Your voice unfolds between the five elements in never-ending combinations. By getting to know them, and using them in your writing, you automatically find and develop your voice.
You can combine the elements with each other in any which way you want. It depends entirely on you and whatever you are writing. The concept is individual on both a personal and a project level.
From a storytelling point of view it's worth noting that any of the elements can also play a leading or supporting role in the story. Usually as antagonistic forces such as earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, toxic air, or space itself.
Always keep in mind that Five Element Writing is a concept, not a template. The elements are principles to be played with according to circumstances and personal preferences.
There is not, and never will be, any specific way to use them. They are guidelines for your mind on your journey into writing with the purpose of making it easier for you to find and develop your voice, and take it beyond genre and format.
Finally, in the spirit of open source, feel free to build on the concept. It's not meant to be static, but to always evolve. Like any good story it never really ends, but merely leads to the next one.
The earth element is environment. Foundation. Structure. Plot. The soil where seeds are sown and everything is rooted. There is little movement in this element alone, but a lot of movement because of it. If we weren't able to push down into Earth as our first action, any step forward would never happen. In reality most of our actions in life are nothing but reactions to our environment.
The same can be said about writing. You must have an environment that provides stability enough for the story to unfold, and the nature of it should be aligned with the story as a whole. Including its structure and plot.
Most often the environment provides a natural structure for you to use. A prison, a city, a farm. Life unfolds in a certain way in each environment, and your structure should reflect that.
For example, if your story is set on a sailboat having lost its sails and drifting at the mercy of the sea, then give your story a structure that's random and undecided. If the story is action driven, a possible structure would be a logbook with entries of various lengths. If emotionally driven, you could use love letters to a lost love with altering degrees of hope and desperation.
The plot usually grows out of the environment too. To build on the example above, it would make sense for your main character to figure out a way to get the boat to shore — as part of a survival plot. Or, to be liberated from the pain of human love and unite with universal love before surrendering to the inevitable death at sea — as part of a tragedy.
Options are many, but make sure they are well rooted in the earth element. It's where the story begins, unfolds, and ends.
The water element is emotions and their constant flow. They exist in a never ending interaction with our mental faculties (the fire element) with the purpose of making us aware and help us grow.
Emotions are inner sensations that connect the mind and body. A kind of gigantic message board within that allows us to link selected emotions to our cognitive abilities. The moment we do, they transform into feelings, which we can define as conscious emotions. Or, emotional states we are aware of.
For a writer this is of extreme importance, since any character of a story will always go through a similar process. How a character responds emotionally to the challenges of the plot is the driving force of how it becomes aware, grows and eventually steps into character in order to lead the story to a climax (or not). Understanding emotions, and how to use them, gives a story depth.
The water element is also sexual desire. If you use sex, flirt, or romance in your story, you are operating in the fluent behaviour of emotions. They are not rational, and difficult to control, and where this can be a disadvantage in real life, it's a huge advantage in a story. It allows you to make your characters do unforeseen things without having to explain them (such as having sex with the wrong person).
Once the character becomes aware of its emotions (including its sexual desire) it moves into the domain of the fire element. Here, the interplay of water and fire begins, which is the breeding ground for most stories.
Take anger, for example. It's a response to feeling hurt, which makes it a conscious emotion. The more you think about having been hurt, the more angry you become. Your fire element makes your water element boil, and if you don't get it under control, it boils over, and you do something irrational.
The same is the case for sexual desire. The more you think about your object of desire (a person, a sex toy or a fantasy), the more you feel the desire, and you eventually risk turning it into an obsession you can't control.
Like water, emotions always seek the lowest point of their environment. Again, what's inconvenient in real life is fantastic in a story, because you can let your characters sink to the lowest common denominator and do stupid and horrible things without having to justify them. It's just the nature of their emotions. It creates a gap between their emotional and conscious parts that now has to be filled with something in order to drive the story forward.
The fire element is thought. Our mental faculties in all aspects of them both analytically and creatively. It's also will power and the desire to change something. Art, design, and science all belong to the fire element. So does education and learning.
Fire is the only element capable of transforming the others, and the reason is thought. Without thinking, change never happens. Technology, for instance, is a direct result of fire. Literally. No fire, no iPhone. Almost everything we surround ourselves with in today's world is governed by the fire element.
