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Elements of Fiction

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1 Elements of Fiction on Tue Jun 23, 2009 2:00 pm

For the purpose of this article, the fictional work in question is assumed to be the Novel, although the same elements are basically present in any form of fictional works such as the Short-Story, The Novelette, and the Play. Obviously any fictional work itself must belong to a specific genre or type (please see genres of fictional works), but in each of such genres, the basic divisions and elements remain the same.

There are various factors which determine the quality and likeability of any fictional work such as the style, readability and even the chosen language and presentation. Such qualities may be generically sub-divided into two, namely the external and the internal elements. I like to think of external elements as qualities present in the finished product (i.e. in the published book) such as layout, print quality, illustrations, type, language, and even the author. Whereas I refer to internal qualities as being in direct relation to the inspired work itself rather than its production. In this article, I concentrate on the 'internal' elements of a fictional work, namely the setting, the characters, the plot, the theme and the style.

The Setting

Every fictional work must occur somewhere and in some moment in time. The main setting is therefore dictated by the background in space and time for the narrative’s action. The setting is however completed by the area itself where the narrative takes place. This could simply be a room, a house, a village, a city or part of a city, an island, a country or simply a geographical area, if not complete worlds. Sometimes non necessarily complicated works, may occur across a large number of such locations. In some more complex works, parallel plots may occur simultaneously across different locations, which plots somehow interact with, influence each other, or perhaps encounter each other at a later stage. The time span of the setting may be anything from a few hours to a few days for a short story, or ranging from months to several life spans in a fully fledged novel.

Other more complex works may present two or more differing settings, such as a novel treating a subject such as time-travel but this could also feature in something as simple as a flashback to a distant or past event. Other than time, setting can also vary greatly by different locations in which events may be simultanously or chronologically occuring. An example of the latter could be a story spanning across continents, countries, or even planets of various degrees of development such as travels between a modern city and a tropical jungle.

However simple or complex, the setting gives the narrative a particular flavor and perhaps is the most of the four basic elements of the novel which may actually determines the genre of the novel. (i.e. a gothic or a fantasy novel would require a particular building/city atmosphere to create and complement the desired effect.) The setting also determines the style of dress, food, accepted behavior, and above all, dialogue of the characters involved.


Representations of humans, animals, supernatural or imaginary beings whose actions and emotions are described either explicitly or implicitly in the fictional work. In science fiction, beings may also extend to humanoids, cyborgs, robots, or sometimes even computers. In children’s narratives characters may also be inanimate objects to which are attributed human or animal characteristics generally with a humorous effect.

Characters are said to be three-dimensional or rounded when they are complex and realistic, having not just their descriptions and set actions but also their thoughts and emotions. Such characters are normally reserved for the protagonist or other main characters. Characters lacking such depth as thoughts and emotions are said to be two-dimensional or flat with these generally being reserved for the lesser roles. In an adventure novel which concentrates on the action rather than character depth, a short story, or perhaps a poorly written story, all the characters would generally be flat. In a psychological novel however, which specifically concentrates around persons feelings and emotions, characters are required to be multi-dimensional. Characters generally have one or more dominant traits which characterize them and give them a certain flavor. Such a trait, apart from giving particular interest and color to the said character is sometimes intentionally of a positive or a negative nature depending whether the author wishes such a character to draw or avert the reader’s sympathy.


The general or intended and underlying course of events taken by the narrative known and carefully planned by the author should be generally obscure and gradually revealed to the reader. A trap that some authers fall into is to present a plot which is so well known or so obvious that the reader quickly loses interest in the narrative. I have even seen posted works which tell exactly what will happen in the summary as in the following: [i:1guzsgm7]"Mary's family died when she was 8. A man tried to kill her but took her sisters life instead. Now 16, her sisters killer has returned for her. She has to destroy him or be destroyed herself"[/i:1guzsgm7] I bet you'll be dying to read this novel to find out how it ends...

Plot types vary from the simple narrative where events occur in a linear and chronological order to a complex narrative where events occur haphazardly but are yet inter-related. Sometimes simultaneous events spanning diverse locations or of varying time-settings are presented to the reader in no specific order, with the latter effect generally introduced as a series of flashbacks. Again plots vary from the most simple as in the short story to the most intricate and mind-boggling of the advanced novel, at times even spanning across a whole series of books. Plots in complex narratives are usually accompanied by one or more sub-plots which normally involve one or more of the lesser characters.

Though the very basis of the novel, the plot itself is the least determining factor that characterizes the presentation or determines the genre or style of the finished product. So much so that the same basis plot may be easily applied to anything from an historic to a modern-day or even to a science-fiction novel by changing the relevant setting and the characters accordingly. Think of the plot as an empty children's coloring book; it has all the outlined pictures but still lacks color and definition. Therefore, depending on your artistic abilities you can give the same plot a very distinct color.

Plots, however complex in nature may generally be sub divided or classified into three major sections, namely the hook or the exposition, the complication or the crises, and the solution or the unraveling. Your reader is to be 'hooked' in by your intro and opening chapters, kept intrigued by the complications which would keep him or her going on to discover the final unraveling and solution of it all.


The theme is the direct or implied central idea, recurring subject or statement that unifies and controls the entire work. It is possibly the author's ideals or ideas which he or she is attempting to communicate by means of the narrative. The majority of generic commercial fictional works carry either a weak or an over-abused theme. In such works the theme is generally secondary and falls in place much as an afterthought, with most importance being given to the descriptive, affective and erotic elements rather than to the message being delivered.

Strong themes which carry powerful messages or ideals generally are the driving force behind the very work and generally provide the very inspiration that brought it about or that molded the finished work. It is not uncommon for a work of good literary value to bring scorn or disrepute to the author due to a questionable or controversial theme. Alternatively such polemical subjects have also been known to promote poor or questionable works and perhaps bring an otherwise unknown author to notoriety. This all goes to show that although a theme may not be so immediately obvious inside a fictional work, its overall importance must never be underestimated.

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