The Six Elements of Fiction
This article on the six elements of fiction is simply a checklist of all the ingredients that a well-written chapter in a novel might contain. You can use it in two ways…
First, it is something to read through whenever you sit down in front of an empty sheet of paper or a blank computer screen to write your novel’s next chapter.
When you go away on a trip, you might write a packing list so you don’t leave home without something important. The elements of fiction is a list of things not to leave out of your writing.
Second, you will find this list useful after you have written a chapter and it is time to revise it.
In the heat of creativity, it is easy to forget things. You will find yourself so caught up in the characters and the events that you will plain forget to bring the scene to life by describing the peeling wallpaper or the dog yelping outside.
Element #1: Narration
Narration is basically another word for telling a story. When you tell a story, you relate a series of events, from the opening event to the closing one. Narration is the type of writing you use to communicate these events to the reader, which generally speaking will be relatively prosaic and workmanlike writing (as opposed to descriptive writing, which can be fancier and even poetic).
The novel’s events will largely consist of characters doing things. This is the action.
Of course, you won’t forget to mention the big actions that lie at the heart of any given scene - they are the raison d’etre of a chapter.
But be careful to describe the little actions, too - a man running his fingers over his stubble, a little girl clutching her doll tighter. These small actions might not be particularly consequential to the plot, but they are nevertheless important in giving scenes and characters more depth.
Element #2: Description
Like I said, narration is used to show the reader actions. If you show a character entering a bar and ordering a drink, that is narration.
Description is all about describing the bar’s decor and the taste of the drink.
Out of all of these elements, description is the one you are most likely to neglect when writing a first draft.
Too many novel writing students write scenes that seem to take place in a void, like a play performed on a featureless stage. Either that, or they go to the opposite extreme and provide way too much description, and not nearly enough talk and action.
What should you describe?
- Your characters (particularly if this is their first appearance in the novel).
- And the setting, of course.
Basically, you describe anything that appeals to the senses. Novels are not a visual medium (unlike movies), and that it is why readers need you to paint a picture for them using descriptive writing.
Lucky for us novelists, descriptive writing not only allows us to appeal to the sense of sight and sound, but to the other senses too.
An important point to remember with description is that you should always be wary of overdoing it. Yes, a description of a sunset or a character’s beautiful body will always be more fanciful than narrating a character getting out of bed in the morning.
A little poetry in a novel is sometimes good.
Just don’t go over the top. Most of the prose in a novel describes the action, and this narration should always be simple and unadorned. When you pause the action to describe that sunset, keep the description relatively brief and don’t get too chocolate-boxy.
As a matter of fact, always try to mix description (of the setting or characters) with narration (of the action) as seamlessly as you can.
If you keep description isolated from narration, it looks something like this…
- Character enters a room (narration).
- Paragraph describing the room (description).
- Character closes the door behind them and walks in (narration).
It’s like the writer has pressed the “pause” button. A better way to describe the setting here is like this…
- Character enters a room (narration).
- One or two short sentences of description showing the character’s initial impression - dust floating through the shafts of sunlight, the smell of wet dog (description).
- Character closes the door behind them and takes a seat, describing the grease on the door handle and the broken spring in the couch (narration and description).
- A few lines of conversation with another character (dialogue).
- A brief pause in the dialogue while the character listens to a log spitting in the fire (description).
- And so on…
Vivid descriptive writing is essential in a novel, but it should never overwhelm the action. Having short, sharp bursts of description woven into the narration is ideal.
Element #3: Dialogue
Most chapters in your novel will have characters talking to one another, but the important thing from the point of view of this checklist is to include just the right amount of dialogue.
- Too little dialogue in a chapter and the prose might be heavy-going.
- Too much dialogue and the chapter might read more like a screenplay than a novel.
As a matter of fact, if you find that you love writing pages and pages of dialogue and hate writing prose, you should seriously consider writing for the screen or the stage.
Element #4: Narrative Summary
Narrative summary is like narration, only it happens quicker. Narration is showing the reader the action in the form of a scene. Narrative summary is telling the reader what happens in a very short space.
(Click here for more on Writing a Narrative by Showing and Telling.)
Scenes basically take place in “real time” and are characterized by things happening and words being said. In narrative summary, time is skipped through much more speedily and long periods of time can be covered using very few words.
Narrative summary is what allows writers to condense the events of one year, say, into an 80,000 word novel - they present the exciting events as scenes and narrate the less interesting bits in between.
So if you ever find yourself writing a scene in which the things happening are not very exciting and the words being said are kind of dull, consider dealing with it in a paragraph or two of summary instead.
Element #5: Thoughts and Feelings
Just as you don’t want a chapter to take place in a physical void with no description of the setting or the characters’ physical attributes, so you don’t want it to take place in an emotional void.
Now, a lot of your characters’ thoughts and feelings will be expressed through talk and action. If a man punches a hole in the wall, for example, the audience will know that he is not having the best of days.
But the thoughts and feelings I’m talking about here are those of your viewpoint character.
As you will know from the sections looking at Point of View, every scene in a novel is told through the eyes of a viewpoint character, and your job is to make the most of this access to the character’s innermost thoughts.
In other words, don’t forget to have the viewpoint character in any given scene express what they are feeling and thinking.
Why? Because the ability, as a reader, to get inside another human being’s mind is one of fiction’s greatest strengths.
(A character’s thoughts are known as Interior Monologue.)
Element #6: Background Information
Background information means everything that isn’t a part of what is happening in the here and now but is nevertheless important to understand it.
It could be a character remembering an incident from her childhood, for example, or the narrator telling the reader about the town’s history.
Now, these things might be important to understand the present story or to put it into context, but they still represent a distraction.
So any background information that you do have to get across, get it across as concisely as you can. And if knowing the background information isn’t important to know right now, leave it for a later chapter.
(This background information is also known as “backstory” or, more technically, expository writing.)
And that is it…
I didn’t present these elements of fiction in any particular order of importance. All six of them have their place in a well-constructed chapter, and it is really just a question of…
- Making sure you don’t leave any of them out (unless you do so deliberately).
- Achieving the perfect balance between them.