ELEMENTS THAT MAKE UP A STORY (A Focus on Fiction)
This is the first of a three-part series on fictional writing. This segment explains what fiction is, its different forms and the components that a fictional story (like other stories) is built from. The second part looks at Guidelines for Writing Effective Fiction while the last examines Guidelines for Writing Book Reviews on Works of Fiction.
What Is Fiction?
Fiction is a form of creative writing in which the author draws on his imagination to craft a story. Although a fictional work may incorporate actual people and events, the bulk of the work derives from the author’s mind.
The main goal of fictional writing, I feel, is primarily to entertain the readers. It can also educate and persuade as explained in Part 2 of this series.
Fiction comes in long and short forms – novels and short stories.
Novels also come in short and long forms. A novella (short form), also called novelette, may range from 40,000 to above 60,000 words. A full fictional novel, on the other hand, is expected to range from 70,000 to 100,000 words. The number of pages may differ as it depends on font type, font size and how the pages were formatted.
Short stories, as their name indicates, are more concise than novels. A short story is a complete fictional story that is less lengthy than a novel.
There is no consensus on the length of a short story. Some say it can vary from 1,500 to 20,000 words while others say it should not exceed 7,500 or 10,000 words. We will, therefore, choose the upper limit of 20,000 words. As for the lower limit, one can write a piece of flash fiction that is shorter than 1,500 words that still qualifies as a short story as it is a complete story.
Fiction can also be classified according to genres which are based on the subjects of the stories and writing approach used. Such genres include science, historical, mystery and children’s fiction.
(Image: Children’s fiction by Enid Blyton)
What Makes A Complete Story? (Elements that make up a story)
Different lists of what makes a complete story are available in the literature. But we consider six of the often mentioned elements to be the most essential ones. They are: plot, setting, characters, point of view, theme and conflict.
Plot: This element gives the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the story – what happened and how it happened. It contains the exposition (background), rising action, climax, falling action and resolution or denouement.
However, a writer can choose to omit the last element above and end the story at the climax. Or he can answer some but not all questions raised by the story.
Such an ending is called an open ending and it gives room for the continuation of the story in a sequel. It can also be called a cliff hanger when the story ends at the height of the climax, giving the reader no clue as to whether the protagonist won or lost the battle he was in. Readers often complain about such endings. But I use them often to leave a more lasting impression on the readers with respect to the message I seek to convey. Also, I use them to get the readers pondering on possible endings and to allow for future development of the plot if I wish to, as earlier stated.
Setting: This concerns the time and place of the story.
“Searching For Love” is a story set in the contemporary era in the Big Apple.
Characters: These are the people in the story who drive the plot. Each story usually has a major character, the protagonist, whom the readers typically identify with. Also, to heat up the drama in the story, there is often an antagonist who is against the major character and whom the readers will probably hate. The parallels to these characters in movies are the heroes and villains, particularly in actioners. But that does not mean that every character in a story must be for or against the protagonist. Some may be people that play neutral roles in their daily lives.
Making the characters relatable, especially the protagonists, enables readers to easily identify with them. E.g. a struggling father, a small business owner, a philanthropist, a childless woman.
Someone just asked me if the protagonist must be good and flawless or he can be evil. The protagonist is the major character the plot revolves around. Yes, he can be evil but to make people identify with him, the writer often includes a backstory explaining his reasons for acting the way he does. It’s just easier though to make readers love and root for main characters that are on the side of good.
Furthermore, since no one is perfect in real life, writers often add a few flaws to protagonists that are good and soften the character of the villain in one or more ways.
A good illustration of protagonists and antagonists can be seen in spy thrillers like the James Bond series by Ian Fleming.
The total number of characters in a story should depend on how extensive the story is, but it’s always advisable to keep the number as low as is necessary to tell the story without making it unwieldy.
Point of View (POV): This refers to the case or pronoun adopted by the narrator of the story. Use of the first person pronoun, “I/We” indicates that the narrator is directly involved in the events narrated while adoption of the third person pronouns, “He/She/They” shows that the narrator is reporting what happened to others. Note that by narrator, I mean the character in the story telling it, not the author, particularly when the first person is used.
The usual cases used in fictional writing are first and third person and the third person can be omniscient or limited. The former reveals even the thoughts of the characters and other hidden things while the latter is constrained to what is observable.
Theme: This is the idea or message that the story conveys. This can be captured in one or more words or a phrase. For instance, “Going ‘Home’ To Gerald” is about cohabitation whereas “Please, Mama, Wait For Me” explores the issues of forgiveness, sibling rivalry and parental favouritism. Furthermore, “Help, My Wife Is A Guy” is about gender roles while “Home Truth” dwells on motivation for giving.
Conflict: This refers to what the protagonist is struggling with. This can be categorised as:
• Conflict with self: See “A Tough Choice.”
• Conflict with another character: See “Expensive Joke.”
• Conflict with society: e.g. fighting corruption, oppressive norms. See “Prejudice.”
• Conflict with nature: e.g. a sickness, a natural disaster. See “A Love To Count On.”
This first part of this series on fictional writing has presented what fiction is and the elements that it is built from.
The second part will explain how to recognise and write excellent fiction. Meanwhile, I welcome your feedback and questions in the Comments below. God bless you!
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