Use the Story Elements

Yesterday, while in the mood for mindless entertainment, I watched a movie called Ice Road Terror, about two ice road truckers (and the obligatory female scientist who is riding with them) who are terrorized by a giant lizard-like creature who had been released from the bowels of the earth by demolition at a diamond mine. The two truckers have been sent to take more explosives to the diamond mine. (Apparently, it takes two trucks to take one load, but I won’t quibble.) As the truckers are en route, the monster (who is a creature from Inuit mythology) has begun feasting on the workers at the diamond mine. When the truckers and scientist arrive, the creature turns to them for a new taste treat. They run away, in the trucks, but are pursued by the creature, who can travel underground and through ice at 45 mph.

At the moment we see them being pursued, we already know the following: at least one of the trucks is filled with explosives. The ice roads have started to melt. There is a truck stop not too far away.

Back to the story. Turns out the monster has hitched a ride on top of one of the trucks. The driver skids and tosses the monster to the side of the road. Meanwhile, the explosives (which were never tied down properly in the truck) have shifted and somehow ignited, and a fire has begun in the back of a truck. The driver and the passenger hop into the other truck, and we never see what happens to the truck on fire.

The monster then pursues the second truck, turns chicken when it drives straight at it and the hole in the road, and then attacks when the drivers try to detach the trailer (killing the foreman of the mine, who had escaped from the camp with them). Now they have to hike through miles of snow to get to the truck stop, where we see the owners trying to free their SUV from the snow. Ultimately, there is more carnage (they’ve been unable to radio for help because the Aurora Borealis is interfering with the signal) and the survivors decide to lure the monster into the house, which they intend to have set on fire, creating heat and smoke (the creature sees in thermal light and they plan to blind it with smoke). It’s a good plan: the creature will be stuck in the burning house and they can escape in the stuck SUV. The owners of the truck stop had been killed, and before she died, the wife asked that their house be made their coffin.

Next scene, two people are feeding tiny pieces of kindling into a Franklin stove; I guess that was the fire they had planned to set. Apparently, the monster thought they were ready for it, and came crashing into the building, where there was no major conflagration, or smoke, and kills one of the drivers (poor Neal). The two remaining survivors try to escape in the still-stuck SUV, then run down the road, chased by the lizard. Fortunately, there is a fuel pump directly in front of them, and the scientist just happens to be carrying a flint, and they light the gasoline while spraying it on the creature, who stands there and lets them ignite it. Creature dies, the new couple embrace, and a helicopter flies to the rescue. (And the house is still standing…will it be their coffin, or not?)

Dynamic story, right? But oh so wrong from a writing standpoint. There were some great elements in the story: the explosives, the melting ice road, a scientist along for the ride, Inuits and mythology, and a log cabin that could hold the monster while it burned around the creature. And yet, none of those elements were used to any purpose in the story. What a waste. Instead, the characters “happen” to see a generator on the porch, “happen” to have a handy fuel pump and flint…and where did the helicopter come from, if the radio hadn’t worked?

As a writer, if you are going to put elements into your story, you must use them. And you must have those elements in place before they are needed. Rather than just have the fuel pump have appeared out of nowhere, it would have been better to have had the couple filling their SUV when the monster attacked. At least then, the pump would be in our minds. Same with the flint. We never saw it before the scientist suddenly had it in her pocket. And, my goodness, what about the explosives? How much better to have blown up the creature! And what about the melting ice roads? They were a problem on the way to the camp, but not during the chase with the lizard?

Granted, I watched the movie to the finish…even knowing how it would end and who would survive, but it was more because I couldn’t believe they weren’t using their fabulous elements than because I wanted to see how it was resolved. Ultimately, I simply shook my head. Such a waste. Someone simply didn’t know the basics of storytelling.

Periodic Table of Storytelling

This is one of the reasons I avoid trolling the internet when I have work to do. I’m liable to find delightful time-wasters like this.

The final project of Computer Sherpa for a Visual Design class, this Periodic Table of Storytelling is endlessly intriguing and enlightening.

The table can be found here, with working links and an explanation: .

It looks like the Periodic Table of Elements that we each encountered at least once in school, but instead of basic elements of matter, these are basic elements of storytelling. Click on any element to see the name of that aspect of storytelling. For example, click SUS in the rightmost column, and you’ll find: Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Then, go to to read more about that basic element.

Warning, once you start, you’ll find it’s hard to stop. has done a fantastic job of defining and illustrating these storytelling concepts. You’ll look up and realize you’ve been lost in Wonderland for hours!

Enjoy, and drop the creators a line to let them know you’ve visited. They’ll appreciate it, I’m sure.