18 Elements of Fiction Writing

What every writer must know and use to write truly compelling fiction.

The elements of fiction are the basic principles.

These are the basic and most important concepts to be learned in order to write good compelling fiction.

The following are 18 of the most important elements of fiction and should be considered;

The foundation for writing compelling fiction.

(Note: there are a number of words and concepts that I do not mention on this page such as "characterization", "dialogue", "suspense", etc. Because these concepts are not elements of fiction but rather techniques. They will therefore be addressed on other pages.) elements of fiction


1. The valuable final product of fiction writing is a "STORY".

This is by far the single most important of all the elements of fiction. elements of fiction

That word, "STORY" is the front door to the entire subject.

The understanding of exactly what a story is, what it does, and why it works that way, should be the foremost concern of every fiction writer. elements of fiction

Upon the understanding of this piece of magic we call "STORY" rests not only all our hopes and dreams as writers, but the needs and desires of our readers.

To the degree we understand "STORY", we can understand all the other elements of fiction. elements of fiction


2. Definition of the word "story".

When we think of the elements of fiction this one should have been the simplest of all. But I discovered it was so poorly defined as to be virtually missing. Compare the following definition against your dictionary and you'll see what I mean. elements of fiction

story - a fictional narrative; consisting of an introduction leading either to an event (or two causally related incidents, culminating in an event) and ending with a conclusion of the premise of the narration.elements of fiction

The two basic story structures are: the "short story" consisting of an introduction, event and a conclusion, and the "long story" (such as a novel, play or feature film) consisting of an introduction, first incident, second incident, event, and conclusion. These two structures are also referred to respectively as "One Act" and "Three Act" stories however, it can be seen that the One Act story consist of three, and the Three Act story consists of five major components.

(See - special definitions of 'incident' and 'event' as these two terms are not synonyms.)

(Note: this definition will not be found in any dictionary; however, it is quite workable. All dictionary definitions [even the oldest ones] were found to be partially or completely unworkable.

A full discussion of this definition and how it was derived will be found in a series of articles in the "Members Only" area of this site, in the Manual, and the Unabridged Fiction Writer's Dictionary.elements of fiction

One will need to fully study and understand the definitions of "incident" and "event" which can also be found in the above locations and materials.)

This is the second most important of the elements of fiction -- because only to the degree that one knows what they are trying to create can one go about creating it. elements of fiction


3. To tell a story, one must first have a story to tell.

Considering the elements of fiction; this one is a sleeper. It goes unnoticed until we try something like; telling our child a bedtime story that we make up as we go along.elements of fiction

There are a number of ways to to get a story to tell. I discuss a few of them in various articles including one very promising methodology that I call The Story Engine.elements of fiction

But even my Story Engine balks at making up a story at the same time it's being told.

The key point here is: however one comes by the story is relatively unimportant.elements of fiction

What is important is that -- one has a story before attempting to tell a story. elements of fiction


4. To have a story to tell, one must first have something to say.

"Something to say" is best defined by Lajos Egri, in The Art of Dramatic Writing. Egri calls this, "something to say" a premise.

Egri defines a premise as: "a universal, self-evident, truth".

That’s kind of a mouthful. Very accurate, but for those of us less highbrow we can think of it simply as, "Why are we telling this story? What’s the point?"

To actually be a "story", the narration must be illustrating a point.elements of fiction

The main point is the premise; a lesser point that may also permeate the story might be considered the theme.

In terms of the elements of fiction; when this one is ignored or misapplied it results in episodic tails that go on, and on, but lead to nothing more than a yawning audience.


5. Writing is not just one activity.

"Writing" is 8 separate and distinct activities. Each of which has it own rules, methodologies, tips and techniques. This of all the elements of fiction is so important that if you miss this point, it will drive you nuts.

  1. Story Conception
  2. elements of fiction

    This is where one gets that spark of an idea. It's just the seed of a concept. It could spring from a "what if?" type question. It could be triggered by current events, a TV show, a book, a conversation, literally anything can trigger it. But what is it - exactly?

    It's a juxtaposition of two or three ideas, people or events that suddenly come together in our minds eye suggesting something that we've not thought of before or at least not in that way. It often goes by the name of inspiration. It's usually an insight into why or how something is the way it is.

