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The Elements of Fiction—The Basics & Beyond

February 3, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 4, 2011

Confused about what constitutes the necessary elements of fiction?

Confusion isn’t difficult to achieve since there are as many explanations of the elements as there are writers, teachers of writing, editors, and students of the craft.

But most agree on the basics. Or maybe I should call them the most basic of basics.

Tier One

The three most important elements of fiction are character, plot, and setting. We can call this the first tier of elements.

These elements are essential to fiction—a story without any one of these three is not a story. We need at least one person (being) doing some thing in some place. Think of these three as the legs of a tripod, each necessary for balance and the support of whatever sits atop them.

Character, plot, and setting answer the questions of who [character], what & how [plot], and where when [setting]. Character motivation and/or theme can be called upon to answer the why question.

In non-fiction, the five W’s (and one H) provide information necessary for a news story or to complete a report based on fact. If one of the five W’s is missing, any explanation is incomplete. Many of us learned about the five W’s when we learned to write and practiced with news articles.

Fiction has the same needs, even though the details and facts or the events or the characters (or any combination thereof) are made up.

The reader still wants to know who done it and how. He wants to know the sequence of events.

Now, he might want that information presented in an entertaining manner, but the reader doesn’t want to reach the end of a book only to find vital information withheld by the author. Readers want the blanks filled in by story’s end.

And so, the basic elements take care of essential information.

What, then, falls to the second tier? What are the elements that bolster the top three?

Tier Two

Point of view, theme, and style (or tone) are sometimes mentioned along with the top three in the basics category. But I’ll relegate them to second-tier status. A story will probably have a theme, but it doesn’t require one to make it a story. (You could argue it needs one to make a good story, but a story can stand without an apparent theme.)

Point of view is obviously important since every story has one (or two or five, a discussion for a different article). But stories all have words as well, and we don’t list words among the elements of fiction.

So, I can say that point of view is important for directing or presenting a story, but it doesn’t carry the weight for story that character, plot, and setting do.

Style—what the author brings to a story—and tone—the story’s own personality—are both important for fiction. They’re so important that a change in either can steer a story on a different course than first intended. Yet a story will have them whether the writer consciously works at them or not. Thus, they will be there; writers don’t have to intentionally put them into a story. (Writers would do well to direct tone, but they don’t have to worry that they’re forgetting it.)

A writer’s style includes diction (word choice) and syntax (word order). A writer can also vary pace in short passages, in scenes, and throughout chapters. Each of these three elements can be manipulated by the writer to create effects, to influence reader emotions, to shade meaning. These elements don’t necessarily drive story, but they can direct it.

Tier Three

Third-tier elements include dialogue, action, description, and exposition (and all their sub-elements).

Dialogue, action, description, and exposition are what writers use to address the five W’s, to show character, plot, and setting. Excluding description, these are the fiction elements that move the story. Dialogue, action, and exposition carry character or plot forward. (Any of the three can also provide back story, which is a look back rather than a movement forward. But even back story should give the reader the understanding that what’s happening out of sight and what happened prior to the story’s opening even now propel the story forward.)

Description doesn’t necessarily have the forward movement of the other three elements mentioned here. In fact, too much of it (too much dialogue or exposition as well) can stop the forward motion of story.

These four are elements the reader sees on the page, no supposition necessary to understand them.

Tier Three, part 2

Conflict, motivation, and symbolism can share the third tier with dialogue, action, description, and exposition, but their focus and impact is different. Their appearance is different.

Conflict, motivation, and symbolism might be seen by a clear-sighted reader, but they can be felt more than seen.

Conflict and motivation drive the story. Think of them as the force behind action, events, and dialogue. They are not result but impetus. They are instigators to plot events.

Without conflict, a story is flat. Without character motivation, a story is pointless.

Symbolism is often the grace note of a story. Some might not notice symbols or not know what to do with them if they caught sight of them. But for those who see and understand, a symbol adds depth and often deeply felt meaning. Symbols can be portrayed by recurring objects, words, or actions, or by other repeated elements.

Climax and resolution are often mentioned as two of the elements of fiction. Both are necessary to good storytelling since a story needs to come to a head [climax], after which something happens to bring closure [resolution]. I consider both sub-elements of plot.

*******

I was tempted to include scene as one of the elements of fiction since I find it to be one of the basics, yet I would be one among few to characterize scene as one of the fiction elements. May I suggest, however, that you keep scene in mind as you write, rewrite, and edit.

You may find that this list of fiction elements differs slightly from other lists which also differ from one another. The major difference seems to be in how sub-elements are listed; sometimes they’re included separately and sometimes they aren’t mentioned.

A recap—

character
plot
setting

point of view
theme
style (diction, syntax, pace)
tone

dialogue
action
description
exposition

conflict
motivation
symbolism

*******

Although we’ve looked at the elements of fiction as though they were separate, we need to remember that they don’t work in isolation. They are related, intertwined, interdependent. Changing one either changes others or sets up the need to make changes in the other elements.

The elements at odds with one another, working at cross purposes, make for poor fiction, confusing stories. The elements working together, with balance, make for strong stories and satisfying fiction.

The kind of fiction we like to read.

The kind of fiction we aspire to write.

*******

Expect, over time, to find articles on each of the elements of fiction at The Editor’s Blog. Some articles may define an element, others may give suggestions for using an element to its best advantage.

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7 Responses to “The Elements of Fiction—The Basics & Beyond”

  1. Abraham says:

    it is a good description about the elements of a fiction.

  2. Thank you, Abraham. I’m glad you found the article helpful.

  3. ghodbane says:

    i liked it but the prb is how to cite it in my PhD
    AM assistant teacher A teaching creative writing during three year to third year LMD students at Batna University, Algeria i would be thankful to send you a questionnaire about a program i ve designed myself to teach CW.
    it is a helpful one
    BEST REGARDS
    Miss ghodbane

  4. Mhar Jhune says:

    Are there any existing short stories lacking the five elements of a short story?

  5. Mhar, I don’t have that kind of information on short stories, but it’s likely that some don’t have a strong or pronounced theme. The purpose of some literary short stories may be to make the reader think by setting up a situation and then purposely not drawing conclusions about the human condition for that reader.

    So a short story could be open ended, in a sense, leaving the reader wondering, unable to detect a theme.

    As for plot, setting, and character, stories are about people (or one person) doing something in some place. Those three fiction elements are pretty much required. Otherwise you’d be creating something other than a fiction short story.

    As for the fifth element, there’s some disagreement about what that element is in short stories. Some say it’s conflict and some say it’s point of view. The disagreement could be easily solved by acknowledging that there are six elements of a short story.

    Do all stories need conflict? I say yes, but others might disagree, at least with some explanation. Slice of life stories may have no conflict, but they also don’t have a plot. They’re not actually stories, just a picture of someone’s life at one moment in time.

    Do all stories need a point of view? Well, all stories will have one, so that’s definitely a yes.

    So maybe a short story won’t have a theme, but to make it a short story—by the definition of short story—it should have all the other elements.

    You’d probably find plenty of short stories without a theme, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t find any that lack the other elements. Anything lacking those elements would be something other than a short story.

    —————-
    This is the short answer, Mhar. I’m sure there are arguments to be made for or against my conclusions.

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