the three must-have story elements action humor and relationships

3 Must-Have Story Elements: Humor, Action, and Relationships

Allow me to be radical for a moment, and reduce the art of fiction to three basic story elements. Take a gander at your bookshelf, maybe even pull a couple titles, and see if you can’t pick out the common threads. (Presumably, your personal library of favorites doesn’t contain any shoddy writing or weak themes, blatant symbolism, or wooden dialogue, so we’ll just take those necessities for granted.)

The three story elements I want to focus on are relationships, action, and humor. I grabbed three books off my shelves: The Long Roll by Mary Johnston, H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian, and Firebird by Kathy Tyers (affiliate links) This is a pretty random selection that contains a little of everything: authors of both genders, two semi-classics, publication dates ranging from 1911 to 1999, and genres as varied as historical and science fiction. But the three things we’re guaranteed to find in common are—you guessed it—relationships, action and humor.

Story Element #1: Humor

Let’s begin with humor, since it’s arguably the least important in our triad of essentials. Although I say least, that certainly doesn’t negate its importance. Humor not only possesses the power to entertain the reader and endear him to the characters, it is also vital in balancing the darker elements we often find in serious fictional situations. In his “A Letter to a Young Talented Writer,” playwright and short story writer William Saroyan wrote,

…remember that in the midst of that which is most tragic, there is always the comic….

Two of my selected books—The Long Roll and Firebird—are both dark, wrenching stories. But the moments of lightheartedness always bring a powerful contrast. Patrick O’Brian, a master of irony and understatement, wrote of war and the nature of man, but it was his incisive wit and his nonchalant humor that lifted his stories above the sordidness of life on the sea during the Napoleonic Wars and in some instances elevated them to philosophical brilliance.

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

Story Element #2: Action

Conflict is story. Certainly, many stories—lauded classics, even—have been written in which little to no visible action takes place on the page. But the best stories, the enduring stories, are always about conflict. And conflict translates into action. Action—whether it’s the stunning space battles in the work of Orson Scott Card or the subtle machinations and maneuverings of George Eliot’s society set—are the cogs inside the clockwork of a story. Action moves the story forward, inexorably, across the thematic arc to an inevitable conclusion.

The Long Roll is the first installment in Mary Johnston’s epic American Civil War duology. It is ultimately a biography of the war that forever changed the United States of America, and, as such, individual characters take a backseat to the terrifying scope of a nation at war. In crisp prose, Johnston hypnotizes the reader with the desperate ebb and flow of battle, the surge of individual conflict, and the heat of dreams bleeding away on a churned-up battlefield. More even than in most novels, action is Johnston’s story, and she drives the conflict home with staggering and gripping force.

The Long Roll by Mary Johnston


Finally, we come to what is arguably the single most important element of storytelling. If stories are a reflection of the human experience, and if the human experience boils down to the interaction between people, we should find relationships at the heart of all fiction. Whether it’s the romantic connection between a man and a woman (Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), varying familial relationships (Alcott’s Little Women, Dickens’s Dombey & Son, Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent), or the ever-evolving status of friendship (O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley), relationships, or occasionally the lack thereof, form the basis of every story. (affiliate links)

In her Firebird trilogy, Kathy Tyers follows the threads of several relationships, including the courtship and marriage of Brennan Caldwell and Firebird Angelo and the strained and even violent relations between Firebird and her estranged family. Through the contrast in these relationships and through the anguish of loss that is found only in powerful personal connections, Tyers is able to weave a story of both deep heartbreak and deeper victory.

Firebird by Kathy Tyers

The amount to which each of these three elements is found in any given book will vary, of course. Some books are able to bring humor to the foreground, others push relationships to the back burner to indulge the action. But, ultimately, these three things are what keep readers turning those pages.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do these three story elements manifest in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

the three must-have story elements action humor and relationships

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Aw, thanks. I’m glad you thought the humor hit the right note in Behold. I don’t write much “comedy,” but I love injecting humor in my work. I like to have at least one funny character in everything I write.

  2. You know me, I like to put more emphasis on the humor, since that’s where my mind runs these days. But even in comedy, there must be conflict. The trick, I’m finding, is to match the tone of the book. The conflict can’t be too dark for a light-hearted comedy (which I’m afraid may be happening in Cat Lady), nor the comedy to light for a dark conflict-riddled story.

    Which reminds me of what you did with your Behold changes. You gave that broody MC of yours a sense of humor appropriate to both his character and the tone of the book. You genius, you!

  3. Michael Snyder says

    Excellent post. And very true. It struck me too as I read along…how wonderful it is when writers infuse humor, action, AND relational goodness into their characters. Those are the ones we tend to remember by name, and for a very long time.


  4. Thanks, Michael. Whenever you agree with me, I know I’ve hit the right note!

  5. thomas h cullen says

    Yep – all three.

    The degrees vary, to which it features the trio, however what’s unequivocally true about The Representative is its featuring each one in a form which is most worthwhile.

    The relationship, between Croyan and Mariel; the humour, incited in relation to Croyan and his Primal Governor.

    The grandest of forms of action.

    Your line of reasoning is correct Katie – yet again, you demonstrate your keen intelligence by including humour.

    (Oh, and by the way……you picked an amount of three – remember!!)

  6. Sharing this!


  1. […] Jodie Renner reveals dialogue nuts and bolts. What goes into a good story? K.M. Weiland says the 3 elements of story are humor, action, and relationships. Add to that learning to say things simply yet powerfully, and avoiding these 6 embarrassing […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.