    It could be an idea like; Criminals secretly want to get caught, or Although kids join gangs for protection, invariably their gang membership winds up killing them, or Tragedy can destroy a family, or Tragedy can bind a family together and make them stronger, etc. But at this point it's just an idea.elements of fiction

    As writers we think these thoughts all the time. Sometimes they are compelling enough, and interesting enough, that we feel we could or should write a story about it.

    But not understanding this and the next two elements of fiction is usually where the problems start. Without a system to harness, channel and shape this inspiration into an effective narrative, we either get stuck in repetitive rewrites (if we even finish a first draft) or our story wanders off and eventually falls over a cliff of confusion and indecision. If you've been writing for any amount of time you know what I mean - because you have several unfinished "projects" in files or boxes that went that route; from inspiration, to frustration, to lack of interest.

    (Note: the Story Engine can resurrect those unfinished projects so that they can be finished.)elements of fiction

    One way to get from the bright idea (this flash of insight) to an effective narrative is to run the idea through the next step (Story Design) before attempting to jump into the Composition phase.

    Skipping over the design phase is probably the largest single reason that projects are not finished, or if finished, fail.

  3. Story Design
  4. This is a vital step in the elements of fiction. A story design is merely a statement encompassing the major story components (introduction, first incident, second incident, event, and conclusion) aligned with a premise and addressing the; who, what, when, where and why that will be elaborated in the narrative. The shorter the better. Usually a paragraph of 50-75 words will do it nicely.

    The premise is the thread which runs through the narrative and ties together all the story components into a unified whole.

    One can either start with a premise and then work out the major components, or work out the major components and then observe what premise they seem to add up to. Whichever way one starts it's more efficient to work out and align all the major components here, before moving on to the Composition stage. elements of fiction

    A good story design gives one the basic structure of the proposed narrative. It should be as short and succinct as possible. Any major component that is not worked out in the story design will have to be worked out in the composition phase. This practice however, is the major cause of unnecessary re-writing and failed stories.

    I created a system, to help with this design phase, which I call a "Story Engine". It's a simple methodology for developing an idea from conception through design that seems quite effective at producing workable story designs. I discuss the theory and application of this story engine and the design phase in greater detail in a series of articles. But at this point we just need to realize that having a design of the narrative we intend to write before we move into the composition phase, helps prevent a number of headaches normally associated with writing fiction.

    Systematizing the process helps us write better fiction, faster and with less stress and frustration.

  5. Story Composition
  6. This is where you actually sit down and "tell" the story. Typing the words onto the page that convey the images into the mind and heart of the audience.

    This is the part that everyone calls "writing", but notice that there are two steps that come before. Those two steps are crucial elements of fiction. Collapse these three into one activity - trying to make it all up as you go - and you’re a candidate for the "rubber room".

  7. Story Editing
  8. This is where the writer enlists the aid of a person (other than himself) to check the actual manuscript against his/her goals and objectives for the story.

    Outpoints are noted, corrected and the manuscript is "edited" again until the structural points are all aligned and working properly to create the effect desired.


    These elements of fiction, when not understood, leave the writer trying to do all four activities, all at the same time - which leads to ulcers, rejection slips and that haunted look.

    One other note about this all important subject of editing; Much of what passes for "editing" is nothing more than glorified proofreading (see below). When what editing should be is a careful analysis of Story Structure.

    A good Editor will work from the top down starting with the premise then the sequence of incidents leading up to that all important event; and, still working form the top down, proceed to plot, characterization, dialogue, etc.

    But this is only possible to the degree that the "Editor" understands the elements of fiction.

  9. Story Proofreading
  10. This is where the manuscript is checked and corrected for typos, misspellings, punctuation, formatting errors and typographical inconsistencies.

    Obviously one would want to make any editorial changes before proofing the manuscript for typos.

    This is considered one of the elements of fiction because typos of any form tend to break the willing suspension of disbelief and knock the reader out of the story.


At this point the author needs to decide between two paths -- conventional publishing (with or without an agent), or self-publishing.

In either case the next step is marketing, but the above choice will determine exactly what type of "marketing" the author needs to employ.


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  • Marketing
  • This is where the manuscript is presented to agents, and/or publishers for publication - if going the conventional publishing route. This includes the preparation of, synopsis, cover letter, chapter outline, etc.

    Part of the pre-publication process is sending copies out to reviewers and purchasing agents for libraries.

