English RAnts

Element of Fiction


The First Element of Fiction: Character

In many ways, characters are the foundation for the entire work. Is there conflict? That’s going to involve the emotional and mental condition of your characters. Have you chosen a point of view? That’s you following specific characters as you tell the story. Your characters are the people through whom your reader experiences the tale, and the trick is to make those fictional characters feel completely real.

If your characters are flat, your readers will have trouble empathizing. But if your characters feel real and relatable, then your readers will eat your story up. Understanding what your characters do and say (and how other characters respond to them) helps to paint the fullest possible picture of your fictional creation.

The Second Element of Fiction: Plot

One small aside: plenty of folks would start this list with plot, not character. Both are fine. Your characters live inside your plot, but your plot revolves around your characters. I just put plot second in this list because when I write, my plot follows my characters, rather than the other way around. If you do it differently, there’s nothing to fear: you’re still right! (I could say “write,” but you might click the back button.)

Plot is like blueprints. Your plot, its connections, and its structure determine the way you shape your story. It includes the order in which your characters face things. It’s the organized structure, the thing that will end up in an outline on Wikipedia (with spoiler alerts, of course).

Generally, “plot” as a concept is split into five parts:

  1. Exposition or introduction, which establishes characters and setting.
  2. Rising action, which reveals the conflict. Now that your characters are established (along with some sense of what their “normal” looks like), you throw in the wrench and raise the stakes.
  3. Now comes the climax, also known as the turning point. This should be the greatest moment of tension in your story; everything is critical, with emotion and interest peaked. This is make-or-break, the moment when things matter the most.
  4. After that comes falling action, when things start to wind down. All that tension is actively being resolved. Your reader has a deep need for that resolution in this section, so make sure that when you “fix” the problems, you address the issues you’ve been carefully setting up.
  5. Finally, we have resolution. Don’t let the word fool you: this ending isn’t necessarily happy or sad. It means everything has been solved, and your conclusion arrives at the place where all the events of the plot have strongly led. It feels final, or at least, final enough that the reader can put the book down without flipping back through the pages to see if they missed something. Again, this doesn’t require a happy ending. It does require a satisfying one, even if you mean to continue in a sequel. If you’ve left any knots still tied, you’d better have a good reason why—and better make sure your reader has a clue that the answers are coming soon.

Before we move on, I want to circle back and remind you that you need conflict in your story. A lot of authors struggle with this since conflict is by nature deeply uncomfortable. However, every really good story has some kind of conflict—even if that conflict is purely an internal struggle with a heavy emotion.

Extra: If you want to dive deeper into writing an effective plot, I suggest reading the 5 Elements of Storytelling and What Is Plot?

The Third Element of Fiction: Setting

Setting is one of my personal favorite elements. This includes the physical location (real or invented) and the social environment of the story (including chronology, culture, institutions, etc.).

I love setting because, in many ways, it’s like a character. No, your setting doesn’t have feelings, but your characters are forced to interact with it everywhere they go and in everything they do. Your setting actually develops who your characters are.

It determines, among other things:

When designing your setting, it’s a good idea to have some idea how it all works. What’s the weather like? How does the economy function? Do they use money? Where does pancake batter come fruom?

Are you copying a historical culture? (And if you are, I highly advise looking for something that isn’t European. Mix it up! The world is a glorious patchwork of variety.)

Your characters have to swim through this world, so have fun with this. Creating your setting (also known as world-building) can be one of the most exciting parts of writing.

The Fourth Element of Fiction: Point-of-View

This is a fun and tricky tool to work with. POV determines things like tense and how much the reader gets to see. There’s first-person (I, my), second-person (you, your), and third-person/narrator (she, hers). There’s present tense (I see/she sees), past tense, (I saw/she saw), and even that cockamamie future tense nobody uses (I will see/she will see).

It’s the combination of these things that create an effective POV. So how do you choose?

It all depends on (1) the particular feel you’re going for and (2) how much your reader needs to see.

Variety is the spice of life, and you have the joy of mixing and matching as you need.

Study up on how these work, and you have a whole new set of tools to play with.

The Fifth Element of Fiction: Theme

Theme is a hidden element, but incredibly important: in essence, theme is what your story is REALLY about.

The plot is the outward details, e.g., “A son stands to inherit his father’s vast business empire, but only if he can prove himself to be a responsible adult by the age of 25.” Theme would be what it’s really about, e.g., “Growing up requires choices.” Or, “‘Family’ means more than wealth.” If you’re really good, you can even use a one-word theme, like love, truth, adulthood, etc.

Yes, all fictional books have themes, even if it wasn’t intentional. Even authors who aren’t aware of theme use it—personal beliefs on how the world works (or should work) always flavor the story.

The tricky thing about theme is it should rarely be bluntly stated in your work; the moment you do, your work slides into the “preachy” category. Of course, sometimes, you want folks to know what the purpose is up front, but if you can manage to make it subtle—to get that point across without ever frankly stating it—your readers will actually take it to heart a lot more deeply.

