Much of writing is instinctual, born of exposure to good stories and a lot of practice. However, there are some tools every writer needs to make their story professional and effective. Grammar and spelling are the obvious ones, but today, I'm talking about the key elements of fiction: character, plot, setting, point of view, theme, and style.
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The First Element of Fiction: Character
In many ways, characters are the foundation for the entire work. Is there conflict? That's going to involve the emotional and mental condition of your characters. Have you chosen a point of view? That's you following specific characters as you tell the story. Your characters are the people through whom your reader experiences the tale, and the trick is to make those fictional characters feel completely real through character development.
- You'll need to know their backstory. This doesn't mean your reader needs to know it, but your understanding of your character's history is crucial for how and why your character responds to things.
- You'll need at least a rudimentary grasp of psychology. You and I have both read books which annoyed us because the characters just didn't feel “real.” Often, this is because basic psychology was ignored, and the characters behaved in a way that made no sense for human beings.
- You'll need to understand the power of the character arc. Your character should not be the same at the end of the story as in the beginning. They change, and their growth is a key aspect of your story's momentum.
If your characters are flat, your readers will have trouble empathizing. But if your characters feel real and relatable, then your readers will eat your story up. Understanding what your characters do and say (and how other characters respond to them) helps to paint the fullest possible picture of your fictional creation.
The Second Element of Fiction: Plot
One small aside: plenty of fiction writers would start this list with plot, not character. Both are fine. Your characters live inside your plot, but your plot revolves around your characters. I just put plot second in this list because when I write, my plot follows my characters, rather than the other way around. If you do it differently, there's nothing to fear: you're still right! (I could say “write,” but you might click the back button.)
Plot is like a blueprint. Your plot, its connections, and its structure determine the way you shape your story. It includes the order in which your characters face things. It's the organized structure, the thing that will end up in an outline on Wikipedia (with spoiler alerts, of course).
The Six Stages of Plot
- Exposition or introduction, which establishes characters and setting.
- The inciting Incident is an event in a story that throws the main character into a challenging situation, upsetting the status quo and beginning the story’s movement, either in a positive way or negative.
- Rising action, which reveals the conflict. Now that your characters are established (along with some sense of what their “normal” looks like), you throw in the wrench and raise the stakes.
- The rising action builds to a dilemma, the moment a character is put in a situation where they have to make an impossible choice.
- Now comes the climax, also known as the turning point. This should be the greatest moment of tension in your story; everything is critical, with emotion and interest peaked. This is make-or-break, the moment when things matter the most.
- Finally, we have resolution (or what Joe likes to call the denouement). Don't let the word fool you: this ending isn't necessarily happy or sad. It means everything has been solved, and your conclusion arrives at the place where all the events of the plot have strongly led. It feels final, or at least, final enough that the reader can put the book down without flipping back through the pages to see if they missed something. Again, this doesn't require a happy ending. It does require a satisfying one, even if you mean to continue in a sequel. If you've left any knots still tied, you'd better have a good reason why—and better make sure your reader has a clue that the answers are coming soon.
Before we move on, I want to circle back and remind you that you need conflict in your story. A lot of authors struggle with this since conflict is by nature deeply uncomfortable. However, every really good story has some kind of conflict—even if that conflict is purely an internal struggle with a heavy emotion.
Extra: If you want to dive deeper into writing an effective plot, take a look at Joe's book The Write Structure.
The Third Element of Fiction: Setting
Setting is one of my personal favorite elements. This includes the physical location (real or invented) and the social environment of the story (including chronology, culture, institutions, etc.).
I love setting because, in many ways, it's like a character. No, your setting doesn't have feelings, but your characters are forced to interact with it everywhere they go and in everything they do. Your setting actually develops who your characters are.
How setting impacts characters
It determines, among other things:
- The skills they've developed to survive
- The tools they'll have (weapons, money, clothing, transportation)
- The cultural norms for communication (speech, body language, and relative rules for communication between genders, classes, and more)
- The presuppositions your character brings into the story (religion, psychology, philosophy, educational assumptions, all of which have a lot to do with the way your characters respond to stimuli)
When designing your setting, it's a good idea to have some idea how it all works. What's the weather like? How does the economy function? Do they use money? Where does pancake batter come fruom?
Are you copying a historical culture? (And if you are, I highly advise looking for something that isn't European. Mix it up! The world is a glorious patchwork of variety.)
Your characters have to swim through this world, so have fun with this. Creating your setting (also known as world-building) can be one of the most exciting parts of writing.
The Fourth Element of Fiction: Point-of-View
Point of View is a fun and tricky tool to work with. POV determines things like tense and how much the reader gets to see. There's first-person (I, my), second-person (you, your), and third-person/narrator (she, hers). There's present tense (I see/she sees), past tense, (I saw/she saw), and even that cockamamie future tense nobody uses (I will see/she will see).
It's the combination of these things that create an effective POV. So how do you choose?
It all depends on (1) the particular feel you're going for and (2) how much your reader needs to see.
Questions to ask when choosing point of view
- What feel are you going for? There's a reason different genres use different POVs.
