Just Creative Writing

The Four Elements of Fiction

Setting and Situation

No character exists in a vacuum. He operates against a backdrop of trouble that forces him to act. That backdrop, that external state of affairs, is your story situation…Dwight Swain

Setting provides an ongoing place for situation growth. Setting and situation work hand-in-hand to create a mood, tension, suspense, thus moving the story forward. Situation and setting complement each other. Once the situation is planted and begins to grow, settings will change and adjust to the emerging story.

The purpose of situation is to give the reader a logical starting point. Situation may be defined as the precise event from which the story evolves; it is the point where the main character begins to change; the point where the problem is introduced. Situation is that one event that occurs at a moment in time, from which all subsequent events and activities will arise.

The initial situation will remain the same in short fiction. In longer fiction, additional situations may be introduced in succeeding chapters/scenes as the story progresses, but all relate back to the original situation. When subsequent situations emerge and do not relate to the original situation, the story begins to unravel and becomes confusing and unfocused.

Situation evolves into movement and movement becomes the story. The opening situation will lead logically to conflicts and resolutions that will present the reader with a satisfying experience. It must be interesting enough to sustain its own growth, and it must be the correct event that will sustain the developing story through a variety of actions and reactions that will bring the characters to the logical conclusion of the story.

The further development of the story from that original situation depends upon the correct use of a variety of creative writing techniques, including dialogue, description, and narrative.

For the purpose of the discussion of beginnings, middles, and endings—the situation is the very beginning of the story. Often, fledgling authors will start the story at the wrong place; they will not recognize the situation that truly starts the story and either their story will go nowhere, or it will wander aimlessly before the author is able to corral it and get it on track. When that happens, the reader has already put the book down.

When a story does not start at the right place, it could wander for pages, if not chapters, before the writer gets to the true start (situation) of the story, and by that time, the reader is lost. Prologues, flashbacks, and backstory, although they may provide important detail about the character(s) or the story, can kill the story if they are out of place. The opening event can be huge such as World War II, or small such as a child chasing a ball into traffic; it might be two drivers passing each other on a lonely stretch of road, one simply raising two fingers in greeting to the other, but it is a singular event from which the story grows.

While many authors believe that plot is one of the elements of fiction, here we disregard plot at this point, and take the story down several notches to its most basic foundation: Situation. People read stories; they don’t read plots.

For a more detailed discussion of plot and the role it plays in writing, see the section in Part II on Beginnings, Middles, and Endings. 

Setting and Theme

…so you build your story world of these same sensory impressions—the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted. - Dwight Swain

The purpose of Setting is to give story a sense of place. A story does not take place in a vacuum, unless you are writing science fiction, in which case, the vacuum is the setting. Setting creates backdrop and mood to make a story both unique and convincing; it helps flesh out your characters, it helps provide answers to thematic questions. The degree of importance an author gives to the story’s setting should contribute to the story but not overshadow it or block its movement and progress.

Setting goes beyond just place and encompasses many facets, including:

• Location

• Era

• Season

• Weather

• The five senses

• Time of day

Setting will move and change throughout the story—whether a short story or lengthy tome, each scene may bring the reader into a different setting. The number of settings may vary with the length of the story. Short fiction may require only small differences in one setting and may require more specific description. Longer fiction may require greater differences in multiple settings. Regardless, the setting should remain transparent; it should wrap around the reader and provide the comfort or tension necessary for the scene.

Setting is the second most transparent of the four elements of fiction, second to theme. In order to accomplish this transparency, the author must use strong creative writing techniques to bring setting to life. One of the most effective yet least used techniques is focusing on the five senses. Writers frequently write what they see in their minds—the operative word being see and their focus falls on the visual. Wrapping setting around the reader is much more effective when more than one sense is used.

Setting is the element that should wrap itself around the reader; it should absorb the reader and make the reader comfortable in where they are in the story, and although readers will know the setting, it will be transparent to them. No reader wants to open a book, read five pages, and say, “Oh, I’m at Antietam, Maryland, during the Civil War.” The reader should know this but not allow it to draw her away from the story.

