The Elements of Fiction Every Author Needs to Know
Every story ever told—from those told around a fire to bestsellers printed in ink—can be boiled down to a handful of essential elements. Yes, storycraft is an art. But like a painter needs to understand color theory, the pros and cons of different paints and mediums, and how to actually transform their thoughts into art, we authors need to understand the fundamentals of our work.
Now, this isn’t homework, nor is there some kind of test at the end. The absolute best way to become a literary Avatar (master of all elements, for my fellow nerds), is to keep reading and writing, things you should already be doing on a regular basis.
And things you love doing, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t be here!
Let this article serve as a sort of introduction to these elements. We’re going to shed some light on these fundamentals so you know what to look for and practice.
We’re going to illuminate:
Which means we’re covering all those things we learned back in high school but deeper, through the lens of an author.
Because, at the end of the day, we’re going to take all of these elements and write something worth reading. So let’s chat about the fundamentals.
An Overview of the Key Elements of Fiction
Before we dive into each of these elements individually, I want to give you a brief overview of what these fundamentals are. I’m not too proud to think some people are only looking for a few sentences answering their “What are the elements of fiction?” Google search, so here are the Spark Notes for that crowd (and to establish a baseline understanding, of course).
My friend Hank over on the Story Craft Café podcast interviewed best-selling urban fantasy author Jim Butcher, who said you can’t have an epic plot with bad characters.
While stories are a series of actions with a beginning, middle, and end, characters are what bring our tales to life and get our readers invested in what we write.
Good characters are well-rounded and dynamic, usually showing growth or change over the course of the story. They have distinct personalities, backgrounds, and are driven by their own desires and fears.
The plot is the sequence of events that unfolds in your story. It's what happens, and in what order. A good plot is well-paced, logically structured, and keeps the reader engaged from the beginning to the end. It's made up of a series of events that are connected by cause and effect.
That doesn’t mean a good plot is predictable, though. We’re going to chat more about plot structure further into this article, but know for now that writing a good plot means understanding the flow of storytelling while being able to put your own spin on it.
Plot and characters work hand-in-hand. And while bad characters will derail a great plot, you still need a great plot to give good characters something to work within.
The setting is where and when your story takes place. It can be as vast as a galaxy or as small as a single room. A well-crafted setting can immerse readers in your world, making it feel lived-in and real.
Setting can refer to both the backdrop of an individual scene and the larger world where your entire story takes place. The latter is more about worldbuilding, which has its own elements and nuances, where the former has more of a direct and immediate impact on what’s happening in the scene your reader is immersed in.
There are two types of conflict: external and internal.
External conflict is tied to your larger plot. It’s the thing your protagonist and their friends are trying to overcome to accomplish their external goals. Think winning a war, getting a promotion, or winning back the love of their life.
Internal conflict goes on in the hearts and minds of our characters. This inner strife makes their goals impossible until they are addressed (or succumbed to).
You need both of these conflicts to work together to make a compelling read.
Point of View
Who tells your story has a major impact on how much your reader enjoys it. Point of view can be broken down into these four types:
First person: Using pronouns like I and we, first-person POV is told by a character through their eyes and experiences. It offers a more intimate type of story.
Third-person omniscient: This kind of narrator is like an outside observer who is privy to the thoughts and motivations of the characters. Using he/she/they, this POV gives us a larger view than first-person.
Third-person limited: This is still third-person narrating (so it uses he/she/they) but it is closer to a particular character in any given scene. The narrative voice is influenced by that character and we are only given insight into their thoughts and feelings.
Second person: The least used type of narration, this POV uses “you” to immerse the reader in the story. It’s tough to pull off, especially in large doses, but it can be excellent if done right.
While we aren’t diving further into POV in this article, each of those above links will take you to an in-depth look at your perspective options.
An important part of characters is their communication which, primarily, is through dialogue. Dialogue encompasses how they speak, their word choice, the conversations they choose to have (or avoid), and more.
But it’s more than just talking. Dialogue helps progress the plot and contributes to character arcs and changes. It can reveal secrets, develop themes, and be an important part of conflicts.
Most importantly, writing believable dialogue isn’t easy. It takes practice, nuance, and revision.
Like POV, we won’t be going into the minutiae of dialogue in this article. But we cover everything you need to know in this dialogue guide.
The theme of your novel is the underlying message or deeper meaning of your story. It's what you're saying about life, society, human nature, etc.
Even more importantly, themes elevate your novel from good to great. Hear me out: you can have the best characters and plot, but your book will only be entertaining. And that’s fine, don’t get me wrong.
But sprinkle in a developed theme and suddenly your book means something. It makes it so much more memorable for your readers and sticks with them in a way characters and plot can’t on their own.
Characters and Character Development
Aside from walking (or stumbling) through your plot, your characters double as a guide for your readers. They invite your audience to experience your story with them, and the changes your characters go through help your readers vibe with your plot and themes.
Within this element of fiction are four deeper elements… elements within elements. Core characteristics, one might say. Or elements squared, if you want to have fun with it.
Goals - This is the driving force behind your character’s actions. It’s the endpoint they strive to reach. It propels the narrative forward and provides a framework for their development. This goal could range from tangible objectives like solving a mystery or saving the world, to intangible ones like seeking love or self-acceptance.
