The elements of story: earth

xian-terracotta-warrior-museumWhat is a story made of? Most readers, writers and critics (or story gurus these days) would probably list things like plot, setting, character, conflict, resolution. Some might add theme, atmosphere, style…. 

When we think about what a story is made of, these and a handful of other concepts are what usually come to mind.

These elements are time-tested and useful. But what if we took the idea of an element back to one of its oldest meanings? That of the four fundamental constituents of the universe: earth, fire, water, and air.

What if we imagined a story was created out of these elements? What might we notice about stories that gets obscured by relying on the same old familiar terms?

I’ve already posted about water. This time I want to look at earth.




Earth is solid. It’s heavy. Thick. We can’t see through it. We stub our toes on it. We’re held to it by gravity.

There’s always something in a story that’s like this. A good story isn’t all on the surface. There’s some mysterious force that pulls us in and holds us. A good story might even make us stumble. And sometimes we have to do some digging to find its treasures.

Here’s a story made of earth:

No one wants to die, and the emperor was no exception. It wasn’t right — that the most powerful man in the world was powerless to avoid that solitary journey into the darkness.

“If we must go, we will not go alone,” the emperor told his counselors, using the royal we. “We will take our people with us. On the day we die, ten thousand soldiers, officials, astrologers musicians, acrobats are to be killed and buried with us.”

The counselors knew that if word of this plan got out there would be an uprising and they would likely lose their heads, one way or another. With great tact and much obsequiousness they managed to convince the emperor to change his plans. Instead, ten thousand figures of men (and a thousand or so horses) would be fashioned of fired clay and placed in the emperor’s tomb with him.

And so it was done, because in that empire the more absurd and impossible an idea was the more likely it was to become a reality. Thousands of men worked for years on the project so that by the time the emperor died, the making of these thousands of clay warriors and other court personages had been completed, and an underground imperial city had been built to house them. The emperor was laid to rest in a silent palace surrounded by silent courtiers who would be loyal to him through eternity.

(Incidentally, no one knows how many workers died in the delving of this great city of the dead, just as no one knows how many died in the other impossible, childlike idea of building a wall around the empire.)

Grass grew over the tomb, and dynasties fell and rose and fell again. In time the kingdom forgot about the emperor’s subterranean army, until one day in the late twentieth century when a farmer digging in his field unearthed one of the clay men. Since then hundreds of men and horses and chariots made of baked earth have been released from their tombs and stand in ranks for all to see. This is the army that protected the people from their own emperor. From his fear of being alone after death.


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