The Elements of Fiction

So that we can share a vocabulary for talking about stories, here are a few essential elements of fiction:

What’s it about? Writers ask why. Good stories leave you feeling like you know why they exist and why you’ve read them. Sometimes there’s a specific, tangible reason and you can summarize it in a sentence or two. The most memorable stories tend to be those that leave us with just an intuitive sense of why we read them. We “feel” why they’re important. And they seem to be about a lot of things while maintaining a certain simplicity and accessibility. Those are the stories that seem to stay with us the longest.

Beginning: All stories start somewhere. Most good ones start with a vibrant sensory image, a compelling action, and they leave readers with an open-ended question. Beginnings are supposed to spur you to keep reading, and the combination of those three things (image + action + open-ended question) will almost always do just that.

Ending: And all stories end. Or at least all stories stop. Stories that truly end — and end well — have the quality of resonance. When a sound resonates, it echoes for a while after the note has been struck. Think of a bell. There’s the initial ding and then there’s the sound that issues forth. Sometimes that sound can last a long time after the ding. It’s sort of the same with the end of a story. The story comes to a close — the “ding” — but a good story lingers with a reader long after she’s put it down. Often it helps you to make new connections to other elements of the story, and if you’re really lucky as a reader, it helps you make new connections to what it means to be human.

Details: In a way, this is the starting point. No matter what, great stories (great writing of all kinds) appeal to the five senses. The absolute best way to do that, hands down, is to use a predominance of interesting nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs tend to be abstract (difficult to touch and taste and hear and smell and see), while nouns and verbs are concrete. You access them through and with your body. Last but not least, it’s important that you choose specific details that mean something to the narrative. Don’t just notice things to notice them; notice details that advance the story and that create three-dimensional characters.

Plot/Organization: All good stories are well-organized and most good stories have some sort of plot. Plot means that every cause has an effect — somebody does something and that causes another thing to happen, which causes another thing to happen, and so on. Stories are well-plotted when those causal sequences lead to a significant change in the essential elements of the story. Usually that change occurs in the main character.

Character: And that — change — is the crucial way to understand character. Characters change. At the very least, they have the clear opportunity to change and, for whatever reason, turn it down. Either way, this change (or lost opportunity for change) leads to real consequences for the character, positive and/or negative.

Setting: Setting is sneaky. It’s really a support mechanism for two of the other elements, Details and most especially Character. And it’s crucial to understand that Setting is made up of both place AND time. Birmingham in 1963 is not the same setting as Birmingham in 2011. Just as downtown Birmingham in 2011 isn’t the same setting as a subdivision in Hoover in 2011. Those differences, subtle or glaring, are extremely important, especially when it comes to creating the characters who inhabit those four different settings. Simply put, knowing where/when in the world the story takes place — and rendering it in an interesting way — does more than half of the work in creating believable characters and giving a reader lush sensory details she needs to fully immerse herself in the story’s reality.

Voice: Voice is the most difficult to define element. It’s also arguably the most important one, especially if you’re going to follow Tenet #4 (Make it interesting). Voice is about the idiosyncratic choices you make as a writer. The vocabulary you use. The way you build sentences. The details you choose to describe. The characters you choose to populate the story and the aspects of them you choose to focus on. The settings you’re drawn to inhabiting. Also your thematic preoccupations and obsessions. It is, by definition, subjective. It is how you get “you” on the page.