This includes writing itself. It's an acquired skill that facilitates change, and it grows out of different technologies. Pen, paper, and the printing press. Computers, software, and the Internet. On top of that, any story is rooted in the dynamics of conflict and change. It's hard to find anything more fire-like than the craft of writing. As writers we simply play with fire on a daily basis.
The fire element is the awareness of the characters, and the change they go through, as the story unfolds. The plot from the earth element acts as the foundation for this process, and here it's important to keep in mind that the fire element is not the plot itself, but the characters' reaction to the plot. How do they handle the challenges they are facing? What kind of awareness do they build, and where does this take them?
Mostly the fire element is used in combination with the other elements. Especially the emotional water element is a steady breeding partner. They belong together, because they have the ability to cancel each other out, and they dance an eternal dance of never agreeing on anything, being each other's opposites. Water is not the only element used in combination with fire, though. The dialogues of the air element are often loaded with mental aspects that arise from the fire element, but unfold through the air element.
Sometimes a character goes through a process of inner reflection during a story. Such cases are purely the fire element showing its teeth.
The air-element is dialogue. Speech, expression, and sound as a whole. Whenever we talk, mumble, shout, sing or cry, we find ourselves in the element of air. It's widely used in writing to make the story present, lighter and more digestible, or to illustrate certain aspects of a character. Social class or geographical origin for example.
Breathing is, of course, part of the air element, and with its affection of the body, including the nervous system, it's easy to integrate in a story. Especially the rhythm of the breath is a direct consequence of our emotional states, and it's straight forward to illustrate. When someone is "gasping for air" it's usually a sign of stress, fear, shock, desperation, and exhaustion. It can be used in the opposite way too, to illustrate a character in control of its emotional states through the use of breathing techniques.
Scent also belongs to the air-element, and is often overlooked in writing. It's the deepest and most instinctive sense we have, as well as the most mysterious. It has a direct link to our memories, and other undercurrents of the mind we don't know about, and it affects our emotional states and non-conscious actions with immediate effect.
For a writer, scent is nothing less than a gold mine of options. We can use scent to set in motion various actions without having to explain anything at all. There is tremendous freedom in that. The only pitfall is that scent is hard to put words on. It challenges our craft and exposes its weaknesses, which is why practising descriptions of scent is a great way to develop it.
Another aspect of the air element is the sound of the environment. It goes hand in hand with the earth element and is mostly used as the "spice of the dish", such as the sound of seagulls to describe a coastal environment. However, it can easily be upgraded to a main ingredient. For example the deafening noise of a discothèque to conceal the sound of a gunshot or a cry for help.
In contrast to water, air always seeks the highest point of the environment, and thus it's well suited for taking the high ground of the story. It could be a key value such as freedom, peace, or independence delivered through a speech at the end of the story. Or, the phenomenal singing by the protagonist who finally managed to get on stage and prove itself.
The space element is the action. Movement. Events. Or, the lack thereof. It's the combination of time and space, which cannot be separated, so this is where the tempo of the story unfolds.
Any plot involving a distinct time factor takes place in this element. Thriller and suspense stories feed on it for breakfast, and in stories where time (seemingly) stands still it flows as a divine force between the lines.
A story cannot take place without this element. Just like a flower cannot grow without space, even if its only action is striving towards the light. The space element is a prerequisite for life, including that of a story.
The space element drives the story forward and is closely related to the plot of the earth element. It's the muscle on the bone so to speak. The engine of the vehicle. The component that brings a structure to life.
Essentially, a story is a clash of spaces. In its most simple form, the spaces of the good and the bad guy. In more sophisticated form, the clashes of several spaces leading to a complex story with many subplots.
However, since time and space cannot be separated the timing of those clashes are equally essential. Just imagine the good and the bad guy showing up for their final clash at different times. Although it could probably work in a comedy, it would be devastating in a western.
The space element is the most dynamic element of them all, and therefore the most artful. It can be as concrete and describing a physical action, or it can be subtle and describe inner movement. Or both. Also, it's interwoven in all the other elements, providing the space and time for them to unfold in.
On a deeper level, the space element is the story's theme and perspective, and what it's ultimately about. The stuff that's not written, but still oozing out of every sentence.
Not surprisingly, this is also the element that sets up the space for your voice as a writer. You might favour dialogue and feel at home in the air element , but if you cannot create the space for that dialogue, you end up having nothing to say. Or, you may love the emotional expression of the water element, but when, where and how are you going to pour your heart out?
There is simply no other element that brings forth your voice more than the space element. Having said that, it can, of course, never stand alone.