The Elements of Story: The Fifth Element

“The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.”  – Muriel Rukeyser

“The creative element in the mind of man . . .
emerges in as mysterious a fashion as
those elementary particles which leap into
momentary existence in great cyclotrons, only
to vanish again like infinitesimal ghosts.”  – Loren Eiseley


key_to_my_soul_by_petaldreams-d4oyb4dIn earlier posts I’ve played around with the four classical elements of water, earth, air, and fire by imagining them as the elements of Story.

There was another element in ancient philosophy, sometime called the quintessence, or the fifth element. In Greek mythology it was the pure, celestial aether that the gods breathed, then was later defined by classical and medieval philosophers as a substance without any physical properties, or a quality of the universe that was “subtler than light.”

Then there’s the 1997 Bruce Willis science-fiction film which reveals that this subtle, mysterious element, with the power to save the world, is love. Maybe true, but kind of corny, and too easy.

So what’s the fifth element of story?

I had a tougher time with this one than the other four. What is the subtle, magical “aether” in which a story takes place? It has to be something common to every story, whether told by book or screen or even the good old-fashioned human voice. Could I really pin down something so elusive and mysterious?

In the end I realized I couldn’t define the fifth element, or I didn’t want to. Instead it made more sense to get at it by way of a story. It’s a very short story but one of my favourites. It’s tale number 200 in The Complete Grimm’s Tales for Young and Old, translated by Ralph Manheim:


The Golden Key

One winter’s day, when the ground lay deep in snow, a poor boy was sent to the forest with a sled to bring back wood. After gathering the wood and loading it onto to the sled, he was so cold that instead of going straight home, he thought he’d make a fire and warm himself a bit. He cleared a space, and as he was scraping away the snow, he found a little golden key.

“Where there’s a key,” he said to himself, “there’s sure to be a lock.”

So he dug down into the ground and found an iron box.

“There must be precious things in it,” he thought. “If only the key fits!”

At first he couldn’t find a keyhole, but then at last he found one, though it was so small he could hardly see it. He tried the key and it fitted perfectly. He began to turn it–and now we’ll have to wait until he turns it all the way and opens the lid. Then we’ll know what marvels there were in the box.


The Grimm brothers placed this apparently unfinished tale last in their collection, as if to remind us that stories and storytelling have no end but go on and on through the ages. It’s also a story that draws you in with a character you can begin to care about, and a mystery, and then, just as the story seems to be about to really get going, it leaves you hanging. One can imagine a traditional storyteller closing an evening’s performance with this tale-with-no-end, as a way of bringing her audience back to the real world while reminding them of her skill. As if to say “See how I had you under my spell? Now I’m letting you go.”

Together a story, its teller, and its listener create a magical space, a pocket dimension, a field of invisible forces. You know this space when you’re in one that’s really working. It casts an enchantment over you. It’s a space that draws much of its energy from the desire to know what happens next?

This is the space of the mysterious fifth element, the quintessence of Story.




  1. […] once you’ve had a few lessons in humility, you will discover what my friend Tom Wharton calls the fifth element of story. The fifth element, according to Wharton, is that space between the story, the listener, […]

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