Writing is born through instinct and practice. If you want the stories you write to be effective and structured in a consistent manner, it couldn’t hurt to review the basics. Obviously, grammar and spelling are important, but today, I’m referring to the basic elements of fiction: style, theme, character, point of view, plot, and setting.
The First Element of Fiction: Style
Style is to your book like a paint job personality of a car. Bad comparison? Well, I tried! Okay, style is what makes your book stand out. It’s your unique “voice” infused in your work.
Details such as syntax, tone, and word choice each contribute to your own style. No two writers will ever have the same style because this is unique to you. If developing style is your goal, there aren’t any short cuts. It takes time and effort but the process can be fun!
To develop style, consider the following:
- Write often. Don’t throw anything away. Examine each piece you’ve created in the past and see if you can find any common threads among them. Don’t forget to read your work aloud. It helps more than you realize!
- Play with style. Who says you have to stay in your own sandbox? Finding your unique style is not a straight A to B journey. Don’t be afraid to try on different styles and see which one feels best. This is the fun part of learning your writing style!
- Read broadly, often. Reading is the surest way to pick up on different variations of style. Much like when you write your own work, examine the style of other writers through their stories. Determine the tone, the syntax, and words used. Reading about different genders, countries, cultures, and ideas adds to your experience, which will influence your writing and possible give insight into the style you’re most comfortable with.
- Listen, listen, listen. Listen to people, to complete strangers, to friends and family. When listening, notice the inflection of their voices, hear the variety of tones. It’s important because in order to add tone to your stories, you must know what it sounds like.
The Second Element of Fiction: Theme
Theme is what your story is really about. It’s the invisible driving force behind your entire plot and should be present throughout, from start to finish. Plot and theme can be easily confused, so let me break it down for you.
The Plot is the skin and bones of the book, outer details that provide structure. For example, “a daughter runs away from home after her father dies because she believes her stepmother is evil but the farther she gets from home, the more she realizes that she can’t escape the past.”
The Theme is a lot like the vital organs and blood vessels in your body, just beneath the flesh and tangled among the skeleton. It’s the essence, a visceral message that speaks to your readers. For example, “choices make a person” or “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Other examples include words like love, truth, fear, and discovery. What is it your story is trying to say? What point is it attempting to make?
The Third Element of Fiction: Character
The element of characterization is, at least to me, the most fun and the most frustrating. This is where you create the characters of your story. Who are they? Are they brave, fearless, patient, or mindful? What sort of person are they? What is their main purpose? Characters can be defined by what they say, what others say about them, and the actions they take within a story.
It’s crucial to any plot to have realistic characters your readers can connect to. This is the element of fiction where psychology plays a huge part. When it comes to creating characters:
- Know their backstory. Readers don’t need to know everything so only tell them what’s most important.
- Know basic psychology. A character’s actions must make sense in terms of who they are, their mindset, and their experiences.
- Understand character arcs. No story should end with the character being exactly who they were in the beginning. If this is the case, something is wrong.
The Fourth Element of Fiction: POV
Point of view can be fun! In fact, I love to play with this element by switching up story povs to see the different “angles” or “views” of the same story. There’s First Person (I, my), Second Person (you, your), and Third Person (he, she, they). Within these point of views is present tense (I see/she sees) and past tense (I saw/she saw).
There isn’t a right or wrong POV. Whether you employ First Person or Third Person is entirely up to you and will depend on your story’s needs.
The Fifth Element of Fiction: Plot
The plot is the skeleton; the blueprint that lays the foundation for everything else. Like skeletons, no two are exactly alike and as you build the body of your story, you’ll find it takes shape in a viscerally unique way.
Because plot determines what your story will look like. Typically, it is broken down into five parts:
- Exposition. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? This is simply your introduction that lays down the foundation of setting and characters.
- Rising action. This is the first fist of conflict making contact with your character’s face. It’s the rude awakening. The splash of cold water. The break from the “norm”.
- Climax. This is known as the “turning point” or the “point of no return”. The climax is a moment of great emotion, conflict, and action. Think of it as a make or break scenario; you’ll either make the turn or fly off the edge to your certain death.
- Falling action. This is the part of the story for working toward resolution of the tension. It’s where the plot winds down, consequences are realized, actions accepted, and where loose ends are tied up.
- Resolution. Beware: “Resolution” doesn’t mean that everything has been resolved and all is well. In general, this is more of a “present-existing acceptance” of circumstances. This just means your main plot points have been resolved and has nothing to do with whether the ending of the book is happy or sad. All that’s required is the reader’s satisfaction.’
I want to emphasize the absolute need for conflict in your plot. In fact, there are some authors who have plots with numerous rising and falling actions throughout the novel with constant conflict followed by temporary relief. Conflict is the beating heart of your plot.
The Sixth Element of Fiction: Setting
Finally, we have setting. This includes the social/cultural environment of your story and the physical location. Think about the laws, the social groups, the attitude toward those who are different, the education system, the concept of time, or the way people in the story think. Setting combines the physical settings, either real or imagined, with societal and cultural details to create complex worlds.
Think about it this way:
What kind of money do your characters use?
What kind of technology is utilized?
What is the cultural normal?
What gender roles are assigned?
What is the education system like?
What are the laws?
What are the exceptions to those laws?
Where is your story taking place?
What is the climate like?
Religions? Assumptions? Beliefs? Values?
These are all examples of how complex setting is and it not only includes what we can touch with our hands but how we interact with others.
There you have it! These are the six main elements of fiction that build a story. No matter what you read – a poem, a piece of short fiction, a memoir – you’ll find pieces of these elements embedded.
It might seem like a lot of details and you’d be right to assume so but if you’re an avid reader, you are most likely already familiar with these elements. When you tell your best friend all about a great book you read the other day, you’re essentially breaking it down into the six elements of fiction: the character, setting, plot, style. theme, and point of view.
In reality, the elements of fiction have been a part of your reading and writing experience since the very first book you encountered.