Do not over-detail the setting. Give the reader enough information to know where she is in the story, but not so much that the setting overpowers the story. Solid, crisp detail will make the story believable.

The words used will bring setting to life, or bury it. Setting comes to life in the mind’s eye by the use of active words and phrases versus passive words and phrases, e.g., (a thundering eighteen-wheeler careening around the curve on the rain-slick road, instead of a trucker driving fast on a wet street). Setting, although it changes throughout the story as the scenes change, still provides a set location for the story’s theme. Setting must be in keeping with theme, for example:

• A sailboat in a hurricane (man against the elements)

• A young woman alone on a dark country road (fear’s effect on rational judgment)

Theme dwells in the setting of the story and the theme’s transparency will ebb and flow as the setting changes. The setting may be location, weather, time of day, day of week, month of year, season, era, etc., but will be clarified by the theme. If setting is not well defined, it is likely that theme may remain ill-defined as well.

Situation and Theme

Almost every story makes some point or illustrates some philosophy advocated by the writer. A story’s theme is an underlying idea…that runs through your tapestry…NRI Schools

Theme is the Aboutness of the Story, It is the element that is the basis for every story; the fertile soil that feeds and supports the story throughout. It is the central idea around which the story evolves. When the publisher, agent, or editor asks the writer what his story is “about,” they aren’t asking for a five-page synopsis. They are asking about the story’s theme.

Theme may be vague or it may be obvious, and it frequently relates to the author’s passion, or at the very least, his interest. It may be something that bubbles up from his personal experience such as abuse (animal, spousal, child), or it could be based on a dream or goal (man against the elements). It always gives the story purpose, relates to the story’s other main elements, and provides the author with a means to communicate with the reader. The vagueness of theme may be intentional on the part of the author to avoid the perception of preaching or he may wish to leave the understanding of the story’s aboutness to the reader.

Theme can be summed up in a single word, such as jealousy, guilt, vanity, greed, forgiveness, love, hate, or it can be a phrase such as “love conquers all,” “crime doesn’t pay,” or “love will win in the end.” At most, the author should be able to convey theme in no more than two sentences. Genre fiction may have more obvious themes that relate more closely to the story and are more specific and bubble up closer to the surface of the story. Genre themes may not require a great deal of consideration on the part of the reader, but they nonetheless must remain honest to the story from beginning to end.

When considering theme, the writer should anticipate questions from the reader and be prepared to answer them. Why is this important to me? What have I learned about? If the author’s theme is a passion, then the aboutness of the story will rise to the top, and when the reader has completed the book she will be satisfied that her question(s) have been answered. If the theme is less passion and more genre driven, the reader will still reach the same conclusion to her questions. If the message, or theme, is unclear or does not carry through the entire story, the story will be unfocused and will appear to ramble with no set direction or clear message.

Regardless of the theme or where it arises from, one thing remains static—the theme cannot change from the beginning of the story to the end. If the reader arrives at the end of the story and determines that the theme has changed, the chances are the original theme has bolted, and a secondary one has stepped in to take its place. If the theme does not clearly relate to the other three primary elements of fiction, the story will wander.

Situation grows from theme. The writer must develop the initial situation into a full-blown story that carries the theme to its logical conclusion. Without theme, there is no situation; without situation, there is no story.

A writer has a set number of paragraphs or sentences in which to capture the reader’s attention and maintain it throughout the story. On average, it is five paragraphs for a novel, five sentences for a short story. In order to achieve the goal of keeping the reader turning the pages, the writer must be certain that the situation from which the story grows is the correct one. Those opening sentences and/or paragraphs must engage and inform the reader as to the story’s meaning.

Theme is the soil in which the situation is planted. The theme is the thesis of the story, and the writer develops the situation to expand upon the theme. The story is structured through the use of conflict, and cause and effect, to provide a clear understanding of the author’s thematic message. Situation will develop into story if the theme is consistent throughout.