Introducing story elements

Student handout: Introducing story elements

Teacher guide: Only introduce elements

Every story begins by introducing story elements such as characters, places, and objects (and to some extent, events—but that's a tricky point we'll ignore for now).

Fairy tales are particularly efficient at this.

For example, the first paragraph of 'The Fisherman and His Wife' introduces five key story elements; a fisherman, his wife, a shack, the sea, and a giant flounder:

Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a shack that was so filthy it might as well have been a pisspot. Every day the fisherman went out to fish, and he fished and he fished. One day he sat there looking down into the clear water, and he sat, and he sat, and his line went all the way down to the bottom of the sea. And when he pulled it out, there was a great big flounder on the hook.

By story elements, we mean key characters, places, and objects that are going to combine and interact in interesting ways through the story.

For example, those five elements in the opening of 'The Fisherman and His Wife' are combined and recombined throughout the rest of the story: the wife is in the shack, the flounder is in the sea, and the fisherman spends the story running back and forth between them.

In Frankenstories, players get an image prompt, which can give them instant ideas for elements to introduce.

For example, what might you introduce in a story based on this image?

Creepy ghosts float outside child's bedroom

(Post-it note by John Kenn Mortensen)

Perhaps a child, a teddy, some spooks, and a window?

Toby's teddy dangled from his hand as he gazed out the window at the spooks that had been haunting under his bed for the past 6 months. It was cold out there, he knew. No nice radiator for them out there. Good riddance, he thought.

You're not limited to introducing elements that are obvious in the prompt.

For instance, this next Frankenstory introduces three elements from the prompt below—the narrator, the sorceresss (Zebzina), and the narrator's love—plus a couple of crucial story elements not in the prompt.

Write like you love this person zebzina charred castle story prompt

(Illustration by SirTiefling)

Zebzina, this is hard for me to write, but I wanted to put it out there. We've been hanging out a lot, fighting the forces of darkness, slaying demons, defeating undead wizards, lifting curses, freeing elves, foiling plots. And in that time... I've developed feelings for you.

Why did we highlight "this"?

  • Because it refers to a letter, which will be a key story element.

Why did we highlight "fighting the forces of darkness"?

  • Because that's a key event which will play a role in the story.

What didn't we highlight the demons, elves, and undead wizards? 

  • Why don't we say they are 'introduced' as story elements?
  • Good question. The answer is contextual: none are especially significant or appear again.
  • Instead, what's important is the shared history of fighting the forces of darkness.

Players don't need to introduce every single story element in the first round.

For instance, this Frankenstory introduces a narrator and a club (from the prompt), a malcontent called Roger (not in the prompt), and leaves out a key prompt element (a goat) because the player ran out of time:

Write like this person joined club goat duck story prompt

Our Medieval Reconstruction Club went downhill as soon as we started listening to Roger's demands for more realistic livestock.

"We just want to have jousts and drink mead and carouse, Roger!" everyone said.

But no, he had to make it all about poverty and dung.

Which is how we

Finally, some prompts are harder than others.

For instance, this prompt challenges players to write about a character's entire life, but provides few clues as to what that life was like:

Write like their life is flashing before their eyes water way story prompt

(Illustration by Koyamori)

You can see the winning Round 1 reply struggles with detail, but still manages to introduce a lot of elements to work with, including the idea that the narrator needs to go through their memories in order to complete a task:

As the fish swam overhead to shuttle my weary soul away from the soggy depths of my death, I realised things weren't as final as I had thought. There was one final task before I could move on, one last thing to do. I watched the memories fly past in the water; there, a child tak

Tell your students to play a game where they only introduce story elements.

An element could be a list item, fragment, or full sentence:

  • A toothbrush.
  • The wizened old man.
  • A plastic fan is blasting air.

The main thing is that each element should stand alone. Students should avoid doing anything with them; don't let elements interact.

Note: You will need to demonstrate how to do this! Writing lists of elements might feel a little strange to students.

Version 1: Shift observational focus each round (Frankenstories game template)

To scaffold the introductions, tell players to introduce elements from a different point of focus in each round:

  • Round 1: Look around the frame and introduce elements that are obvious in the prompt—clearly visible, everyone can see them.
  • Round 2: Zoom in to find elements that aren't obvious—other senses, thoughts and feelings, zooming in on tiny details.
  • Round 3: Zoom out and look for ideas that could be related to the prompt but are out of frame, in another part of the world, in the past, etc.
  • Round 4: Break the prompt by introducing elements that are as anachronistic, jarring, and unsuitable as possible.
  • Round 5: Make as many interesting combinations with the elements as possible.

'Combination' means having one element interact with and affect another:

  • The wizened old man uses the plastic fan to blast-dry his toothbrush.
  • The wizened old man uses his toothbrush to clean the fan.
  • The fan is blasting air until the wizened old man jams the toothbrush between the blades and the brittle plastic snaps.

Version 2: Introduce a different element type each round (Frankenstories game template)

Instead of focusing on a different "source" in each round, tell students to focus on a different type of story element. For example:

  • Round 1: Characters
  • Round 2: Places
  • Round 3: Objects
  • Round 4: Events (not actions!)
  • Round 5: Combinations

Voting criteria

You might want to set voting criteria for each round, such as:

  • Whatever players think is most interesting
  • Which reply has the most elements
  • Which reply players think is most consistent with the focus for that round
  • Or whatever criteria you like.


After playing, review the completed game and ask students:

  • Where did their elements come from?
    • Explore any responses about observing and noticing details, drawing from memory, free association, following chains of thought.
  • Were there any elements/replies that stood out?
    • Look for discussions around surprise, interest, and appropriateness.
    • "Isn't it interesting that everyone used the elephant in Round 5? Why is that?"
  • What did it feel like to keep introducing things? How hard was it to not start 'doing' something with the elements?
    • It can feel very unnatural to keep introducing elements in this way. Players might not even be able to stop themselves turning them into a story.
    • You can play the game again to see if students can better resist making combinations the second time round.
  • Did students get the feeling that they wanted to begin writing a story?
    • One way to find a story is to introduce elements until you see an interesting combination or situation, and then start writing.

What are we trying to achieve?

  • Introduce the concepts of 'story element' and 'introducing'.
  • Expand the sense of where elements can be drawn from.
  • Practice observation and free-association.
  • Develop a feeling for the pressure that builds, as you introduce elements, to make them do something.
  • Develop a sense that if you introduce enough elements, eventually a story will begin to emerge.

A Big List Of Everything Possible + an elephant

  • 4 rounds of introduction + 1 round of combining
  • If you look at the alts, you'll notice some players struggle to introduce discrete elements and drift into story mode, hence the need for coaching throughout the game.

How Much Stuff Can YOU Make Up About This Picture??? Also plague.

  • 3 rounds of introduction + 2 rounds of combining
  • This was played after the previous game, and you can see players getting the hang of what an 'introduction' is in this context.

One final note

These introduction-focused games will get very surreal.

Once players get acclimated to the weirdness and learn to play with a kind of dream-logic, it's a lot of fun.