Chapter 1: Elements of Stories
To start off our class in writing great fiction, let’s first look at the many elements of writing a story. We will cover these topics in more detail later, but understanding the basics of these will help give you a big-picture view of the process, craft and art of writing.
Here is a big baker’s dozen of the most central aspects of writing fiction:
Setting: Not just the physical backdrop of your story, the setting can influence the plot and choices that characters make. It can also be a way to help express any theme or hidden meanings in your story.
Character: Sure, this can mean the characters in your story (like the protagonist and antagonist), but it can also refer to that more subtle, interior meaning of the word character…what choices do the people in your story make? How do they change and grow because of these choices? How do their actions show us who they are inside?
Characterization: This is the outside of your characters. Do they have any habits or quirks or external attributes that help us see them a bit more distinctly? And…do these outer elements match with their inner character, or is there a juxtaposition between the two elements?
Plot: What physically happens to the characters (preferably things happen because of decisions they make!). This is the stuff that you can list off…first A happens, then that leads to B and so on.
Story: This is the real guts of what you are writing. Story isn’t so much about the plot, but about the big WHY behind it all. A, B and C might all happen in your plot, but why they happen and what this all means to your main character, that’s the story.
Structure: Structure, when done right, can tie plot and story together. This is the backbone of everything that is going on and a well planned structure can help pull readers in, while a meandering, unfocused or repetitive structure will send them packing.
Conflict: One of the most vital parts of compelling fiction, conflict (generally between the protagonist and antagonist) is generated by two characters pursuing the same goal. They may be racing each other to find a treasure, or maybe a killer and a cop are both trying to determine someone’s fate. No matter what, it’s about two or more characters struggling to attain the same goal first.
Stakes: Often lost in the mix or underplayed, a clear idea of what is at stake (someone’s life, the future, a chance for love, etc.) helps show your reader how important your story is to your characters, which can make it important to the reader too.
Tense: Past, present, future…these are all acceptable choices, with the old standby of past tense being the most common and generally the easiest to read. Whatever you do, be consistent…almost nothing makes a reader stumble more than abrupt changes in tense.
Point of View: 1st, 2nd or 3rd? Singular, Plural? Limited or Omniscient? Do we experience the story only through one character’s eyes or through several? Remember that in 1st person, we read about the character only from their point of view, using the pronoun I. In 3rd, pronouns she and he tell us what is going on for one or several characters. We might get to hear the thoughts of just one, or all of the characters. The rarely used 2nd person puts the reader in the character’s place by using the pronoun you.
Tone: Is the story told in a conversational way, or something more formal? How can this be effected by the choice of POV?
Voice: People often talk about an author’s voice, and how it might be very distinctive, but this element is about more than writing style. It’s also about the subtle expression of your POV characters. Their individual traits can influence the voice and make it sound even more unique.
Theme: Related closely to the idea of the inner story, theme is about the big picture in what you are writing. It can be a statement like, “Love takes hard work.” Or, it can be an open-ended question, such as, “Can two very different people learn to get along?” This is the hidden idea you want your readers to think about after they are done with your story. One hint…keep this well hidden, make your readers work a bit to figure out the theme.
Symbolism: This is when something in your story has more than its obvious meaning and it takes hard work. In order to make good use of symbols in your story, you have to find the balance between making sure readers can pick up on the significance and extra meaning tied to your symbol and making sure that you aren’t beating your reader over the head with it. Make it all more complicated by considering the fact that objects, characters, settings, actions and situations can be symbolic.
Dialogue: As opposed to monologue (which means one person talking), dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters. Sounds simple…but this element is all about practice. Getting dialogue to convey important points about the story, the plot and show character choices is tough…especially when you have to make it sound natural at the same time. This takes a lot of work and a lot of polishing, but it’s worth every rewrite, because readers can spot bad dialogue a mile away.
Subtext: For now, let’s just talk about subtext in dialogue. When so many writers do dialogue, they just have each character be honest and say what is on their mind. But think about it…when was the last time you heard a real human being do that? Who actually says what is really on their mind all of the time? Instead, how many of us say or ask one thing when we really mean the exact opposite? Showing what the character really means when they say something different…that’s good use of subtext.
Exposition: This is definitely the double-edged sword of writing fiction. Exposition is the necessary background information that the reader needs to know to understand what is going on. It might be about the setting, the history or about the characters. But…if you get too heavy with it, all the action grinds to a halt and the reader loses interest. Try to space it out and make the reader wait until just the right moment before you reveal those background details.
Description: Is something happening in your story? Is there some action you want your readers to see as they read? Good description walks a fine line between too much and too little detail. Give too many details, go on for too long with your descriptions and your reader will feel bogged down, like things aren’t moving fast enough. Give too few and the reader won’t know what is going on. Once again, this comes down to practice. Read the best books and stories that you can find and see what you like about the descriptions there. Test your descriptions out on readers and get input. Then keep going on your rewrites.
Remember, this is just a very brief overview of the aspects of writing that can influence how you tell your story and how your readers interact with what you write. Always keep searching and learning!