Fiction Writing Basics
This resource discusses some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate fiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching fiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about fiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors. This resource covers the basics of plot, character, theme, conflict, and point-of-view.
Last Edited: 2010-04-25 08:44:06
Plot is what happens in a story, but action itself doesn’t constitute plot. Plot is created by the manner in which the writer arranges and organizes particular actions in a meaningful way. It’s useful to think of plot as a chain reaction, where a sequence of events causes other events to happen.
When reading a work of fiction, keep in mind that the author has selected one line of action from the countless possibilities of action available to her. Trying to understand why the author chose a particular line of action over another leads to a better understanding of how plot is working in a story
This does not mean that events happen in chronological order; the author may present a line of action that happens after the story’s conclusion, or she may present the reader with a line of action that is still to be determined. Authors can’t present all the details related to an action, so certain details are brought to the forefront, while others are omitted.
The author imbues the story with meaning by a selection of detail. The cause-and-effect connection between one event and another should be logical and believable, because the reader will lose interest if the relation between events don’t seem significant. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren wrote in Understanding Fiction, fiction is interpretive: “Every story must indicate some basis for the relation among its parts, for the story itself is a particular writer’s way of saying how you can make sense of human experience.”
If a sequence of events is merely reflexive, then plot hasn’t come into play. Plot occurs when the writer examines human reactions to situations that are always changing. How does love, longing, regret and ambition play out in a story? It depends on the character the writer has created.
Because plot depends on character, plot is what the character does. Plot also fluctuates, so that something is settled or thrown off balance in the end, or both. Traditionally, a story begins with some kind of description that then leads to a complication. The complication leads up to a crisis point where something must change. This is the penultimate part of the story, before the climax, or the most heightened moment of a story.
In some stories, the climax is followed by a denouement, or resolution of the climax. Making events significant in plot begins with establishing a strong logic that connects the events. Insofar as plot reveals some kind of human value or some idea about the meaning of experience, plot is related to theme.
Character can’t be separated from action, since we come to understand a character by what she does. In stories, characters drive the plot. The plot depends on the characters' situations and how they respond to it. The actions that occur in the plot are only believable if the character is believable. For most traditional fiction, characters are divided into the following categories:
- Protagonist: the main or central character or hero (Harry Potter)
- Antagonist: opponent or enemy of the protagonist (Dark Lord Voldemort)
- Foil Character: a character(s) who helps readers better understand another character, usually the protagonist. For example in the Harry Potter series, Hermione and Ron are Harry's friends, but they also help readers better understand the protagonist, Harry. Ron and Hermione represent personalities that in many ways are opposites - Ron is a bit lazy and insecure; Hermione is driven and confident. Harry exists in the middle, thus illustrating his inner conflict and immaturity at the beginning of the book series.
Because character is so important to plot and fiction, it’s important for the writer to understand her characters as much as possible. Though the writer should know everything there is to know about her character, she should present her knowledge of the characters indirectly, through dialogue and action. Still, sometimes a summary of a character’s traits needs to be given. For example, for characters who play the supporting cast in a story, direct description of the character’s traits keeps the story from slowing down.
Beginning and intermediate level writers frequently settle for creating types, rather than highly individualized, credible characters. Be wary of creating a character who is a Loser With A Good Heart, The Working Class Man Who Is Trapped By Tough Guy Attitudes, The Lonely Old Lady With A Dog, etc. At the same time, keep in mind that all good characters are, in a sense, types.
Often, in creative writing workshops from beginning to advanced levels, the instructor asks, “Whose story is this?” This is because character is the most important aspect of fiction. In an intermediate level workshop, it would be more useful to introduce a story in which it is more difficult to pick out the main character from the line-up. It provides an opportunity for intermediate level fiction writers to really explore character and the factors that determine what is at stake, and for whom.
Conflict depends on character, because readers are interested in the outcomes of people’s lives, but may be less interested in what’s at stake for a corporation, a bank, or an organization. Characters in conflict with one another make up fiction. Hypothetically, a character can come into conflict with an external force, like poverty, or a fire. But there is simply more opportunity to explore the depth and profundity in relationships between people, because people are so complex that conflict between characters often gets blurred with a character’s conflict with herself
The short story, as in all literary forms, including poetry and creative nonfiction, depends on the parts of the poem or story or essay making some kind of sense as a whole. The best example in fiction is character. The various aspects of a character should add up to some kind of meaningful, larger understanding of the character. If the various aspects of a character don’t add up, the character isn’t believable. This doesn’t mean that your characters have to be sensible. Your characters may have no common sense at all, but we have to understand the character and why she is that way. The character’s motives and actions have to add up, however conflicted, marginalized or irrational they may be.