Elements All Fiction Needs

Beginning writers often believe they need a clever plot, but Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer contends that a good writer is actually little more than a good storyteller.

Mark Twain, who considered himself a storyteller, went so far as to say, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I wholeheartedly agree (well, maybe not with the shot part).

Ray Bradbury, one of my all-time favorite authors, agrees, too. He once said, “Plot is nothing but footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to somewhere else …”

Need I say more?

So, What Makes a Good Story?
Writing fiction is a process that usually happens in a specific, often prescribed context. While it can feel like an isolated, individual act, it’s really a very social performance … a way in which we, as authors, respond to the audience around us.

And, like it or not, authors are always writing to an audience.

My wise old grandfather wasn’t an author, but he knew how to make even his simplest stories memorable. They were all full of his hard-earned wisdom, if one only bothered to listen. I still remember the day he told me a fisherman doesn’t save his bait until he sees a fish. He attracts them with it.

“He baits the hook before he drops a line in the water.”

The twinkle in his eye told me it was a comment about much more than fishing. That pearl of wisdom has stayed with me all my life.

Writing good fiction should be like that.

Why People Read
People read fiction for the experience. The details you put on each page are the spices that make your words palatable, but to be certain of capturing the reader’s attention you need to include something interesting, right at the start.

Re-read L. Frank Baum’s classic story, Wizard of Oz. You’ll quickly discover what I’m talking about. Dorothy’s house in Kansas is spinning aloft by page three. Likewise, in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the character Gregor Samsa wakens on page one to find he is a giant insect. Talk about loading your story in a catapult and hitting the launch button!

That, of course, is just the beginning.

Look again at the illustration at the start of this article. The young storyteller obviously has his audience’s attention, but he’s busy becoming the character he’s introduced by adding visual detail to keep them interested.

Try to remember that once a reader is interested, you need to embellish and develop the story. You do this by rich detail … detail that engages all the senses. A good story, while it helps illuminate each character, will also reveal something about basic human needs.

Another good way to develop rich details is to build a strong sense of place. As Stephen King said: “Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”

Dialogue is also important to this sense of place … something I’ve alluded to often.

Consider this quotation from Elmore Leonard: “… if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

The Secret to a Great Story
So, the secret to a great story seems to be create complex characters, quickly develop interesting challenges for them, provide sensory details, and deliver a satisfying surprise at the end.

Although I missed the Rochester Writers’ Spring Conference, this was the theme of at least one of the presentations.

This isn’t to say you don’t need a functional plot. However, as C.S. Lewis said, “…the series of events we call the plot is only the net to catch the theme.”

In the end, your story should speak to something important to your characters and your readers … and to you.

Focus your writing on story, not on plot, and it will always be your strongest writing.


Gentle Readers, my own books have garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

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You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


On March 1, 2018, Rochester Media started publishing my articles about writing. The column will update twice a month. Come on over, take a look, leave a comment and let me know what you think.


On Tuesday, May 15, 2018 I will join other local area writers at the Freelance Marketplace Writers’ Group meeting at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills.


Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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4 Responses to “Elements All Fiction Needs”

  1. Mary Hackstock Says:

    Best post so far…loved reading it! Always enjoy your insight and lovely illustrations, that also “always tell a story!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carrie Rubin Says:

    Great advice. It’s the storytelling that keeps me turning the pages, which, as you point out, is so much more than plot.

    Liked by 1 person

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