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Fiction 101 -- by Elaine Isaak

Fiction 101

by Elaine Isaak


Who among us is not occasionally tempted by that plaintive request, "Tell me a story?"  We may begin with our children, or with anecdotes from our own lives, but often the urge to story-telling builds into a desire to create our own narratives from anything—or nothing at all, the desire to write fiction.  

Donald Maass, leading literary agent and speaker, says that all he needs to get interested in a story is a setting, with a character in a conflict.  Setting, character and conflict remain the elements at the core of fiction--I know that I'm ready to begin writing a new work if I have a person, in a place, with a problem.  What about plot, you say?  Plot develops from the intersection of person and problem.  We'll take a look at that later on.  

Let's start with these basic building blocks, then talk about forms for stories as you move ahead in pursuit of readers.  We'll begin, as many authors do, with character.



Outside of literary experiments, every work of fiction includes one or more characters who convey the experience of the events that will unfold for the reader.  While we often  consider what a character looks like, character is not just a description but an individual.  Think about their internal motivations and problems, the background that made them who they are, the quirks, interests and traits that make them unique, then create the details of personality, clothing, voice and appearance that will reveal aspects of character to your reader.  

Writing a description can be useful for the author, but the reader is more likely to get interested in your character if they see that person in motion—participating in actions that show who they are, that will help the reader get to know them, and be curious to know more.  Also—you reveal much more character (and have greater opportunities for conflict) when you have more than one character in a scene.   Get them up and moving as soon as possible!

Character development or character arc is how the character will change over the course of the narrative.  Generally, a longer work will give you a greater arc—a more significant change in the life of the character.

Here are some things to think about when you craft character:


Who moves your story?  

Whose actions will change the direction of the plot?  Readers like to follow active people who have the power to change their situation, no matter how great or small that situation might be.  Victims—people to whom things happen—are less engaging than characters who are working toward a goal, even if they get derailed on the way to that goal.


Who will be most affected by your story?

Perhaps you'd like to write a story about an event or an idea and how it might happen in the real world.  Look for a character who will be greatly influenced by that event or idea, whether for good or bad.  Characters who undergo a big change, even if it begins due to outside forces, have great potential at the center of a story.


What does my character want?

It's important to have your character want something, even if, as Kurt Vonnegut suggested, it's just a cup of water.  A character with desires is more likely to be motivated to take action. Also, readers can relate to the idea of pursing a goal (even if the goal is a strange one) and get more excited about what might happen during the pursuit—thus building a rooting interest in your character and wanting to read the story.



Conflict exists on many levels in life and in fiction.  The longer and more complex your work, the more levels of conflict you're likely to incorporate.  For now, we'll stick with two:  the conflict at the center of character and the conflict at the center of story.  Problems can be internal (overcoming fear of rejection, developing talent) or external (defeating a supervillain, stopping a bomb).  Novels typically combine conflicts to escalate the tension over the course of the narrative, while short stories will focus on a smaller conflict.

In basic terms, the conflict is the problem your character must confront in order to achieve his or her goal.  The character's goal might change over time, often because of his or her attempts to overcome conflict.  Those attempts will form the basis of plot. The number and success of attempts plays into the intensity of the work, as well as its length. In a short story, a character might make two or three attempts to solve the problem, then either succeed or fail, the end.  In a novel, this cycle (called the Try/Fail cycle) is extended and elaborated.  The character might begin with a goal, try to reach it and fail—only to have the conflict get larger, worse, or more personal.  

You'll notice I said "Try/FAIL cycle."  You want things to go wrong.  If your character tries and readily succeeds, you need a tougher conflict, or you need your character to discover a more challenging goal.  Thriller and detective novels often make this cycle very visible, just as the hero seems to make progress toward stopping or catching the criminal, the criminal escalates the danger so that the hero must defend himself and his family.

The approach to conflict and what levels of conflict occur in a work vary depending on the genre of the book.  Literary fiction often focuses more on the internal conflicts and goals, characters who are held back in their lives by psychological issues or baggage that must be confronted.  Characters are less likely to be confronting an overwhelming external conflict which they are expected to work toward solving, whereas in Science Fiction or Fantasy, the stakes (what is at risk if the conflict is not overcome) might be as high as the future of a kingdom, a civilization or a planet.  The Romance genre focuses on characters confronting relationship issues and personal problems with love as the goal.

I often find the best fiction combines both internal and external conflict—to create a character who must overcome his or her own personal demons in order to confront a larger problem in the world around.

Some things to consider about your conflict:


What internal and external problems does my character face?

Maybe your fiction idea already has some conflicts in it. You might want to write about the Civil War, or about a teenager in a new high school.  Brainstorm what problems, large and small, personal or external, might arise from the idea that you have.


