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Six Essentials For Fiction Writers

Color WheelEveryone loves a pithy list, right? I’ve written a couple of them, myself. This list of six essentials for fiction writers originally appeared in the Indie Writers Unite Facebook group in a discussion that asked the questions, “Are your stories plot based or character based? Which do you prefer writing?”

My short answer was that the question presented a false dichotomy — that both are essential and interwoven. As the discussion went on, I came up with a list of six essentials fiction writers must address with equal priority. Ignore any of these — favor one over another — and the work will suffer.

I want to bring the list to a larger audience and open the discussion to you, dear reader. So here we go:

Six Essentials For Fiction Writers

  1. Conflict: Two people are thirsty and there’s one glass of water.
  2. Plot: What do they do to get the glass of water?
  3. Character: Why do they do what they do?
  4. Theme: What does the expression of conflict, plot and character say about the human experience?
  5. Publication / Marketing: Who experiences the work?
  6. Art: What emotions are inspired by the work, and do they match the author’s intention?

I believe that all of these elements are equally essential… and that the work that comes after the writing is just as important as the writing.

Yes, publication and marketing are part of being an author: to call the work complete, it must be experienced by someone other than its creator.

Emphasize any of these elements above the others, and your fiction will be less than it can be.

Is it difficult to balance all the essential elements, and to do each one well?

Absolutely. It’s certainly something I struggle with. But it’s necessary. Nothing worthwhile is without challenges, right?

How Well Are You Addressing The Six Essentials For Fiction Writers?

Where are your strengths and weaknesses with regard to these essential elements? Do you think I’m on to something here, or do you disagree? Let’s talk about it in the comments section!

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  • Matt,

    I agree that the six points are all important, but I think of them a little differently, not to be trite but I think of it with a food analogy.

    The first four points are about the creation of the meal, the fifth is about the awareness of the meal, and the last the experience of the person eating the meal.

    I can certainly see how the writer is involved in the first four steps, selecting the ingredients, balancing the flavors, textures and aromas of the dishes. Publishing is like the ambiance of the restaurant, the brand of the writer, which helps the author reach the targeted audience.

    That said, I have a little trouble with the emotional evocation. To me, this is the sum of the first five steps and not necessarily a separate step. It’s the goal of the first five, or am I missing something subtle here?

    Thanks for sharing,


    PS I don’t have a website, yet, so I left my publisher’s page for my book. I hope that’s okay.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Thanks for the comment, Armen!

      The sixth Essential, art, is, certainly, in part a bi-product of the first five. The second part is the part the author has some measure of control over… or, at least, can try to:

      “What emotions are inspired by the work, and do they match the author’s intention?

      My point there is: if the emotions inspired by the work don’t match what you set out to do, you need to circle back and figure out what you can do better when executing on the first four Essentials.

      To match your analogy: if the customer eats the meal and compliments the chef on the excellent hint of oregano when the dish was the chef’s masterwork in the use of kale… the chef needs to look at the recipe.

      Sure, part of that is dependent upon whether the diner is particularly sensitive to oregano, but it’s still the chef’s responsibility to guide the diner’s experience to the appropriate, um, taste destination.

      I hope that makes sense. I don’t think I can maintain the analogy any longer..!

      • Matt,

        I think we’re in pretty close agreement here, certainly within the limits of the analogy.

        My only quibble would be if the customer enjoys the meal, then it might not be the meal that needs adjusting, but rather the chef’s expectations. Probably less true for books or short stories, but certainly in poetry (for which I have no talent), I come down on the side of reader for interpretation.

        Thanks again for sharing your points on the other thread.


        • A
          Matthew Selznick

          I’m abandoning the chef analogy at this point…

          I know that the author can’t entirely control the reader’s reaction to their work… but if that reaction doesn’t include something the author intended, I think that is on the author. Even with poetry.

          As writers, it’s our responsibility to use our words to deliver our message. If we don’t deliver the message (to an audience reasonably expected to recognize it) then there’s something lacking in our use of the words we choose.

          It’s probably a safe bet that many authors don’t worry about it — their goal is to entertain, and that’s fine to a degree. Part of the point of my six essentials is that if you ignore any one of them, the work will suffer for it… not necessarily fail, but not be all that it can be.

  • Ah the balancing act – first of all, I too get really frustrated with the constant question of is it plot or character driven – I know there are lots of novels where there is a very clear distinction, but I think there’s also a giant grey area where both are equally as important. And that often then lends itself to lack of clarity as to what kind of book you’re writing – unless it’s clearly genre.
    As to your six ingredients – I think the publishing/marketing aspect is absolutely essentially but I do see it as being completely separate from the others as it happens outside of the novel. Also I know what you mean by Art – but I’m not sure what I’d call it. -I think of it more as interprepretation – I truly believe that any piece of art is in fact completed by the viewer. it’s an exchange of ideas if you like, between the writer and the reader. But certainly the work should evoke emotion of some kind, otherwise why bother?
    As to how close I follow all six – lets just say I’m conscious of all of them – how successful I am will be decided if & when I’m published.
    Thanks so much for sharing your post.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Thanks for the comment, A.K.!

      I think essential number five, Publishing / Marketing, is part of fiction writing because of number six — the assertion that the characters, plot and theme don’t matter if your work isn’t experience / interpreted by people other than yourself. Without publication and marketing, there’s no audience, and with no audience, there’s no art. Without essentials five and six, you will have created something… but it won’t be complete, and it won’t be everything it can be.

  • Hi Matt,

    Although it is possible to write something brilliant without balancing all six points equally – Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share – (not much conflict but still an amazing book). But I have to agree with you. There needs to be balance between Plot, Character, Conflict and Theme and I try really hard with my writing to achieve that balance.

    I can’t really comment about the Publication/Marketing yet because my book ‘Paper Magic’ isn’t coming out until next year. I am however putting together an extensive marketing strategy on top of what the publisher will provide. It is a children’s book so the plan includes a website, teacher resources, school visits, print and TV media, blog tour and hopefully positive reviews from children’s authors I admire.

    I also the Art and emotion of the book is important too. All of my favourite books have evoked strong emotions in me.

    So yes, I do agree with your theory.


    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff!

      Nathan Lowell’s “Quarter Share” does have plenty of Conflict — it’s just very low-key and personal, and interlaced so well with Character it’s all of-a-piece.

      It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into the marketing of your book… and I strongly suggest that you start that engine well before your book comes out!

      Thanks again, Jeff, and good luck!

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