    Marketing is a vital component of the elements of fiction, because only to the degree that one understands what the audience is actually "buying", can one hope to understand how a specific piece of fiction might be sold to them.

    No sales -- you don’t eat.

    All marketing starts with the question of: "How can I sell this to my prospective customers?"

    If writers started their projects from the perspective of "marketing", they would sell a great deal more of what they wrote.

  • Manufacturing
  • This is where the manuscript gets turned into an actual book that can be distributed, purchased and read by customers of bookstores, whether on-line or off-line.

    The manuscript is uploaded to a printer for the printing and binding process, through a publishing company or by the author himself, if self-publishing.

    This process includes: cover design, back matter, page layout, physical book size, pricing, ISBN and bar code, and several other similar decisions and actions.

  • Sales
  • This is where the author conducts various actions that cause the sale of his book in quantity to the buying public.

    The elements of fiction are even at work here, because the prospective reader must be assured that your story is going to deliver what he/she wants.

    How does the author accomplish this?

    See the pages devoted to "Selling More Fiction" and the article "The Book Must Sell Itself".


    A key point to understand here --

    Neither publishers, book stores, nor websites actually sell books -- they only display and offer books for sale. HUGE DIFFERENCE!

    This point must be very clearly understood if the author hopes to sell any books.

    It is up to the individual author to actually cause people to reach for and buy his book.

    No one else does this critical function. Perhaps, no one else can.


    The above is only a summary of the elements of fiction as they relate to creating and selling a story. As such it is only a short list, covering the basic sequence and the components of each step.

    Obviously there is a great deal more that can be said about each step.

    The above points are related, with one flowing into the other, but they do not mix well. For example:

    1. When you are composing -- just compose.
    2. When you are editing -- just edit.
    3. When one mixes editing and composition together, this results in "writer's block".
    elements of fiction
    6. A story is a specific thing.

    Story structure is dictated by purpose.

    Purpose, structure, and method of transmittal, collectively are what make it a "Story".

    A Story is not just a collection of stuff that happened - no mater how "dramatic".

    Too many writers confuse originality with good storytelling and wind up violating the elements of fiction in an attempt to be new, original, and clever. Huge mistake!

    The two biggest mistakes are the use of overly complex verbiage or the lack of a good, well structured story to tell in the first place.

    One can't compensate for a lousy or inadequate story through the clever use or words.

    All the reader really wants is; a good story, well told. And neither of those have anything to do with obscure words or complex sentences.

    A good story design with just average execution will sell far more books than a lousy story design festooned with pompous alliteration. It's the story the reader is buying not our flowery prose.

    We can see where that's gotten the poets. elements of fiction


    7. How long should it be?

    That’s like asking how long a piece of string should be. Just long enough. Long enough to do its job - and no more. Too short for the task - it simply doesn’t work. Too long, and the excess is not only wasteful but it gets in the way -- it could be a hazard.

    Readers won’t tolerate excess - stuff that's un-needed.

    If there is a shotgun in act one it better go off by act three -- otherwise why is it there? We are reminded of the importance of Story Design.

    When most people are talking about a book being "good" they are actually referring to good story design.

    Writers often think they need to "write" better, meaning better word choices, when what they need is better story design.

    If one gets nothing more out of these Elements of Fiction than this single point, they will be miles ahead of the typical writer. elements of fiction


    8. One can’t write a story - the same way that a reader reads a story.

    This is one of those elements of fiction that trips the new write up, every time.

    One can’t simply start composing; chapter one, page one and write through to the end. At least not if you expect large numbers of people to read your novel.

    Although this is one method for figuring out what the story is. But it doesn’t work very well for the composition phase of actually "telling" a good story, well.

    And when writers try to "compose" this way we get the datum that, "writing, is re-writing"; which comes from those who employ this methodology for creating the story that they want to tell.

    Because after they have written the whole thing (by way of figuring out what the story actually is) they then need to re-write it again to change it all around into a workable story structure.

    But it is fare harder and more time consuming to re-write than it is to simply write it right in the first place. elements of fiction


    9. Length guidelines.

    This is one of those elements of fiction that confuses writers (particularly new ones). But you will notice these are simply different "formats" for the same thing: a story. And the factor that separates one from the other is "time" -- the time span of the story. The longer the time span, the longer the story; the more pages; the bigger the book.

    That's really all there is to it.

