Integrated elements

A few months back I explored the “setup” and “payoff” elements that create a satisfying story. As you can read back in that article, it’s non-optional. Integrated elements however, work at a high level to make the story three dimensional. They’re not mandatory, but they make your story better.

What do I mean by “integrated element”? A person, phrase, object or other specific element that recurs throughout to tie your story together. So somewhere in the realm of a symbol, motif and/or metaphor. Like your setup/payoff, you’ll establish it (or if you’re feeling adventurous, them) early in the story and call it back later. To succeed, it must be pertinent to the ultimate plot goal of the story.

The best way to explain the integrated element is with examples.

In the film 1917, (which I highly recommend you check out) watches are used to great effect. During the dangerous mission, wristwatches serve as a symbol of the passing of time and the sense of urgency Schofield and Lambert feel as they try to complete their mission. The watches are highlighted at significant times throughout the film, and their ticking is often used as a background sound to heighten the tension and sense of danger as time runs out.

Charles Dickens uses integrated elements throughout all of his books. One of my favourites is A Tale of Two Cities where Dickens uses shadows—literal and figurative. They are everywhere, made by the guillotine, carriages, taverns, people, the prison. Two of the chapters include shadows in their titles (The Shadow; The Substance of the Shadow). And shadows hang over the characters throughout:

“I am not thankless, I hope, but that dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me and on all my hopes.”

“Tut, tut!” said Mr. Lorry; “what is this despondency in the brave little breast? A shadow indeed! No substance in it, Lucie.”

But the shadow of the manner of these Defarges was dark upon himself, for all that, and in his secret mind it troubled him greatly.

End of Chapter 3, Book 3

The Bible has integrated elements galore, but I find the phrase “forty days and forty nights” particularly powerful. When it arises, it’s like a siren, highlighting the significance of that event by recalling earlier events. There are only a handful: the rain of the great flood (Genesis 7), Moses on the mountain with the Lord where he receives the ten commandments (Exodus 24, 34; Deuteronomy 9, 10), Elijah’s journey to Horeb where he sees God (1 Kings 19), and Jesus fasting in the wilderness while being tempted by the devil (Matthew 4). But they are impactful, and are echoed every time the number 40 appears in the form of years, days and numbers to test the subject.

Returning to film, an example given by my tutor was fingernails in the film Juno. Juno’s stepmother is a nail technician. A friend tells her the baby in utero already has fingernails. When in the waiting room of the abortion clinic, Juno focuses on their clicking, tapping and scratching. This prompts her to leave and to keep the baby.

I like to choose one element and use it to tie all my similes together. How do you use this in your work?