Elements of Fiction: A Quick Guide to Writing the Perfect Story
There’s no denying that writing an astonishing work of fiction is an art that stems from a writer’s talent and inspiration. Canadian author Alice Munro once said: “I want the reader to feel something is astonishing. Not the ‘what happens,’ but the way everything happens.” But creativity alone doesn’t produce intricately thought-out trilogies with complex character family trees and hundreds of pages of gripping plot lines!
Writing fiction is just as much a science as it is an art, and it is by understanding the key elements of fiction that authors are able to structure and transform their imagination into riveting stories.
This article will take you through the main elements that make up a successful work of fiction. Use them as your guide, and we guarantee you will produce outstanding work!
What Are the Elements of Fiction?
Think of writing a novel or a short story as cooking a meal: there is a structured recipe to follow in order for the dish to turn out the way you want it to.
The elements of a novel, a short story, or any other work of fiction are the ingredients in that recipe, and we have 6 main ones: 1) Character, 2) Point of View, 3) Setting, 4) Plot, 5) Theme, and 6) Style and Tone.
Characters are the key element that drives any story. It is through its characters’ motivations and decisions that a story’s action is created. The more complicated and well-rounded the characters, the more likely the readers will become attached to them.
- Types of Characters
Most stories will have at least one main character, known as the protagonist (think: Harry in Harry Potter), and a character who acts as the protagonist’s adversary, known as the antagonist (think: Voldemort).
Both protagonists and antagonists must be round characters. Round characters are ones that have a rich backstory, and are given complex, interesting personalities. In other words, they are relatable to the readers because they seem “real.”
All the main characters in Harry Potter are complicated in their motivations and backstories. Take Professor Snape, for example. Until this day, readers hotly debate whether he is “good” or “evil,” proving just how complicated his character is.
Flat characters, on the other hand, are “stock” characters that lack depth and dimension. They tend to have one main personality trait and not much of a backstory, which explains why they are also often static characters who do not change or exhibit any growth over the course of the story.
However, that’s not to say that flat characters should be avoided; sometimes flat characters are there to serve a particular purpose in a story. Think of the flat characters Crabbe and Goyle from Harry Potter. They both act as Draco Malfoy’s minions and are only shown as being slow and cruel. The main purpose of their characters is to further emphasize Draco’s “evilness.”
2. Point of View
In fiction, choosing a particular point of view depends on the kind of information a writer wants to deliver to his/her readers. For example, should readers know only the thoughts of your protagonist? Or is it essential that they know things happening outside of the protagonist’s world?
Answers to such questions will determine which of the 4 main points of view to choose from:
- First Person
The first-person point of view is the most personal one that is used in fiction. Using the pronoun “I,” it allows the readers to step into the protagonist’s mind, rendering that character’s thoughts and feelings their own.
Examples of first-person point of view in fiction: John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
- Second Person
This point of view places “you” as the main character. Although uncommon in fiction, when done right, the reader automatically feels drawn into the narrative and thus becomes a part of the action.
Examples of second-person point of view in fiction: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and the children’s series Choose Your Own Adventure
- Third Person Limited
The third-person limited point of view offers the perspective of only one character using the pronoun he, she, or it. This means that the reader sees all other characters and events from the eyes of one character only.
Examples of a third-person limited point of view in fiction: George Orwell’s 1984 and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
- Third Person Omniscient
Like the third-person limited point of view, third-person omniscient uses he/she/it pronouns. However, an omniscient point of view presents readers with the thoughts and perspectives of multiple characters at the same time.
Examples of third-person omniscient fiction: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and George Eliot’s Middlemarch
In any work of fiction, the setting is an essential element that influences the work’s plot, characters, and theme. For instance, a novel set in 18th-century England will be entirely different from a short story that takes place on Mars.
The two main points to consider when deciding on a setting are time period and location. Establishing a story’s time period is essential when determining themes, conflicts, and the plot’s chronological order of events. Moreover, the chosen location will direct the genre of the work. For instance, the location of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is Middle Earth, thus setting up the series as fantasy.
If characters and setting are what capture the readers’ attention, it is the plot that makes them want to read on. A work’s plot is made up of all the events that take place and that give the work a “story.” However, these events must be structured in a particular way that engages the reader by hooking them and building conflict and tension. A plot will typically have the following 5 main elements:
This is a work’s introduction; it sets the scene by presenting the main characters and setting, while also establishing the work’s mood.
For example, the Exposition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is our introduction to the orphan Harry who lives in a cupboard under the stairs in the Dursley household. On his birthday, he is visited by the friendly giant Hagrid who informs Harry that he is a wizard.
- Rising Action
Every story must have some kind of conflict, no matter how big or small. The rising action presents the events that generate conflict for the main character(s).
Let’s take a look at the Rising Action of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry arrives at Hogwarts, where he befriends Ron and Hermione. The three of them accidentally happen upon the three-headed guard dog, which brings Harry closer to confronting Voldemort.
This is known as the big culmination of the rising action. It is usually an intense event that causes a turning point in the story.
The Climax of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is when Harry discovers that it is Professor Quirrell, not Snape, who is working with Voldemort, and Harry goes into battle against Quirrell.
- Falling Action
The Falling Action is the natural progression from a work’s climax; it refers to the events that occur after the climax’s tension is released.
As for the Falling Action of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is when Dumbeldore destroys the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Harry learns that it was his mother Lily’s love that protected him as a baby from Voldemort.
Also known as the Resolution, this acts as the work’s ending. However, it’s up to the writer whether to offer a denouement that provides closure, or whether to leave the story open-ended.