Think about it. Simply reading about something like statistics on autism might make you think, but entering into the story of a character struggling with it (such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) can do a lot more to help you really feel and understand the challenges and cultural barriers faced.  Effective stories are written by authors who knew the theme. What’s yours?

Some personal examples:

However, in all three books, I do what I can to make sure that readers don’t feel “moralized” at. Instead, I want the reader to emotionally arrive at these conclusions alongside the protagonists.

Effective stories are written by authors who know their theme. What’s yours? (Need help choosing one? Check this out: When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don’t Know.)

By the way, this “theme” concept has some nifty corollaries. A symbol, for example, shows up to represent individual details within the story (e.g., glass breaking at the moment a friendship fails), and a motif is a narrative element that shows up repeatedly throughout the tale (e.g., “Quote the Raven, ‘Nevermore’”). Read more here: The Difference Between Symbol and Motif.

The Sixth Element of Fiction: Style

Style is awesome. Style is needed. Style is the thing that makes your work stand out from everybody else’s, because in essence, it’s your “voice.”

You develop style by working on technique. Your syntax, word choices, and tone all contribute to this. Your style can demonstrate not only your voice as a writer, but is crucial to indicating details about your story and characters. Style shows accent and dialect, character intelligence and observation; it shows the underlying humor or drama of your piece. Your style is your unique flavor, and developing it will not only take your entire writing career, but is also one of the most rewarding activities as a writer.

Developing your writing style takes work; there are no short-cuts for this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

Final Thoughts on the Six Elements of Fiction

I know what you’re thinking: this seems like a lot. And you’re right, it is; however, if you’re an avid reader, I think you’ll find you’re already familiar with most of these concepts. The great stories you know and love all use them, and if you are passionate about your story, incorporating theme will not be as hard as it might seem.




When Gertrude Grew Great

Gertrude was just an average kid with an average life.  She lived in an average sized house in an average neighborhood in a totally typical town.  At home, she helped out just enough to slide by.  At school, she did just enough homework to stay out of trouble.  She had straight ‘C’s in all of her classes.

One day Gertrude’s teacher, Mr. Mister, stopped her after class.  “Gertrude,” he said, “I know that you can do better.  I’ve seen the work you do in class, and some of it is amazing… way better than ‘C’ work.”  Gertrude knew that there were moments when she did try a little harder than what everyone expected, like when she put extra elbow grease into some of the dishes to make them really sparkle; or, when she took extra time with her handwriting on a few problems of her homework to make it look fancy.  But she just didn’t have confidence in herself.  She didn’t really believe that she could change; in fact, she was scared by the thought of having the power to become whatever she wanted.  She had done just enough to get by for so long that being mediocre was her lifestyle.  She stopped listening to Mr. Mister about half way through and just nodded her head until he stopped.  Then, she walked out at an average pace.

That night, Gertrude had a dream.  It was ten years into the future and she was still living with her mom in her average neighborhood.  She could not find an average job, because even the average jobs were filled by above-average workers: people who did more than what was expected of them.  Gertrude loved her mom, but she wanted more for herself.  She wanted her own place, her own life.  A voice spoke in the dream: “The present is nothing more than the outcome of the choices made in the past.  The future will only be the results of the choices we make today.”  Gertrude began crying average sized tears, because she knew that she helped shape the world in which she lived, and the choices she made produced the options she had.  She woke up with her pillow wet.

Gertrude was relieved to be back in middle school.  She took a little more care in getting herself ready that morning, and she looked better than normal.  She tried harder in school, and she felt smarter than usual.  She helped more around the house, and she felt better than typical.  Soon the pattern of success replaced the pattern of mediocrity, and Gertrude became great at everything.  Sure, there were still lots of things that Gertrude struggled with, but just trying her best made her feel better when she didn’t succeed, and Gertrude even became great at failing by learning from her mistakes.

Ten years later, Gertrude lived in an average sized house in an average neighborhood in a totally typical town. She was just the average adult, working much harder than average to earn an average living.  But her happiness was above average, because her life was hers.  She still visited with her mom quite a bit.  But when she was done, she was happy to go to her own house.  Gertrude was living the great life.


“When Gertrude Grew Great”


  1. Author’s Purpose: entertain                               inform                                     persuade

Why did the author write this?

  1. Genre: ____________________________ Subgenre: ______________________________

Ex: Nonfiction, fiction, or folklore                                          Ex: Autobiography, science fiction, fable, informational writing, etc.

  1. Narrator’s Point of View: ______________________________________________________

1st-person, 2nd-person, 3rd-person objective, 3rd-person limited, or 3rd-person omniscient


4 & 5. Summarize the text:

Five key events from beginning, middle, & end.












  1. Exposition
  1. Setting:__________________________________________________________________________

When and where does the story take place?     

  1. Conflict: _________________________________________________________________________

Describe the conflict in the story.

  1. Rising Action: List some events that occur before the climax.
  1. _______________________________________________________________________________
  1. _______________________________________________________________________________





The turning point



Falling Action: List some events that occur after the climax.

  1. _______________________________________________________________________________
  1. _______________________________________________________________________________




When the conflict is solved