Discuss the one element of literature that you think is the most important in shaping the story. Explain why. For example, is it point of view, irony, setting, symbols, conflict, or characterization?
It is important that we have an understanding of what "shaping the story" means before we determine its most crucial ingredient.
At its fundamental definition, a story is an account or retelling of a sequence of events. We can already eliminate some of the nuances, though; for example, a historical account of a major battle would technically be considered a story, but it might be told simply as a series of statistics. This isn't exactly a story in the sense that we commonly understand it, nor is it really something one can "shape" - it is merely a documentation.
We should also take into account the plasticity and modularity of story elements. There aren't really an infinite number of stories, and many story elements fit into particular categories, but these can be rearranged and accentuated to various effects. The same story can even be retold in different settings, such as by changing the point of view to alter the conflict. These are deliberate choices by the author, not merely to lay out a sequence of events, but to inspire a reaction in the reader.
Thus, what really sets each story apart, and the way that it can be shaped, lies in the emotional response that the author intended.
Irony and symbols are useful tools, but they're not really effective at creating an overall emotional response. They can be used to create mystery, such as in the way that Kafka makes us question if certain elements of his stories are symbols, and what those symbols mean, eg. Gregor's transformation into a bug in Metamorphosis. Consider, though, this particular example; what elicits the emotional response from the reader, the transformation, or the bug-ness? Most likely the reader is put off, just as other characters in the story are, by the nature of the transformation. If Gregor had transformed into something else, like a cat or a top hat, we would certainly have a different emotional response.
Also consider that a change in the identity of the narrator probably would not inspire a different response. On the other hand, if we think of Fahrenheit 451, the narration from over Montag's shoulder would surely issue a different perspective if it were Clarisse or Beatty or Montag's wife. Thus the point of view is important, but emotions are universal, and we react to stimuli in a semi-predictable way. Likewise, we respond to conflicts in a predictable way, but the degree of our response depends upon the severity of the conflict.
Thus, I think it is imagery that is most important in shaping a story. Imagery allows us to take what would otherwise be a simple list of statements and give them an emotional impact. Imagery also informs and corresponds with the narrative mode; for example, a strict and spare writing style might actually compliment imagery depicting a cold-blooded murder. On the other hand, the house in Ray Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains gains something of a personality through the circus of imagery that it conducts around itself;
The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air.
The story, which would otherwise be a description of a house burning, employs imagery to encourage sympathy and sadness for an inanimate object, thus "shaping" the story into a tragedy.
The author's motive for writing the story is the most important, especially now when the intentions of the author are considered irrelevant to scholarship -- this contradiction comes from a deeper motive -- why do we read? Why do we like to hear stories? Narratology is the "science" of narrating a story -- and often this comes down to the order in which the author imparts information to the reader, and to the relation between narrative character and the"truth" -- reliable, unreliable, etc.
I believe that the most important element in fiction is motivation. Motivation is essential to characterization. I could think of many examples of stories and novels in which motivation is the driving force from beginning to end. For example, in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick the whole story is driven by Captain Ahab's mad desire for revenge against the big white whale. In Edgar Allan Poe's famous story "The Cask of Amontillado" it is Montresor's desire for revenge against Fortunato that drives the story. Once he achieves his revenge the story ends almost immediately. In Jack London's story "To Build a Fire" the protagonist wants to get to a camp where he will be able to warm himself in front of a stove; otherwise he is going to die. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a story which should be known to everybody, Dorothy simply wants to get back to Kansas. Dorothy is just a little girl, but her strong motivation characterizes her as brave, determined, and resourceful. In Tolstoy's War and Peace it is Napoleon's motivation to conquer Russia that drives the story. In the Sherlock Holmes stories it is the great detective's strong motivation to solve a crime that drives the story. Holmes is sometimes motivated by money, sometimes by sympathy for a client, sometimes by the the intellectual challenge, sometimes by patriotism, and sometimes by combinations of these and other factors--but he is always strongly motivated, and this is what characterizes him. Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations wants to become a gentleman so he can win Estella. In Homer's Iliad the Greeks want to get Helen and the Trojans want to keep her. In Homer's Odyssey the hero just wants to get back home (like Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). In the great movie Citizen Kane, the reporter just wants to find out what Kane meant by saying "Rosebud" just before he died.
Without motivation people do not move. Even when we get up in the morning we are motivated to get to work and make some money, and also to hang on to our job, or to drink a cup of coffee or to eat breakfast. All those people you see tearing in both directions on the freeway are motivated by something. They want something. We identify with a protagonist based on what he wants, or else we identify with an antagonist based on what he wants to avoid or prevent. The antagonist's motivation is generally caused by the protagonist's motivation.
In its own nature, the question is wide ranging. To cover all of literature is a nearly impossible task, given the question. Adding to this is that all of the literary elements featured are interrelated and essential for great literature to emerge. Quality literature cannot put aside or defer any of these literary elements. In my mind, the key element of the question is what "you think." The inclusion of this phrase enables the question to be appropriated as a manner of substantiated personal opinion. It is the only way to effectively approach the question, while also keep in mind that there will be multiple answers offered and, for the most part, they will all be relatively valid.
With all of this in mind, I think that characterization is one of the most important aspects in shaping the story of any work of literature. In characterization, the basic premise behind why individuals are engrossed in literature is evident. Some of the most memorable literature is created because the story is shaped by characterization. For example, the characterization of Stephen Dedalus is what ends up shaping the story within A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While setting and imagery are important, the only way that story is shaped is because of Stephen's characterization and his emergence throughout the story. In Shakespeare's Othello, it is the characterizations offered that end up shaping the story. Othello and Iago are critical in this process. The story is shaped because of their characterizations. How Othello is at the start of the story and how he is at the end of it represents its entirety. Characterization is essential when Othello speaks at the conclusion of the story:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snowAnd smooth as monumental alabaster.Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.Put out the light, and then put out the light.
The characterizations that Shakespeare submits is what ends up driving the story in the drama. The symbols of light and darkness, earth and heavens, and even skin color are all secondary to this characterization. These symbols can only be understood as a result of the characterizations that are present. Even in short stories, characterization proves essential. In O'Flaherty's "The Sniper," the characterization of the sniper when he is on his mission, when he has finished it, and when he realizes the implications of it are the defining elements of the narrative. The characterization of the sniper becomes the most important element in shaping the story.
A case can be made for any literary element shaping the story. However, I tend to think that characterization becomes essential in shaping the story because it becomes the means through which the author is able to connect with the reader. The audience understands the characters featured. Enabling and expanding this empathy is how literature connects and how the story is driven. When characterizations emerge as fully developed and designed to trigger the thinking and affective sensibilities of the reader, one sees how this element of literature becomes the most important when shaping the story.