Elements of Fiction: Other Elements


In addition to the elements of characterization, story structure, and point of view, other elements also work to move the story forward:



Present tense (“She plays baseball”) and past tense (“She played baseball”) are your main choices in terms of denoting time. A writer may decide to use present tense to create an immediacy for the reader.

On the other hand, if a writer wants to create some temporal distance, he/she will use past tense. If a writer decides to use flashbacks, he/she may decide to use present tense for the current and past tense for past events; otherwise, he/she will need to develop clear transitions between main storyline and flashbacks or use the past perfect tense, which can be awkward.

As a writer, you should be constantly aware of how you are using tense to move your story forward. Mixing present and past tense without moving back and forth between the main storyline and flashbacks = inconsistency and tends to confuse the reader. So always be aware of how you use tense. The future tense should be used sparingly, probably in conjunction with the present tense. For example,

The property itself is sold to a consortium of buyers who plan to tear down the old 15-room Victorian and build an upscale medical center called “Maple Hill.” The very next Halloween, almost a year after the auction, several neighborhood youths will invade the property and throw stones at the structure, shattering almost every window.



Each story should offer an overall theme, a central idea or unifying generalization, implied or stated, within the story. For a short story, a reader should be able to summarize the central idea in one sentence. For example, in Marly Swick’s “The Other Widow,” the underlying generalization seems to be that there are other disadvantages to conducting illicit love affairs, other than the obvious ones (e.g., getting caught by a jealous spouse, carrying on with an unstable lover, and dealing with family repercussions). If the theme cannot be boiled down into one sentence, then the scope is probably too broad.



Scope simply refers to the time frame of the story.

Most professional short fiction covers a narrow scope and focuses on one major event, also known as a slice of life. As a general rule, one can’t reveal a character’s entire life in 5-20 pages; therefore, a writer limits a story to revealing the repercussions of a major life event. In addition, many modern writers begin their stories in medias res (in the middle). For example, the time frame of Mary Robison’s “Yours” covers less than one day, and the story opens in the middle of an event, as the young Allison unloads pumpkins from her Renault while her elderly husband Clark, covered by a shawl, sits in a glider and watches. Many new writers try to cover too much in a short space, and end up with superficial stories, devoid of details, description, and dialogue. Avoid the “I’m-going-to-tell-you-the-entire-life-story-of-this-character” syndrome. Especially for short fiction, keep the time frame brief.



Pacing simply refers to story movement, how fast or slow passages might move. Writers strive to incorporate appropriate sentence length to manipulate story movement. (Short, staccato sentences = fast pacing; lengthy, compound/complex sentences = slow pacing. In short, a writer can manipulate pacing via sentence length. Writers often use sentence length variety to reflect changing pace within a story.)


Verisimilitude (“Believability”)

No matter how far-fetched the premise (e.g., science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism stories), you need to convince your reader that your story could be true, thus moving toward suspending the reader’s disbelief. Avoid Deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) devices, for example, a character wins the lottery just before HUD repossesses her house. Even though this scenario could (and probably has) happened in real life, it doesn’t quite work in fiction.

However, if you write a story about a lottery winner after s/he wins the $15,000,000, then you have already set up your perimeters, and you stand a better chance of convincing your reader that after winning a great fortune, a character might act in a certain manner.



Setting refers to place and time.

Some contemporary short stories don’t give much exposition to locale, although local color stories can still be found. Still, place can establish the mood of a story; for example, a writer could set a story among the glitter and illusion of Las Vegas in which a down-and-out protagonist struggles with a gambling problem. In this case, the setting sets an ironic, somber tone – poverty, pain, and gloom amongst the glitzy backdrop of Sin City.

A gloomy setting mostly sets a gloomy tone; however, a gloomy setting could also indicate the opposite; for example, a happy young couple getting married during a thunderstorm could symbolize that couple’s struggle to get to this happy point in their lives. For most stories, it is very important to establish the time frame (at least in a general sense) early on.

As a reader, I need to know historical context (Civil War, Depression, WWII, etc.). I don’t need to know the exact time – a story with a contemporary setting might point to a recent event (9/11, Oklahoma bombing, Anita Thomas/Clarence Thomas conflict), slang word (“Spin-doctors”), or commercial product:

Angelique smeared Oil of Olay all over her peanut butter sandwich; she figured that its magic would work better and faster if she got it into her bloodstream.

You don’t need to belabor the time element; just establish it and get on with the story.


Dialogue and Dramatic Monologue

Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two more people. Dramatic monologue is defined as one character’s internal or external conversation with him, her, themself (character who identifies as binary). Dialogue or dramatic monologue can reveal much about a character, such as educational and family background, accent, and attitude.

Should your story include a lot of dialogue? A little? None at all?

It depends on what you wish to accomplish. For example, dialogue allows your characters to tell their own stories without giving up the option of the third person exposition, to interact with other characters, and/or to reveal personal speech patterns. Some stories need to contain more dialogue than others, some less.

But, beware: poorly used dialogue is worse than none at all. Just make sure that the speech patterns fit the speaker. For example, if your characters are a gang of high school kids who live in the poor section of town, they probably wouldn’t exhibit the same speech patterns as a college professor who had grown up in Beverly Hills.