    • Epic Novel -- spans many years, even decades
    • Long Novel -- large number of incidents
    • Short Novel -- smaller number of incidents
    • Short story -- only encompasses one event but must include a introduction to the event and the conclusion. Short stories and short short stories can span a few days down to a few hours.
    • Chapter -- This is a happening (something that happened) over a short span of hours or a day. The thing that happened was caused by something, it happened and the reaction to what happened leads to the next chapter. So, you have a sequence of cause, occurrence, and reaction which leads to cause, occurrence and reaction, which leads to... etc., etc.
    • Happening -- it looks like something's going to happen, character attempts to change or prevent it from happening, and his actions either succeed or fail, leading to the next happening.
    • Scene -- A chapter can have a small number of scenes. A scene is a few moments in time that take place in one location. If you change locations, it’s a different scene.
    You can look at it this way.

    • A story has a purpose -- to illustrate some point.

    • The chapters build that case -- each is a brick in that argument.

    • The scenes are statements that construct each brick.

    • Each piece aligns with all the other pieces to create the impression of the whole. Nothing extraneous added and nothing important left out.

    Considering how all these elements of fiction must fit together with each one influencing the other - is it any wonder that most "writers" finish little and publish even less without starting with a good story design?


    10. Purpose of storytelling.

    Stories are how a culture defines and transmits itself (its belief systems) forward in time. It accomplishes this through the stories it tells about itself. elements of fiction

    These stories contain more information, pound for pound, than "non-fiction" and work far better at "teaching".

    Stories "teach", "illustrate", or "show" by way of allegory.

    All stories are allegories by nature. elements of fiction

    This is another one of the elements of fiction that easily goes un-noticed; hidden behind the guise of "entertainment". But stories serve a fare greater purpose than simple distraction. They are how we attempt to understand who we are and what life is all about. As such they attempt to serve our most basic need - to understand. elements of fiction


    11. Defining the product.

    This is one of those elements of fiction that everyone takes for granted. We've been reading stories, and watching stories, and hearing stories our whole lives - so of course we THINK we know what they are.

    But that's like thinking we know how to make a pair of shoes just because we've been wearing them since we were two years old; or that we know how to build a car just because we ride in one every day.

    But one needs a far more exact and detailed definition of a shoe, or car, or story if we intend to make one, than if we are simply going to wear, ride, or read one.

    If you have the wrong product or a faulty definition of it, you won't get far.

    It’s as important to understand what is not a Story as it is to understand what is a Story.

    To completely understand something, one must have a datum of comparable magnitude to compare it to. (Which, by the way, is the primary purpose and function of "stories" - see allegory.)

    A story is not just a random sequence of happenings. (This is called "episodic" and is considered undesirable by readers and audiences.)

    Happening -- something that just happened. No significance, duration or finality.

    Incident -- a happening with duration and significance but no finality.

    Event -- an incident with finality.

    The finality and significance is what the storyteller adds to a sequence of happenings which makes them into a story.

    Life is just a bunch of "happenings". It is the storyteller who selects and sequences an assortment of happenings, and tells us what this sequence means - what it all adds up to.

    This simple structure and purpose is what defines what a story is and why they exist. elements of fiction


    12. We Must Learn How to Write!

    Learning how to write is the same as learning any other subject. It requires learning the theory and then applying that theory to the actual task of creating a Story.

    These elements of fiction are the elements of learning -- not only fiction, but any other subject or craft. The following is the correct sequence, with each item relying on and building on the one before it.

    1. Correct Nomenclature
    2. Correct Valuable Final Product
    3. Correct Tools
    4. Correct Raw Materials
    5. Correct Sequences
    6. Correct Techniques

    Each of the above is discussed in detail in other articles. One important note regarding this list: It works best if one cycles through the list repeatedly, practicing what one is learning by applying the concepts to the craft of writing stories.

    This is part of the elements of fiction because it will tell you where to look when you're having trouble.

    One cannot learn this craft or any other by JUST reading about the subject. One must apply the concepts in order to actually "learn" them. elements of fiction


    13. A story is not a finished thing.

    The reader co-creates the story. As the reader reads the story he/she fleshes out additional details that may or may not have been conceived by the writer at the time of the writing. Many of which may not even be "on the page".

    This is a normal and necessary mechanism of the writer/reader relationship.

    This is one of those elements of fiction that points to where the "magic", that is storytelling, happens and is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked of all the elements of fiction.

