So which plot element is most important? I think it is a dead heat. Setting is important because it gives us a sense of where we are. We aren’t floating in a vacuum we are in a place. Characters are important because we need someone to identify with in our story. I forget which famous writer wrote a story with minimal plot elements, but it was still a story. If I remember correctly, it took place on a train or in a train station. The story had two characters that were never named or described. They were simply he and she. They were opposing each other over what the reader can only assume is whether she should get an abortion. The word abortion was never used; the conflict was implied by the way the characters spoke to one another. It was almost as though the author was reporting a conversation overheard at a train station. It was a great piece of writing even if the story left something to be desired. It was flat in my opinion. It was also what we would term flash fiction because it wasn’t very long. The reader didn’t have time to invest much in the story. That was why it worked, I guess. Its shortness heightened the impression that it was something overheard on a train or somewhere very public.
I didn’t care for the story because I like a bit of detail in my story. In this story, there was nothing around these people. If you were to film it, they would be shadows, like that jewelry store ads a few years ago, playing against a white background. I don’t believe the story was one of the author’s better-known works. Now that I think about it, it might have been Hemingway, but I’m not sure about that. It sounds like his style, but I admit that I read it for school many years ago. My memory might have forgotten a lot about the story. That includes both title and author. Only the gist remains, which is what it really was, only the gist of a story.
It might even have been a dream; the stuff of the story that is, the story itself exists. There was no sense of being there, only the dialog between the two characters. So a story can be told without a setting and work, but it should be very short. The characters drawn with a few quick lines, none of which was descriptive, were there to give us conflict. The author did what he did solely through dialog. What made that story work was the conflict. While you need the characters to play off each other, if there was no conflict there would be no story. Otherwise, you would have no reason for character A to do anything, even if there was a character B for A to talk to. That would make conflict the most important element of a plot, but you really can’t have conflict without characters. Characters help us follow the plot. So I would say that the most important element of a story plot are both characters and conflict. Setting enhances the story, anchors it, but the story can make it without setting. It cannot make it without either conflict or characters.