success or failure, the resolution is what happens as a result. Questions are answered. Loose ends are closed. Cliffs are left hanging towards the next climax.

The fact that these are inherent to life suggests some things too. Perhaps our lives build towards a climax and have resolution - maybe death is not an abrupt end to the story, but some kind of climax itself. Perhaps also there is something after death, with conflict and climax of its own (though of what kind, I cannot possibly imagine).

Because if there is one thing that is true about all stories, it's that they never end. After one scene reaches its climax, the conflict-climax-resolution cycle starts again in the next one. A few such scenes, and you've got a chapter. Many chapters, each with their own climax, make a book. Many books make a saga. Sagas make life.

And then it all starts again.

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