Motivation - This is the single most important part of any main or secondary character. Underlying every goal is motivation—the why behind the what. Motivations are born from the character's background, personality, and experiences. If your readers can’t understand your character’s motivation, they won’t be able to connect with them.
Well-rounded traits - To create compelling characters, they must be multidimensional. This involves a mix of strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Make your characters—from their mannerisms to their hairstyles—unique to help them cement themselves in your reader’s mind. For a character template with 100+ traits, click here.
Character arcs - A character arc is the transformation that a character undergoes from the beginning to the end of a story. It is intimately tied to your plot, the external conflict, and your character’s internal conflict. For a complete character guide arc, check out this article.
Plot and Plot Structure
I almost always catch a little flak whenever I mention “structure” to authors. The word carries a lot of weight that people think will drag down their creativity. That’s not the case.
Rather, understanding how to write a great plot means understanding how to leverage structure that almost every reader understands (even if subconsciously). That sounds a little out there, I know, but hear me out.
Meeting expectations - Understanding plot structure means we can meet our readers’ expectations. We introduce our protagonist and the stakes in the first act, go through wins and losses in the second, then confront the biggest obstacle and meet (or fail to meet) our goal in the climax.
Cohesive writing - It’s not just our readers who benefit from plot structures. We do, too! Understanding how stories are constructed means you’re able to write in a way that makes sense. When we’re so close and knowledgeable about our stories, it’s easy to wander and get lost. Understanding plot structure helps keep you on the path.
Sandbox, not structure - Because “structure” can have so much baggage, think more like the three-act story or the hero’s journey as a sandbox to play in. Yes, there are ultimately borders to the sandbox—things that will make sure you don’t spill your plot over the dirt and spend all your revisions shoveling it back up. But it gives you so much room and material to write your own unique story that no author should feel constricted.
The setting of your story grounds it in a particular time and place. This might be somewhere familiar to your reader (like a real-life city or location) or entirely fictional (like a fantasy world or alien planet of your making).
Like we discussed above, setting can refer to the “where” of an individual scene or the story as a whole. In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, we meet Frodo in the Shire, which introduces us to the light-hearted hobbits, but it’s all taking place with the backdrop of Middle-earth on the precipice of Sauron’s return.
No matter the scope of your setting, you should be thinking about more than just the physical surroundings of your story. The setting can influence the tone and mood of a particular scene and help reflect themes in subtle but effective ways.
Think about some of these details when crafting your setting:
Immersion - Whether your story is set in a fantasy kingdom or downtown Manhattan, you want to suck your reader in and make them feel like they’re in your character’s shoes. Describe not just what the setting looks like, but how it sounds, smells, feels, and even tastes. We default to visuals, but there is so much more to the world than that.
Reflection - Your setting doesn’t just stand alone. It should be relevant to both your characters and your plot, at least in some way. It can reflect or contrast with a character’s internal journey or act as an obstacle or an ally in their path. When you write or plan your settings, always ask yourself why you chose that location.
Authenticity and consistency - If your story is set in a real place or time, research is key. Historical accuracy or geographical details can lend authenticity to your work—and a lack of these can ruin your story for your reader. Oppositely, when creating a fictional world, consistency in your setting’s rules and details is absolutely vital for maintaining your reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Need yourself a guide to writing a setting? I’ve got you one right here.
Underneath all your characters, subplots, backdrops, and everything else you write are your themes. These are the foundational ideas and messages that run through a story and give it depth, meaning, and universal appeal.
Themes are subtle and sometimes subjective, but they are the things that your readers will remember for a long time (and hopefully tell their book club about).
They can be moral, informative, critical, or simply exploratory. A well-integrated theme elevates a story from a simple narrative to a piece that can inspire, challenge, and provoke thought.
Common themes like love, redemption, betrayal, and courage are timeless and universal because they speak to the human experience. Their familiarity can connect even a diverse audience by touching on shared feelings and experiences.
But it’s how you treat these themes in your story that will make it stand out.
We have a complete guide to writing themes, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
What’s important to you? - Think about the issues, questions, or ideas that you find compelling. The best themes often emerge from our own interests, beliefs, and experiences.
Start with characters and plot - Sometimes, themes emerge organically as you develop your characters and plot. As you write, ask yourself what larger issues or ideas your characters' struggles, conflicts, and resolutions might represent.
Use real-world issues - The best way to get a reader to connect with your theme is by drawing on something relevant that they’ve likely experienced or been exposed to. Think about how your story can parallel or shine a light on real-world issues.
Show, don’t tell - This is great advice for better writing in general, but it is extra important for themes. Use dialogue, action, symbols, motifs, and conflict to slowly piece your theme together over the course of your story rather than have someone say, “Friends are important!”
Go Beyond the Core Elements of Fiction
I’d love to say you’re completely equipped to go forth and write a bestselling book. And if you want to go get a few hundred words in because you’re inspired, I think that’s a great idea.
However, there is so much more to this craft we call writing that you can learn. Like… so much. You could spend weeks, months, or even years trying to get a handle on it all.
Which is why we have hundreds of articles just like this one over at DabbleU. No matter what aspect of writing you need help with, we probably have an article for you.
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