- Urban fantasy, for example, is almost always first-person past-tense, because they're going for the feel of a person telling you an exciting thing that happened. There's an intimate, immediate feel that goes with this close-up-and-personal viewpoint, like seeing the fist come right for your face.
- On the other hand, literary fiction usually uses third-person. The reason is simple: literary fiction usually has a much broader scope than urban fantasy and so needs to be able to take the reader to a bird's-eye view, usually seeing through multiple characters. The pace is often a little slower, but the impact can be deeply powerful, and tends to explore consequences.
- How much does your reader need to see?
- Is it essential that the reader sees things happening outside your protagonist's point of view? Do they need to see things your protagonist does not see, or hear things your protagonist does not hear? Then you need third-person POV.
- Do you actually need the reader to discover things at the same pace as your protagonist? Do you want your reader to waffle and rage with your protagonist, seeking for answers? Then first-person might be better.
Variety is the spice of life, and you have the joy of mixing and matching as you need.
- Want third-person present tense? (She turns and sees him, and wonders if unexpected encounters can stop one's heart.)
- Want first-person past tense? (I turned and saw him, and found myself wondering if unexpected encounters could stop my heart.)
- Want second-person future tense? (You will turn and see him, and you will wonder if the unexpected encounter will stop your heart.)
Study up on how these work, and you have a whole new set of tools to play with.
The Fifth Element of Fiction: Theme
Theme is a hidden element, but incredibly important: in essence, theme is what your story is REALLY about.
The plot is the outward details, e.g., “A son stands to inherit his father's vast business empire, but only if he can prove himself to be a responsible adult by the age of 25.” Theme would be what it's really about, e.g., “Growing up requires choices.” Or, “‘Family' means more than wealth.” If you're really good, you can even use a one-word theme, like love, truth, adulthood, etc.
Yes, all fictional books have themes, even if it wasn't intentional. Even authors who aren't aware of theme use it—personal beliefs on how the world works (or should work) always flavor the story.
The tricky thing about theme is it should rarely be bluntly stated in your work; the moment you do, your work slides into the “preachy” category. Of course, sometimes, you want folks to know what the purpose is up front, but if you can manage to make it subtle—to get that point across without ever frankly stating it—your readers will actually take it to heart a lot more deeply.
Think about it. Simply reading about something like statistics on autism might make you think, but entering into the story of a character struggling with it (such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) can do a lot more to help you really feel and understand the challenges and cultural barriers faced. Effective stories are written by authors who knew the theme. What's yours?
Examples of theme
- My first book, The Sundered, is about growing up and realizing you've been lied to.
- My first novelette, The Christmas Dragon, carries the theme that running away doesn't solve problems.
- My second novelette, Strings, is about the choice—and cost—of heroism.
However, in all three books, I do what I can to make sure that readers don't feel “moralized” at. Instead, I want the reader to emotionally arrive at these conclusions alongside the protagonists.
Effective stories are written by authors who know their theme. What's yours? (Need help choosing one? Check this out: When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don't Know.)
By the way, this “theme” concept has some nifty corollaries. A symbol, for example, shows up to represent individual details within the story (e.g., glass breaking at the moment a friendship fails), and a motif is a narrative element that shows up repeatedly throughout the tale (e.g., “Quote the Raven, ‘Nevermore'”). Read more here: The Difference Between Symbol and Motif.
The Sixth Element of Fiction: Style
Style is awesome. It is needed. Style is the thing that makes your work stand out from everybody else's, because in essence, it's your “voice.”
You develop style by working on technique. Your syntax, word choices, and tone all contribute to this. Your style can demonstrate not only your voice as a writer, but is crucial to indicating details about your story and characters. Style shows accent and dialect, character intelligence and observation; it shows the underlying humor or drama of your piece. Your style is your unique flavor, and developing it will not only take your entire writing career, but is also one of the most rewarding activities as a writer.
Developing your writing style takes work; there are no short-cuts for this, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun.
- Read a lot. The more variety you pour into yourself, the more ingredients you'll have to cook with as you develop your style. Read books from different countries, different genders, different cultures. Read everything and learn as you go.
- Write a lot. No writing is ever wasted. Practice, practice, and practice some more—and spend time reading your work out loud. (That last step can be embarrassing, but it's really helpful.)
- Listen. Listen to people. Listen to conversations. Tone is a crucial component of style, and you'll need to learn how to convey that in your work—but you can't convey it if you don't know what it sounds like.
Final Thoughts on the Six Elements of Fiction
I know what you're thinking: this seems like a lot. And you're right, it is; however, if you're an avid reader, I think you'll find you're already familiar with most of these concepts. The great stories you know and love all use them, and if you are passionate about your story, incorporating theme will not be as hard as it might seem.
You can do this. Now go and start writing!
Have you considered the six elements of fiction in your story? Which one is the first you consider when you start a story? Let us know in the comments below!
Need more plot help? After you practice this story element in the exercise below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!
Take fifteen minutes and analyze your current work. Pick one of these elements (preferably not one you are familiar with) and apply it to your story.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.