FICTION is a form of prose writing – that is, written in sentences and paragraphs – in which 1) all the details are made-up from the imagination of the writer, about 2) a problem in the life of a major character (the protagonist) and 3) answers the question “What happened?” through the details of Narration, as the protagonist tries to solve that problem.
While fiction ranges anywhere from the short-short story (as low as 100 words – or less, like micro-literary Tweets) to the novel (as high as 110,000 words – or more, like the saga novels of George R.R. Martin) most fiction have these SEVEN ELEMENTS OF FICTION:
GENRE in fiction is a category of story type that follows a specific formula.
If you go to any bookstore in person or online, you’ll notice that the booksellers sort the fiction into categories like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller, Action/Adventure, Mystery, Romance, Military, Historical Fiction, Literary, Christian, Young Adult Coming-of-Age – and so on. Every fiction genre has set rules for what’s expected in its stories’ setting, characters, and even storylines because readers of one type of genre expect to see them.
Of course, a fiction writer can cross genres, like Young Adult Horror Romance (for example, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series). For any beginner fiction writer, reading many novels in the genre or genres that you want to write is how to become familiar with the specific formula of that genre.
- 2. SETTING is the time and place of a story.
The setting of a story determines what resources are available to the people in the story. For instance, if the setting is 1980’s America, then we won’t have people looking up stuff on the Internet because the web wasn’t readily available to everyone until the mid-1990s. Also, the story’s genre helps determine setting, such as a high fantasy story having castles, rugged country-side with mountains, extreme cold seasons, and a Middle Ages-like technology that hasn’t invented electrical generation and flushing toilets yet.
Also, the story’s setting determines how the characters in the story speak. For instance, the characters in that aforementioned high fantasy story are unlikely to say, “Dude! This food is AWESOME!” Of course, they can, if two genres cross-over, like Realism, plus Fantasy (like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).
A NOTE ABOUT WORLD-BUILDING: As the absolute creator of your story’s setting, you can create a setting that has little similarity with the actual world. However, once you make a rule about that world, then you must be consistent with the rule you created.
For instance, let’s say that you have high, cold mountains where cat-eagles make their homes. When you write that a cat-eagle finds herself on a beautiful low-land shoreline, where the purple waters gently lap against the beach, then you must make her feel miserable because the air’s too warm and too thick for her mountain-adapted body. (An example of exceptional world-building is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.)
3. CHARACTERS are the people who play significant roles in the story; at minimum, a story needs a protagonist and an antagonist; in a longer story, we also find the protagonist’s foil.
A PROTAGONIST is the main character working through the problem in the story. While often called “the hero,” that doesn’t mean the protagonist is perfect. In fact, the more flawed the protagonist is (while still being likeable), the more the reader will be able to identify with the protagonist and, therefore, root more for his or her success. The most flawed version of the protagonist is the “antihero.” This kind of protagonist often has the personality of a selfish jerk, as seen by polite society, yet works hard against the real evil character, “the villain.”
An ANTAGONIST is the protagonist’s main obstacle or active enemy, against which the protagonist struggles. While often called “the villain,” that doesn’t mean the antagonist has to be absolutely evil. In fact, the more complex the antagonist is (while still being repugnant), the more the reader will see the antagonist as real-to-life and, therefore, wonder how he or she became the story’s villain instead of another antihero.
If the antagonist is NOT another person (like the forces of nature or the protagonist’s own troubled psyche), then the protagonist often succeeds against this type of antagonist by making peace with it, according to the logic of the story.
The FOIL are the secondary characters who serve as contrasts to the protagonist and therefore make clear the important characteristics of the protagonist (in contrast to his or her foil, who display the opposite characteristics).
The foil can be friendly to the protagonist, such as a sidekick, assistant, or companion; the foil can also be hostile to the protagonist, such as the antagonist’s minion or an ineffectual minor bully.
4. CONFLICT is the clash of the protagonist against an antagonist and, secondarily, his or her foil.
CONFLICT is the driving force behind the story; without it, you may write narrative prose, but it will read more like an essay than a story. The four main types of conflict are these:
Protagonist against another person (often called “Man vs. Man”) *
Protagonist against hostile natural forces in air, land, sea, weather, climate (often called “Man vs. Nature”)*
Protagonist against stagnant, societal forces (often called “Man vs. Society”)*
Protagonist against his/her own troubled psyche (often called Man vs. Self”)
*There are two variations to these three non-self conflicts: One is Protagonist against the supernatural, either in the form of a supernatural person (Man vs. Man) or a hostile supernatural force (Man vs. Nature). The other is Protagonist against technology, again either in the form of a machine person ( Man vs. Man) or techno-societal forces (Man vs. Society).
