Just Creative Writing

The Elements of Fiction

Over the next few weeks we will discuss the four elements of fiction - character, setting, situation, and theme and how they relate to one another to create a strong story arc. Today I'm posting the Introduction to my book: The Four Elements of Fiction: Character, Setting, Situation, and Theme. This lays the groundwork for further discussions detailing the secondary creative writing techniques.


You fail only if you stop writing. Ray Bradbury

When personal computers came on the scene in the mid-1980s, a saying came along with them—“Everyone who owns a computer thinks they can write a book.” No doubt meant to be a derisive comment, it should be approached from another angle. We human beings are storytellers—we stand around water coolers, sit at the kitchen table, meet at the tailgate party, and we tell tales. So anyone who owns a computer should write a book or a short story or an essay or whatever. The key to moving that activity from the computer to the book is in understanding what goes into effective creative writing.

That understanding must start before we begin learning about creative writing techniques such as character development, dialogue, story construction, suspense techniques, and more. It starts down at the very basic foundational elements upon which a story is built.

While I encourage authors to write whatever cries out to be written, the next few weeks will focus the discussion on the creative aspects of writing fiction.

The Basic Foundational Elements

Every story consists of four basic elements: Character, Setting, Situation, and Theme. The reader cannot read a story, nor can we write a story without having these four elements. How well we weave these elements together and then apply the techniques we have learned from the articles and books we have read or classes we have attended will determine the strength or weakness of a story.

If we google “elements of fiction,” we will get as many responses as there are writers in the world. Each author may define the term “elements” differently as he presents his own vision of the elements of fiction, but one thing about each of these results is the same—the information presented in these articles discusses the techniques required to write creative fiction, rather than focusing on the actual elements that form the foundation of a story and how they relate to one another. The explanations may be lengthy or simple; they may be concise or vague; the examples may add to the writer’s understanding of the technique being discussed, or confuse the writer, but the actual elements and how they relate to one another are conspicuously absent from many of these discussions.

Bookstores have entire departments dedicated to educating writers on how to write fiction. There are countless books available to us, regardless of our skill level, that are excellent and detailed and that provide exercises, examples, and references for the writer to explore. They provide a full understanding of what these techniques are and how to effectively use them in the story. While the books provide more detail than the articles on the Internet, the “hole” remains the same—they seldom discuss the connections between these techniques and the actual elements that form the solid foundation upon which a story thrives. Once we understand the four basic elements of his story, these references should be used to further understand these techniques that build on top of that foundation.

As writers, we each have our own set of goals. We may desire to craft a story that talks to the human spirit or addresses the human condition, or it may be a story that haunts us, and cries to be told. We recognize the importance of crafting a story that will keep the reader turning those pages far into the night and ensure that when she arrives at the end of the story, when she closes the book for the last time she says “Yes—that’s right!” and for two more days she keeps thinking back to the characters she met and the story they told.

To this end, there are only two types of books in the world.

1. The Shelf Sitter: This is the book that has rave reviews on the back of the jacket and a great photo on the front, and we pick it up expecting it to live up to those comments, but we get as far as page five, only to find ourselves thinking about dinner or going to a movie, or some other distraction interferes and has taken us away from the story. We retrace our steps, discover where we went astray, and start reading again. Two pages later, our mind has begun to wander again. We will do this only once or twice before we close the book and put it back on the shelf—waiting for that library book sale. We do not go back and try to read that story again.

2. The Page Turner: Each chapter of the Page Turner ends with a thread of suspense; this is the book that we open at nine o’clock at night with the intention of reading for only an hour, and at 3 a.m. we are still turning pages, and our mantra has become “just one more chapter…just one more chapter…”

Why does one engage us, and the other bore us?

To keep the reader turning the pages, we must construct our story based on a strong foundation using the four elements of fiction mentioned above. To effectively establish that foundation, we must understand that these elements do not stand alone—they must overlap and relate to one another; they must work together, and not until that is accomplished will the foundation be strong enough to carry the story. Once that foundation is established, we must then begin layering the story by applying correct writing techniques to weave the story together. The process is much like creating a paper-mâché structure where layers of paper and water and paste are continually applied until the structure takes shape and dries hard and sturdy. Once this structure is completed, the creative techniques are the methods that tie the elements together—the way in which character is exposed; place is made real; story is advanced, conflict is quickened and resolved; and theme is explored.

Building the Foundation

To build this foundation, we must look at each element individually and thoroughly, and ask ourselves how this element overlaps and works with the next element, and the next element, and the next element. If we cannot answer that question in every instance, then we must reevaluate that element. The relationships must work with all four elements, or the story will fail.

If we cannot determine the relationship between theme and setting, it does not mean the story is a failure—it means either the theme or the setting is wrong or incomplete and should be revisited. Sometimes a simple modification of one of the elements will result in an “aha!” moment for the writer. The key that opens the door to the construction of this foundation is our understanding of these relationships, both individually and collectively, and when those questions cannot be answered, we must have the intestinal fortitude to go back and find out which of the elements is not working.

Example: If the theme is man against the elements, then a setting in a bright, sunny garden must relate to that theme. If two women are sitting sipping tea, discussing the events of the day, their dialogue must relate to the underpinning theme.

Weaving the Techniques into the Elements

Let’s think about a plant:

Theme = the fertile soil

Setting = the pot

Situation = the seed

Character = the flower

The growth of this flower is dependent upon effectively weaving together this foundation by using primary creative writing techniques that include (in no particular order):

· viewpoint / point of view

· story construction through tension and suspense, conflict, and beginnings / middles / endings

· description by employing the five senses

· narrative and understanding the difference between passive versus active writing

· dialogue

· character development

In addition to these primary techniques, we may employ certain secondary techniques to further build upon the established foundation. How well we use these primary and secondary techniques to weave together the story will determine the success of the end product. When the foundational elements are not woven together to overlap one another, again and again, the story will unravel.

These secondary techniques include (again, in no particular order):

· the hook

· flashbacks

· backstory

· figurative language—irony, metaphors, similes, etc.

· avoiding grammar blunders that can kill a story

· punctuation

· facts—reality versus imagination

The question now becomes: How do we do this effectively?

Starting next week we will define in detail each of these four elements individually and discuss their relationships to the other elements. There will be some repetition, and that’s intentional.

Once we have completed those discussions, we will discuss in detail how we can effectively employ the primary and secondary creative writing techniques named above in order to begin the layering process and weaving the story into its solid foundation.

Stories should be transparent. It does not mean the story should be invisible—it means the story should engage the reader in ways that are not obvious. The reader should experience the story as it unfolds and to do that, we must establish a foundation that the reader knows is there without focusing attention on it. It is the transparency of the story that determines whether a book is a Page Turner or a Shelf Sitter.

Regardless of how many books you read about creative writing, no matter how many writers’ conferences you attend, or writers’ organizations you join—the real key to writing is…well…WRITING. If we are serious about wanting to put our story on paper and begin the arduous task of seeking publication, we won’t succeed if we don’t write. My goal in preparing these discussions is to help writers understand the relationship between the four primary elements of fiction and how to tie those elements together in a tight, well-written story by using creative writing techniques effectively. But we must remember: the first step toward our goal is to WRITE.

Next week we will talk about character, and how that element relates to the others and overlaps to begin constructing a strong foundation for our writing.