What's at stake?

What will be risked over the course of this narrative?  Are the stakes personal (a new job, a psychological issue) or universal (life and death, major destruction)?


Will the stakes be important enough to catch my reader's attention?

Even a personal conflict is important to the character it affects.  The goal you give a character in confronting the problem and how much the character needs to solve can show how important it is.  A character who wants a new job because she's bored is unlikely to keep the reader interested—the stakes are low.  A character who wants a new job because he's supporting his three children after his wife's death is already more engaging to the reader because of what is at stake.  

You can raise the stakes (escalating the conflict) by making the goal even harder to reach.  The single dad might have been fired from his last job because he couldn't concentrate during his grief, so he needs to overcome his grief, defeat the stigma of being fired, and get the job in order to keep their house.  Suppose his kids (having lost one parent already) don't want him to go to work every day because they don't want to lose him, too—now that's some internal conflict!  

You can see how adding deeper motivations, higher stakes, and additional levels of conflict can easily make the work more complex—and probably longer, too.

I find the complexity of a fiction idea is my guide to what length I'll be writing.

A fun idea with minimal character development and a single try/fail cycle might be a great Flash Fiction piece (up to 1500 words).

A more detailed character (or two) facing a more complicated problem (or in a more elaborate setting) might warrant a Short Story (1500-7000 words).

Maybe the problem is very complicated, but you still have one or two main characters. You might be working on a Novelette (7000-15000 words)  or a Novella (up to 45,000 words).

And if you are picturing complete arcs for several characters, or a very complex conflict, you're looking at a Novel (50,000 words plus).

I mentioned above that plot is the intersection of character with conflict.  To develop the plot (the events that actually happen over the course of your story), you'll think about what scenes will show how your character approaches the problem.  You'll need to establish who the character is and what problem he or she faces.  If you're a "pantser" you might simply write "by the seat of your pants," writing the character into a scene and continuing to write as the events unfold before you.

But (especially if you're writing a novel) you might want to try a more deliberate approach (often defined as a "plotter") by developing an outline that shows which scenes you need to develop your character arc and the conflict to be solved.  I like to work with my outline on notecards which enable me to move events around, insert new events, and see what I can do to escalate conflict even more.  There are also computer programs to help you write and organize "virtual" notecards and create your outline entirely on the screen.

Wait a minute—what about setting?  The "place" in the three-part fiction concept?



The time and place when a work happens can have a huge impact on both the events and the characters.  Unlike in a play, where you simply state where and when the action occurs, in fiction you'll need to describe it. Not only that, you'll want to show how the setting affects the characters and what they need to do to work toward their goals.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. says the character should want something—even if it's just a glass of water.  In the setting of a suburban New Hampshire kitchen, that goal doesn't even rate a Flash Fiction piece.  How about in a desert?  Or on a life raft in the middle of the ocean?  The same goal, with a different setting, can suddenly mean conflict.

Likewise, the widower who needs to find a job certainly has plenty of conflict already. Maybe you want to make his life a little easier by setting his story in a time of booming prosperity.  Or maybe you want to place it during the Great Depression.

Doing some research, free-writing and pre-writing about your setting—that is, gathering details that help you to know all about it, but which might not be written directly into the story—can be a huge help to the writer.  The more you know about the place and time you want to capture, the more clearly you can convey it to the reader—not by simply writing lengthy descriptions of places or historical eras, but rather by choosing the right details that will help to make a scene come to life as your character moves through it in pursuit of his goal.

Once you have your fiction idea, a vision of your setting, a grasp of your character, and a conflict for him or her to confront (with as much of a plot as you're willing to develop in advance), you're ready to write!

Put your name and address at the top left of the page, place your title and "by line" about 9 lines down, and begin on the next line after that.  For novels, you'll have a separate title page for this basic information, and begin with "Chapter 1" about a third of the way down the first page.  Your manuscript should be double-spaced and use an easy-to-read font like Times New Roman 12-point or Courier New.  Make sure to include page numbers!  When you reach "the end" do a word count (your word processor program can handle it) and place that information on the first page as well, opposite your name.  What next?

Bring your story to the next NHWP Writers' Night Out to share pages, or sign up to meet a critique partner to swap novels for feedback!  Also, be sure to watch for NHWP writing workshops on the elements of fiction, structure of novels, and how to get even more fiction ideas.  Use these tools and revise your work to make it the best it can be—and happy writing!


Elaine Isaak has published seven novels so far, most recently the Dark Apostle historical fantasy series under her pseudonym E. C. Ambrose, from DAW books. She has also published flash fiction, short stories, and articles about writing, and taught at the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop.