Fundamentals of Fiction

Novel writing is much on my mind these days.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that my debut novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, is due out February 12.  Not only that, but next week I'll be in Nashville to talk to a local writer's group and give a workshop about Scene and Structure in fiction.  And, to top it all off, I will be once again offering my teleclass, Get Your Novel Written Now, in March (though early-bird registration is open).

So, yeah, novel writing is on my mind, big time.  And as I proof the final copy for Emma Jean, as well as continue to work on my next novel, I'm reminded of what it takes to actually write a novel.  Which, let it be known, is a lot.  Even though its about the most fun you can have, ever, it is a lot.  But the actual writing of every novel has a starting point. 

Fundamentals of Fiction

And that starting point is the fundamentals of fiction.  A writer desirous of penning a novel could do no better than to begin with the basics.

So what are the fundamentals of fiction?

You can get all kinds of answers to this question. I was in a workshop in Nashville last September  and when a fellow instructor asked this question, we got about a dozen definitions. But, and this is a big but, it is possible to winnow the fundamentals down to five main areas, and these are the areas I'm going to consider today:

A. Story

B. Character

C. Setting

D. Style

E. Theme

Let's look at them each briefly.  (Briefly because this is a blog post, not a class or an Ebook.  And one could write volumes about each fundamental.) Here goes:

Story. An editor recently told me that story is the basis of fiction. I know, a no-brainer. Except I argued that character is the basis of fiction, because I believe that all stories grow out of character.  But all this is really a chicken and egg thing.  Suffice it to say that without story, you don't have a novel.

Character. What I said above. To me, all stories start with character.  Who is your protagonist?  Your antagonist? What are your character's problems?  Their deepest desires?  What gets in the way of those deep desires?  How does one character's deep desires confict with another?  And so on.

Setting. Where do your characters live and work? What's their world? Do they live in the big city or the country?  Maybe an alternative world?  A different planet? Setting also comprises the things that surround your character, like their furnishing, their books, and so on. And don't forget that setting also includes time.

Style. This is your voice. It's the way you put words together in a sentence, the way you arrange sentences and so on.  My favorite quote about style is this, from editor Chris Roerden: "A writer's voice gets buried in ineffective writing habits." Much of this is last draft stuff, working with word choice, looking for active verbs, etc.

Theme. What's it all about? What is the thematic statement you're making? Too many would-be novelists over-think this. Start where you are and let the theme emerge as you write. Trust me, it will.  I have to admit, I'm a bit laissez-faire about this, because I've seen it emerge in the writing over and over again.

What do you think?  Do you agree with this definition of the fundamentals of fiction?  Or would you include something else?

6 Responses to Fundamentals of Fiction

  1. J.D. 01/12/2013 at 04:34 #

    I agree with you, Charlotte. It’s more the egg than the chicken. Character. And it’s so easy to forget. Sometimes I tool along, weaving through my little story, oblivious that my characters are little more than a name. Unless your characters invoke empathy or curiosity or something, no one will know your story because they will lay your book down. This is a great post, Charlotte. Your blog is always top-notch.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 01/12/2013 at 06:52 #

    Sometimes I think characterization is the hardest thing, probably because its so important! I forget this but if you're at sea you can always go back to the fundamentals. And thanks for the great compliment.

  3. Don 01/12/2013 at 09:01 #

    All of the points are important, but when it comes to characters, the best fictional characters are the ones that you write as if they are real, living, breathing people, and not fictional characters.

    In your mind your fictional characters, and their very hopes, their dreams, hates and likes, and what not, are in fact real hopes, real dreams, real dreams and real what ever. When your fictional characters hurt, you and your readers must feel a sense of real hurt, or real joy. When your fictional characters rejoice you and your readers should feel the same real feelings.

    I never write or think of fictional characters as being just fictional, but rather real characters with real feelings, thus it help me to write with much more passion and zeal.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 01/12/2013 at 09:33 #

    So well put, Don! The fictional characters we love best are the ones that seem most real to us. And that is the challenge on writing them!

  5. Zan Marie 01/12/2013 at 11:33 #

    For me it’s always character, character, character. (I feel like a realestate agent saying “location, location, location.” ; ) But it’s true. All good plots derive from the motivations, trials, and lives of characters.

    Good post. I’ve saved this one in my writing aids file.

  6. Charlotte Dixon 01/12/2013 at 12:56 #

    You and me, we think alike, Zan Marie! I'm with you all the way on character!

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