When I am writing, these are what I use to drive the story. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Now, as I have stated before, I am not a professional. Whether or not I know what I am talking about will remain to be seen until my first book is published and we can see if anyone likes it. Until that time, I will just talk about what works for me personally. So… why am I stating the obvious? I have read way too many books that use only one of these things at a time. It always makes the story fall flat for me. The best books are the ones that use a combination of at least two of these, but all three is even better. Generally, when you read a review that complains about the writer boring you to death with the details, it is due to the focus being strictly on just one of these aspects at a time. The author fills the pages with back-story; overburdening you with the life history of their protagonist all at once. While I want a character to have character, too much at once can drown out the story that is being told.
All action is the same thing, but can be more easily altered to include one of the others, if not both. Someone has to be doing the action, and/or it has to take place somewhere. Mixing in a little setting is the simplest way to give the writing a bit of life. Make the environment around the character(s) work as a prop, whether it’s useable objects in the area, time of day, weather, or obstacles inherent to the place chosen.
Setting can be the most obvious, but also more difficult tool to work with. In the fantasy genre, setting is usually the one thing the story has to have a lot of. Especially if you are building your world from scratch. You will have to describe the world to the reader, but do it in a way that does not overwhelm them. I do not know anyone that loves the ‘info dump’ when they begin a new book. However, sometimes you need to get the info out there to help give life to your world. On the other hand, confusing the reader is worse (as far as I am concerned) than information overload. At least that way they can skim through (yes, I know… don’t look at me like that) the detail heavy parts. I hate nothing more than going back through something I have read, thinking that I missed something, only to find out it just was not there. What works best for me is to intersperse the details throughout the book. It is much harder, but if you can do it right… having the characters experience the world instead of just walk through it always makes for a better read to me.
When you can weave these things together, mixing them as you go, it makes the story flow more smoothly. Driving the plot along with not only who and why, but also when, where, and how in mostly equal parts, you give the reader a more vibrant story. They get to experience the world you have created, not just read about it. That, to me, is what it’s all about.