Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Big Four (Five?) Elements of Fiction

I read something recently that gave me pause, and it was this: That the four main elements of fiction are character, voice, plot, and theme.

I didn't agree with it. On further reflection, I still don't. For one thing, where is setting? Without a sense of place, you're missing a necessary element, the means of creating mental pictures, that allows the reader to enter into your story. 

I could add it to the list and have the Big Five: character, voice, plot, theme, and setting. But I'm still not satisfied, and I know why. For me, voice comes under the umbrella of character. It's not separable from it, and is subject to it.

Voice is important, of course. Gotta have it. But I've never been on the "voice, voice, voice, voice, it's ALL voice" bandwagon. Recently, I've learned more about voice than ever, through the most thorough critique I've ever had, from the fabulous Kathleen Duey. But the very experience underscored even more, for me, that voice, whether you're in first person or third, is about character (as is POV). Realizing and increasing the close tie between my character and the voice, even in third person, helped me boost my WIP to a higher level.

And proved false to me another notion: That you can receive/give help in fixing plot, but not voice. "The voice is either there or it's not." Well, no. It can be strong in places and falter in places. It can slip up in individual word choice. And you can both receive and give help in fixing it. As a writer and teacher, I've been on both sides of that coin. :)

But here's a fifth element that I would argue could be added to the list: quality of prose. A way with words. An ear. The way one's talent comes through in the writing itself. Which is related to voice, but different from it. It's necessary, and it's the only one of the elements, I'd argue, that has to be somewhat inborn. Because you can't just fit good character, setting, plot, and theme together and out comes a great story. The writing itself, the vehicle, has to be there, and though a writer learns to hone this through reading and writing, it is hard-to-nigh-impossible for someone else to help you with it.

Here's my stab at a list of the basic elements of fiction: character, setting, plot, theme, and prose. (Who, When/Where, What, Why, and How?)

What do you think? Am I nitpicking semantics? Have any "rules" you'd like to smash today? :)


Christine Sarmel said...

Great post Marcia. I completely agree that you can't leave out setting. Books that could take place anywhere/ anytime are innately less interesting than they could have been.

Vijaya said...

Setting is very important to me as well. It lets me plant my feet firmly in the book.

But quality of prose = voice the way you describe it. And yes, I can help and have received help in strengthening it by using precise words. But it's harder to teach because I can only help with the material at hand. I can't *give* a voice.

I'll add a sixth thing which is hugely important, and without which even the most beautifully written book will fall apart -- clarity. I don't care if the work is F or NF, but the story must be clear. I do not want to be confused, at any level (and this is not the same as being mysterious).

Joanne said...

I agree that voice should be inherent in our work, a thread throughout. And prose is a perfect addition. There's nothing better than coming across a certain passage that just rings with me, that I have to go back and reread, often more than once, to linger with the author's way with words.

Andrea Mack said...

Interesting discussion. As I work on my revisions, I'm learning more and more about how much of the depth of the story comes from the character.

cleemckenzie said...

Absolutely agree. The story might be super fast paced high adventure, but if the prose plods along I'm not a fan.

Setting is right up there with voice, character etc. in my book. :-)

Marcia said...

Christine -- I so agree with your last sentence. I like a story that would be different if it were set somewhere else. The setting needs to matter.

Vijaya -- I agree that I can't fully engage with a book if I don't feel like I'm in its setting. OH, you have SO hit the nail on the head with clarity. I talk about this with my students a lot. Clarity seems elusive enough that when it's achieved, it's worth special note.

Joanne -- I agree that beautiful prose can pull me out of the story in a good way; it's a lovely little respite during which to linger in the prose before moving on with the story.

Andrea -- I'm doing final revisions on a WIP, and doing what I need to do does involve digging into the character again. I love what's there in the depths to find!

Marcia said...

Lee -- Sometimes setting is almost another character, and I enjoy that. I know that in adult commercial fiction especially, the prose is often just passable -- it gets the story down with few if any errors. But it always leaves me longing for richer prose.

Barbara Watson said...

Thought-provoking, Marcia. When I read, I recognize writing I love. I don't always know what it is I love about what the author has done, but overall it's how they wove everything together--whatever those elements might be.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

So true, Marcia. I love the addition of prose to the list.

Mirka Breen said...

Yup, Marcia. Spot-on. TIME and PLACE, which some classify as another almost 'character'- are the fifth column. Parallel the five ‘W’s: Why Who When Where What.

Bish Denham said...

I don't think you're nitpicking but for me, see, I'd put setting under character. Because a setting can/is a character all by itself. But that's just me.

Faith E. Hough said...

I like your definitions. I think it's so hard to decide how to separate and categorize elements, because often they overlap. Voice, for example, involves both character and prosody--yet prosody is certainly distinct from character...Setting can be part of a character and characters can be part of a setting...and so on.
Writing always reminds me of learning to sing well: you have these individual elements like breathing, pitch, tone, posture, vibrato, etc. but they all influence and are part of one another.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Super post. One thing I learned from the critique you did for me was to not have talking heads. I keep that in my mind when I am writing and when I am critiquing. You've got to show a setting in your work or you've just got talking heads.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Thanks Marcia!

Writing is so layered that to try to relegate it to a few points means we are always going to miss essential elements.

I think sometimes it is that combo of the author voice and the character voice that pulls off an amazing story.

Setting is crucial for me too. I want to know what space I'm in and how it influences my character's mood and actions. Just thinking about this wants me to open up my WIP and make improvements.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I agree that setting should be a main element of fiction. As Bish pointed out, setting can sometimes be character. And I think you're brilliant to add quality prose to the mix. This is a must for me when I am reading. If the prose shines, I'll read on even if the other elements are a bit dull.
Great post.

Mary Witzl said...

Setting is very important -- certainly as necessary to get right as character or plot. And voice, or tone, or felicity of phrasing is something that HAS to be right. I like what Joanne says about rereading passages that are beautifully written. I've always done that, but the more I write myself, the more I see how carefully constructed really well-written passages are.

Marcia said...

Barbara -- I'm also fascinated by how all the elements are interwoven. And how you can see invididual aspects at times, but mostly they all meld with the whole.

Ruth -- I think fiction writers have to be both storytellers and writers. It just seems to me I've seen the storytelling touted more often, but as a teacher I see good stories with inferior writing every day.

Mirka -- I didn't actually see that connection with the "5 W's and an H" until I'd made my list. Seems reasonable to me, though.

Bish -- Setting really is a character in some stories. I'm not quite comfortable putting something that isn't a sentient being under the character heading in general, but setting sure helps make a person what they are.

Faith -- Yes, they all overlap and need to, and it can be so hard to consider them separately. Sometimes I feel like that centipede who tried to analyze how he walked and ended up in a ditch, "considering how to run."

Sharon -- Yes! I find that if the story doesn't happen in a well-defined place, I can't form a mental picture of the scenes, and that keeps me from fully engaging. And we know where that ends up: putting the book down.

Joyce -- Author voice and character voice: I'm learning more and more about how the two differ and complement one another. I usually write in third person anyway, but the interplay between these two voices makes me even more interested in the workings of third person.

Cynthia -- I love prose that makes me take a willing break from the story to examine a lovely line or two. Then I plunge back into the story just as eagerly. Being pulled out of the story isn't always bad.

Mary -- Another thing I find really interesting is the shades of meaning between terms like voice and tone. The effects that can be achieved are just amazing and sometimes seem almost limitless.

Nora MacFarlane said...

I'm in the prose and clarity camp. And yes, I also think of setting as a character. Setting should have personality and contribute to character motivations. The best immediate example I can think of is Hogwarts.

Susan Fields said...

I've been really struggling with voice lately. I've been reading books with great voice, and I can definitely tell when it's there and when it's not, or even if it's there but I'm annoyed by it (which happened just recently with a fairly popular YA book I just read).

Christina Farley said...

I love this post! Such a great reminder of what we should be looking at in our books. I'm doing a revision right now (I know, that's all I seem to be doing!) and I'm working on the character's age change. So I really need to take a closer look at the voice of the character as well. Thanks for sharing. I'm going to tweet this post!

Marcia said...

Nora -- Yes, setting should have such an effect that it couldn't be the same story set elsewhere. And clarity is so, so important. I always get excited when my students' work is clear. Teaching, more than anything, has taught me that nothing will substitute for clarity. It's a must-aspect of the prose.

Susan -- I think voice is a bigger deal today than it was, oh, 20 years ago, and I'm much more apt now than I was then to run into a book whose voice annoys me. I looked at a few of my children's writer craft books circa 1985, and voice is hardly (or not at all) mentioned except as a factor in dialogue. This is another reason I don't trust it as one of the building blocks of fiction in its own right. To me, it belongs under an umbrella; it's not an umbrella itself.

Christina -- Boy, that's all I seem to be doing, too -- revising. Good thing I love it. Changing a character's age is a great example of a reason you have to look at voice again. And thanks for tweeting!