Also, remember that real human beings, even educated people, use contractions, fragments, clichés, swear words, etc. in their dialogue. Also, if you want to express an eloquent concept through a character of limited intellectual ability, then don’t do it through dialogue! Some successful stories are almost pure dialogue (many Ernest Hemingway stories), some have little or no dialogue (“The Hunger Artist,” by Franz Kafka), and some have an equal mix of dialogue and exposition. Also, not every dramatic moment calls for dialogue, and, therefore, you might use “summarized dialogue”:

And then she told her husband the story of the man who walked into the Laundromat with nothing on but a pair of rubber boots.



Description refers to exposition that expands on the physical world (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) of character and/or setting. For example,

As Mary’s fingers clacked across the keyboard, the rain, like tiny needles, pelted against the window. In the distance, a bloated black cloud rolled by; she felt the chill of cold wind piercing through her, even though it was a precise 72 degrees indoors, and she sat directly under a bright ceiling light. She tapped the “print” button. Jackie Smith, from accounting, wearing a white leather miniskirt and matching boots, sashayed by, her legs sinewy and tanned, her whiff of Opium unmistakable. Mary pulled the paper from the printer; a spidery smudge of ink, smeared across the page. Mary muttered under her breath and punched the “print” button.

Description can indicate the mood of the character and/or set the tone of the story. Details are the bits and pieces that make up descriptive passages. All details must accomplish, within the story, one of three criteria: reveal something important about a character, move the plot forward, and/or establish the setting. In short, follow Anton Chekhov’s famous dictum (paraphrased): If you describe a gun on the wall, then, at some point, that gun has to go off.

All details must point toward the resolution of conflict or reveal something important about the main character. Extraneous details should be identified and deleted.


Showing Versus Telling

Just about every creative writing teacher has repeated the famous mantra of “Show, don’t tell,” but what does this mean?

Showing. The character’s actions are revealed through dialogue, scenes, and/or descriptions. The reader discovers information about the character through that character’s actions. For example:

Mary printed out the letter and handed it to her boss. She hoped that there would be no mistakes this time; she couldn’t afford to lose this job. Next month, the first payment on her student loan would come due. “I’m too young to owe so much money,” she thought as panic rose up in her chest. She was 25 years old.

Telling. Details about the characters are told directly to the reader. For example:

Mary was a 25-year-old secretary on the verge of losing her job.

Summary Versus Scene

Summary. An incident, usually a minor one, that is compressed into a sentence or two. For example:

Mary’s boss called her into the office; he fired her.

Scene.: An incident, usually a major one, that is expanded via dialogue and description. For example, Mary’s firing expanded into a scene:

As Mary’s fingers clacked across the keyboard, the rain, like tiny needles, pelted against the window. In the distance, a bloated black cloud rolled by; she felt the chill of cold wind piercing through her, even though it was a precise 72 degrees indoors, and she sat directly under a bright ceiling light. She tapped the “print” button. Jackie Smith, from accounting, wearing a white leather miniskirt and matching boots, sashayed by, her legs sinewy and tanned, her whiff of Opium unmistakable. Mary pulled the paper from the printer; a spidery smudge of ink, smeared across the page. Mary muttered under her breath and punched the “print” button.

Then Mary’s boss called her into his office.

She braced herself for the worst. She knew that her work had not been up to par, but it still hurt.

“Mary,” he said, steepling his fingers. “I’ve made some notes on this letter that you typed for Mr. Meyers. You know how many mistakes I found?” He tapped his pen on the paper.

Mary shook her head.

“Eight. That’s not acceptable for this office.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“I’m going to have to let you go.”

A good rule of thumb: develop key scenes, and keep summary to a minimum, but use summary when you need to impart important information that is not deserving of its own scene. Writing good fiction involves finding and developing a balance between scene and summary.



All fiction must be driven by conflict, which is usually caused by a sudden turn of events (usually negative but sometimes positive) in the protagonist’s life: unexpected death of family member or friend, promotion at work, divorce, marriage, etc. Without a clash of ideas, desires, and/or goals, there is no story.


The protagonist can experience conflicts with an antagonist: another character, a beast, the environment, an event, or from within him/herself. In many current short stories, the conflict is subtle, but if one looks hard enough, conflict can be found. Note that conflict has more to do with the protagonist’s confused feelings about the event, rather than the event itself.

As in real life, characters do not necessarily respond to situations in the same way.



In many ways, tone is a function of point of view. Specifically, a first-person narrative can be vernacular, slang, elevated, conversational, etc.

Also, is the story primarily humorous, serious, dramatic, action-packed? A humorous story will likely be more casual in tone than a serious or dramatic one.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

Finally, be aware that not all elements will receive equal billing in every piece of fiction. For example, in some stories, setting (in terms of locale and specific time) may not be all that important. You need to emphasize some aspects more than others, and what you choose to emphasize depends on the story that you decide to tell.

Does that make sense?

Still, as a practicing writer, I have discovered that creating interesting and complex characters is probably the most important part of writing fiction.

Once my characters are developed to my satisfaction, everything else seems to fall into place.



More Elements of Fiction:

Elements of Fiction: Characterization 

Elements of Fiction: Point of View 

Elements of Fiction: Story Structure

Elements of Fiction: Other Elements

Elements of Fiction: Building a Character (Character List)





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