The more complex the characters, then the more likely the story will have two or more concurrent conflicts. Even in a “stranded on a deserted island” story with only one person, we’ll have at least two conflicts: b) protagonist against the hostile natural forces of the island and d) protagonist against his/her own psyche troubled with fear, loneliness, and despair.
5. STORY is the timeline of everything the reader needs to know to make sense of what happened.
While the terms “story” and “plot” may seem the same, they are not, especially when a writer first thinks of a story in a journal. The story’s events, as laid out in a timeline, are in chronological order, with the beginning of the protagonist’s life starting the chain of events, leading to the most recent event in the timeline.
For example, the story of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be Danish teenager Prince Hamlet, adored by Ophelia (the teenage daughter of his dad’s royal advisor, Polonius) and happy in his little family of his mom (Queen Gertrude) and his dad (King Hamlet Sr.) While Hamlet is away at college, his uncle Claudius (who is also Hamlet Sr.’s brother) poisons his dad and quickly marries his mom, therefore becoming king. Returning home, Hamlet sees his dad in ghost form, who tells him to avenge his death. And the rest anyone can look up online.
What’s notable in this brief explanation is that the actual play Hamlet does NOT start with the happy story of Hamlet’s life before his dad’s murder even though that part of Hamlet’s life is the earliest event in Hamlet’s personal story. Instead, Shakespeare decided to start the play with the one event that changed everything in Hamlet’s life – the ghost-dad revealing his own uncle murdered his dad AND Hamlet’s supposed to kill his own uncle as revenge. Shakespeare’s decision to start his play this way brings us to PLOT.
- 6. PLOT is the particular portion of the story that the writer chooses to present, with the series of events arranged to reveal the dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance of the story.
While a story’s plot can start from the very beginning, in chronological order (following the story’s personal timeline of the protagonist), often it starts “in media res” – that is, “in the middle of things” – and the earlier parts of the story are revealed later, in dramatic snippets, as backstory or even a full-blown flashback.
Here is a common image of the plot-line structure, a sequence of events of rising conflict and then resolution, in a cause and effect fashion, with increasing complication of the protagonist’s struggle against his or her antagonist.
I. The Beginning (aka Exposition): establishes the setting and major characters, especially the significance of the current situation
II. Rising Action: where the situation starts getting more and more complicated, in a series of scenes of conflict
III. Climactic Moment: where the secret is revealed, the choice is made, the “Aha!” moment occurs, depending on what the protagonist already knew from Parts I and II
IV. Falling Action: the consequences of the Climactic Moment,
V. and The End (aka Denouement): some sort of resolution
Due to the shape of the plot-line structure, plot is sometimes called a “story arch” or “the shape of the story.” Two useful web resources help in plotting a story into a story arch:
Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero’s_journey.htm
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shape of Stories”: http://visual.ly/kurt-vonnegut-shapes-stories-0
As seen in these two resources, where you start the plot will depend on where the plot ends.
7. POINT-OF-VIEW is who is narrating the story’s plot. Similar to the speaker of a poem, the narrator can either speak in the first person, second person, or third person:
First Person = “I, we” – the narrator is giving a first-person account that he/she actually experienced or he/she witnessed.
Second Person = “you” – the narrator is the reader (NOT COMMONLY USED)
Third Person = “he, she, it, they” *
Omniscient = God’s eye view (all-seeing, all-knowing)
Limited = character’s view (knows, thinks, feels only what the character knows)
* IMPORTANT NOTE: Many long-form writers who choose the third person do limited third person after switching from one major character to the next, with omniscient third person for the lengthy exposition and description.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Not coincidentally, I organized the Seven Elements of Fiction in the order of The Writing Process.
STAGE I: INVENTION & PREWRITING
Prewrite (freewrite, cluster, brainstorm) ideas in your writer’s journal. If you’re stuck on ideas, listen to songs with a storyline, watch movies and/or TV shows, and/or read short stories and novels; they will help unstick ideas. Then decide which genre seems to best fit your ideas.
Prewrite ideas for setting (time and place). Where and when? Seeing pictures of places and time periods (either online or in print sources) helps make real your setting if you are unclear of setting.
Then prewrite who your protagonist is. Write a character sketch, with appearance, personality traits, age, gender, and so on. Do the same for your antagonist and any major foil characters (if any).