    Show too much and the audience feels talked down to, or gets bored. Show them too little and they feel confused. It's a balancing act.

    Get it right and everyone is happy. Get it wrong and we get rejection slips instead of checks in the mail. elements of fiction


    14. The writer controls the reader.

    The writer controls the reader by directing their attention, and causing the them to think AND feel a certain about way about what they are "seeing" and experiencing.

    The writer causes us, for example, to get a mental image picture of a cat. And he/she tells us what to think of that cat - smart, dumb, sinister or silly.

    The audience does not object to being controlled, they only object to being BADLY controlled.

    Don't tell the audience the cat is dumb one moment and clever the next. This confuses the audience and they don't like to be confused.

    This is one of the elements of fiction because we need to understand exactly what we are attempting to do with the reader. Simply put we are attempting to control his/her attention with our story. elements of fiction


    15. The unwritten contract.

    Of all the elements of fiction, this one goes completely unmentioned by many books on the subject and yet it is vital to understand.

    There is an unwritten contract between the reader and the novelist or between the listener and the storyteller.

    If the writer fulfills that contract, the reader will be satisfied and will buy more stories (novels, plays or movies).

    If the writer fails to fulfill that contract the reader will be dissatisfied and will thereafter avoid that writer's books.

    Therefore, understanding the writer/reader contract is very important for any aspiring writer.

    The simplest statement of the contract is: Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

    In this case "telling" means to illustrate or show.

    This gives us our most basic look at the beginnings of story structure and shows why it's one of the elements of fiction.

    • Tell them what you're going to tell them -- is the introduction.
    • Tell them -- is the event, or two incidents and the event.
    • Tell them what you told them -- is the conclusion.
    Obviously we can't tell them what were going to tell them - and then tell them something else. That would violate the contract.

    Equally; we can't neglect to tell them, what we told them. That also is a violation of the contract.

    This is another example of why we need a good story design, before we start composing. Otherwise we could wind up chasing butterflies and forget what point we were trying to illustrate with our narrative. elements of fiction


    16. The opening of the story is very important -- but
    the ending is even more important!

    Why is it that no one talks about this element? It's one of the most important of the elements of fiction.

    • Beginning -- you must hook the reader and form the contract.

      Which is what causes the reader to buy the book in the first place - and read it in the second place.

    • Ending -- The reader must feel the contract was fulfilled. The ending is where the reader actually gets the product, because it concludes the premise originally posed in the beginning. And it answers the question -- What does it all mean? or, Why are you telling me this story?
    Again we are back to the beginning. To be a "story", the narration must illustrate a point and the best point to illustrate is a Universal Self Evident Truth.

    The premise is the point the storyteller is illustrating with the narrative. The conclusion of the story; not only concludes the action but it concludes the premise. Hence the conclusion of many of our best stories are seen to "point" back to the beginning of the story.


    17. Life has no meaning, except that which we ourselves give it.

    And that meaning is provided by artists.

    That is the definition of Artist. One who illuminates, defines, and comments, on life through some medium of aesthetics.

    An artist is one that bestows meaning on life. The artist directs our attention to something and at the same time causes us to think and feel a certain way about what they have caused us to see and experience.

    In that way, the Artist tells us what life means or some aspect of life.

    The Elements of Fiction define the relationship between Art and Literature. elements of fiction


    18. Writing (particularly fiction) is the most powerful, complex and difficult to master of all the fine arts.

    This statement is not an attempt to lessen in any way the value or beauty of the other fine arts. It's just a simple fact.

    Mastering the elements of fiction is like the ancient Oriental game of "Go", of which it is said, "Only a few minutes to learn the rules - a lifetime to master them."


    Those are the 18 Elements of Fiction Writing.

    Study them, understand them and use them, and...



    Write on...

    Richard A. McCullough

    The Truth about Self Publishing

    "Self Publishing – the Dangerous Opportunity"
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      Self Publishing




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    copyright 2010 - Richard A McCullough is the creator & editor of http://www.write-better-fiction.com the Fiction Writers source for Writing Better Fiction Faster and Selling More of What You Write.

    Copyright - you may freely republish this article, provided the text, author's credit, active links and this copyright notice remain intact. The above is a summary of the elements of fiction. Each point is explored in detail in one or more of the 250+ articles regarding the subject of writing fiction contained in the article archives, books, and lectures of the author.


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