The Denouement/Resolution of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is when Gryffindor wins the house cup, and Harry returns to the Dursleys’ for the summer. However, readers know that Voldemort has not been defeated and will continue to threaten Harry.
It is worth noting that when it comes to the plot, writers do not have to follow the five elements in the order given above. In fact, many stories and novels will open with an incident that hooks the reader (perhaps from the Rising Action), and then later on provide an Exposition, or introduction to the characters.
The important thing is to ensure that the plot makes sense chronologically and that it includes all five elements in some form or another.
In fiction, a theme is a recurring idea or a main message that an author explores through a work of fiction. Themes tend to be universal, meaning they express truths about the human experience that readers can apply to their own lives. For instance, if in a war novel all the characters suffer horribly, the theme or main message would be “the awfulness of war.”
Themes, however, tend to be implicit or hidden, and so writers, instead of explicitly stating their work’s main message, will use the other elements of fiction in order to hint at their themes.
Here are some common themes in fiction with examples:
- The Power of Nature
In Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” humanity is extinct and nature fights against a house that has been left behind. The house represents humans and the technology they created, and its downfall symbolizes the downfall of the human race in the face of a powerful nature.
- Man’s Inner Struggle
Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents a classic theme of man’s inner struggle. Hamlet is conflicted about whether or not he can justify killing his uncle Claudius to avenge the death of his father. He spends most of his time trying to come to terms with his inner struggle of wanting revenge for his father, while also not wanting to abandon his own morals and principles.
- Survival of the Fittest
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games presents a dystopian world in which only the strongest survive. The protagonist Katniss Everdeen drives this theme home by proving that those who are flexible enough to adapt to their circumstances, but who also fight for justice, are the ones who will survive the terrors of the Hunger Games.
- The Traumatic Effects of War
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the traumatic effects of war are shown in the sufferings of the main characters in the novels. This is especially seen in the protagonist Frodo Baggins, who is so traumatized that even when the war is over, he is unable to return to his peaceful home in the Shire. There is no going back to the way things were.
- Serving Justice
One of the main themes of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is serving justice. When confronted with the racial prejudices and injustices in her hometown, the novel’s protagonist, Scout, discovers that the courtroom isn’t the only place that can serve justice; there are other ways of doing so outside of court.
6. Style and Tone
A work’s style and tone tie up all the above elements together. Writers must carefully select the style and tone they adopt to ensure that they go well with the work’s chosen genre and themes. However, although closely related, style and tone are not the same thing.
Let’s take a look at these two sentences:
- She was marvelous. Just marvelous! The way she walked, the way she talked—it was all mind-blowing!
- Oh, great. There they go again. When will it end? Probably never. I need to get out of here. ASAP.
It’s clear that Sentence 1 conveys enthusiasm and excitement, whereas Sentence 2 demonstrates sarcasm and frustration. This is what is known as “tone.” In fiction, tone is the overall attitude an author adopts in a particular work.
But how do we achieve certain tones? If we look at the previous sentences, they both use:
- word choice (also known as diction) and
- punctuation in order to convey their respective tones.
Sentence 1 uses over-the-top adjectives like “marvelous” and “mind-blowing,” as well as exclamation marks to impart that bubbly, enthusiastic tone. Sentence 2, on the other hand, uses short, snappy sentences, a rhetorical question, and a flat “oh” to convey bitterness and frustration.
Well then, how do we know which tone to adopt? One of the main factors that will help an author decide on tone is the genre of the work. For instance, a gothic novel like Wuthering Heights naturally adopts a suspenseful tone, whereas the children’s book series The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is written in a light and humorous tone.
Style, on the other hand, refers to the characteristics of a particular work of fiction. It’s not about what the story is saying, but about how it’s saying it. Indeed, many authors have a distinctive writing style that readers are able to tell if a work is by them.
For instance, Franz Kafka’s writing style can be described as surrealist and nightmarish (The Metamorphosis), while Mary Shelley’s style is a combination of philosophical, romanticized, and gothic (Frankenstein).
Many factors determine a work’s writing style. Some important stylistic elements are:
- Syntax: Unlike diction, syntax refers not to the words an author chooses, but to the way the words are arranged in a sentence. Take a look at this line from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116”: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.” The way he arranges the words in the lines conveys a particular poetic style that would be completely altered (pun intended!) if we were, for example, to reorder the words as such: “Love doesn’t alter when it finds alteration.”
- Imagery: When authors evoke the senses of sight, sound, touch, scent, and taste to create visuals in the minds of readers, they create imagery. Here’s a fantastic example of imagery from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”: “Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.”
- Figurative Language: When authors use figurative language, they basically take an “ordinary” statement and give it some color or “flare.” So, for example, instead of writing “She was very cold,” an author might write “Her body was a frozen lake, stiff and unmoving.” The metaphor conveys an image in the reader’s mind that is more effective than a direct description of the girl’s physical state.
Examples of figurative language are metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.
- Voice: All the above elements combine together to create a distinct authorial voice. For instance, Shakespeare’s diction, syntax, and his usage of certain types of metaphors and symbolism, all work together to create his unique author voice. Think of voice as a work’s “personality”: it can be authoritative, quirky, inspirational, etc.
It takes a great deal of creativity and imagination to come up with a work of literary art, but it is by studying the elements of fiction that an author can effectively communicate his/her art to readers. The 6 elements we discussed in this article are the ingredients required to concoct a compelling story that stays with readers long after the final page is turned.
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