Prewrite what feels to be the major conflict type in your story: protagonist name vs. ________ (fill in the blank). Then prewrite the life story of your protagonist – key words in list form is easiest – in strict chronological order. Your protagonist’s background should start the chronology. Childhood? Family? Neighborhood? Pay attention to where the signs of the major conflict first appears in that chronology. Keep adding events to that timeline until you’ve reached the end of your protagonist’s story, in some major life event (like a birth, marriage, or a death).
STAGE II: ARRANGEMENT
Using the story arch outline, Vonnegut’s shape of stories, and Campbell’s hero’s journey concept, plot your story, again in list (outline) form — or you can use the story arch shape as a visual plot line.
STAGE III: DRAFTING
Decide the point-of-view of your narrator. Then, following your plot outline, start drafting. Don’t worry if your story starts to diverge from your initial plot outline. As long as you know where you’re going and your protagonist’s journey, as he/she works through the story’s conflict, feels real to you, then keep drafting. TIP: Revise your plot outline if what you’re drafting is significantly different from your initial plot outline.
As for dialogue, as reviewed from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab web page, “Quotation Marks with Fiction, Poetry, and Titles”:
Write each person’s spoken words, however brief, as a separate paragraph. Use commas to set off dialogue tags such as “she said” or “he explained.” If one person’s speech goes on for more than one paragraph, use quotation marks to open the dialogue at the beginning of each paragraph. However, do not use closing quotation marks until the end of the final paragraph where that character is speaking.
Read “Chapter 5: Fiction Examples” if you need examples of how dramatically to set up dialogue and format it correctly.
REMEMBER: Microsoft Word automatically saves its files as .docx files. Microsoft Works automatically saves its files as .wps files. Apple Pages saves its files as .pages files. Google Docs and Open Office save their files as .odt or .xml files. Many schools and libraries still run older versions of Microsoft Word, which CANNOT read .wps, .pages, .odt, or .xml files. So if you don’t use MS Word, then make sure you “Save As” your Rough Draft as a .docx, .rtf, or .pdf file.
Also, save your file with an easily identifiable name and in an easy-to-find place so that you don’t accidentally misplace your draft.
STAGE IV: Revision & Editing
1. Look again to your plot outline and then back to your Rough Draft; make sure that you followed the organization of your plot outline and aren’t missing any important parts.
2. If your draft is too short, add additional exposition or description. You might even add new scenes of conflict, but be careful not to repeat the same type of scenes. Jot down any new plot details to your plot outline to remind yourself that you’ve added something new.
3. If you find details that weaken the flow of the plot and/or is inconsistent with your genre, setting, character, and story, then delete those details and replace them with details that keep the story going and is consistent, which make your work feel psychologically real.
1. Correct any stylistic and grammatical errors, like confused words, misspelled words, bad punctuation, sentence errors (like fragments and run-ons), and deficient transition words. (As usual, I recommend The Purdue Online Writing Lab, http://owl.english.purdue.edu).
Also, run the spell-checker and grammar-checker of your word processor, but don’t do this blindly. YOU need to check the electronic checkers to make sure that you agree with their suggestions or not.
2. Correct any errors in the manuscript style per your instructor’s or editor’s requirements. For instance, in MLA style, make sure you have
A. a centered essay title,
B. proper paragraph breaks (0.5” first line indenting the first sentence of each paragraph, with no additional spaces between the paragraphs),
C. one-inch margins all around,
D. a book-type font style like Times New Roman, Cambria, or Calibri,
E. font size no larger than 12, and
F. a name header or cover page, according to your instructor’s or editor’s requirement
G. EVERYTHING double-spaced.
3. Have another person read your EDITED Rough Draft so that he or she can spot errors or problems that you may have overlooked. See if your peer reviewer can answer these questions, based on your draft:
1) What is the GENRE: realistic, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, or something else?
2) What is the SETTNG: time and place?
3) Who are the main CHARACTERS: protagonist, antagonist, foil (if any)?
4) What is the main CONFLICT?
5) What is the STORY?
6) What is the “shape” of the story (the PLOT) and what is the dramatic/ emotional/ thematic SIGNIFICANCE of the first opening scene?
7) What is the narrator’s POINT OF VIEW?
Save your file again, in the correct file format and in more than one place. It is now a polished draft. If you submit it to your instructor or editor (either by print-out or electronically), then this draft is called the Final Draft. The Final Draft is the end product of the Writing Process. You’re done with your fictional work!
Read Chapter 5: Fiction Examples to serve as models for you. Then write one short story, 900-1800 words.