The Writer's Cookbook

Writing, productivity, publishing.

8 Essential Story Ingredients for Flash Fiction and Novels Alike

Think about a story that resonated with you. What made it so special? Why has it stuck with you?

Chances are, if you compare several of them, you’ll start to notice a pattern emerging.

While writing is subjective, there are ingredients every story needs to keep its audience engaged.

In today’s post, I’m going to be delving deeper into the realms of fiction. This includes short stories, novellas, and novels, but there may be some sections that apply more to one area than the other.

1. Relatable narrators

The voice and tone of a poem is incredibly important and can change how it makes the reader feel.

Are you going to tell your story in first, second, or third person?

Your narrator will be the character your reader spends most of the story with, so it’s important that their personality and voice is consistent (and believable). And, most importantly of all, that they’re likeable. Even if they’re the villain, they must have something that redeems them in the eyes of the reader and makes their heinousness more acceptable.

Some people prefer writing in first, others prefer third. Which is choose will depend on the kind of story you want to tell.

It’s rare to write novels—or any form of fiction, really—in second person. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been done, but it’s uncommon. This is not only because it’s difficult to write, but also because it can be confusing/disorienting for the reader. Think carefully before choosing to write your story from this angle.

If you’re writing a short story—particularly flash fiction—stick with one narrator and point of view. With a short word count, it will confuse readers if you jump between too many. If there’s a lot going on, it may be worth changing into a novel. Or, if that doesn’t work, writing in third person omniscient.

If you’re writing a longer piece of fiction, I’d still recommending keeping your narrators to a minimum. Especially if you’re writing in first person.

Why?

It can get very confusing for readers unless your characters each have VERY unique voices.

Having multiple narrators also makes more work for you, and can get confusing when you’re switching between writing different scenes.

If you have multiple protagonists, it’s easier to write in third person instead of first. This gives you some leeway when writing, making it easier to switch between characters. It also makes it less confusing for the reader as you can switch from one character’s perspective to another without switching chapters. If you’re writing in first person, a chapter break is the only way to prevent it from getting confusing between different points of view.

The POV in which you write in can COMPLETELY change your story, so think very carefully before you decide.

2. Likeable characters

perks-of-being-a-wallflower

You have to spend a lot of time with your characters, so if you don’t like them, you’re going to struggle to write about them. Not only that, but if you don’t like them, why should anyone else? Even if they’re the most detestable human being (or mythical creature) ever, if the story is told from their perspective there has to be something in their story to make the reader relate to them. If the reader can relate to them, they’ll keep turning the page to find out what happens next.

Aim to make your characters well-rounded and not walking cliches or stereotypes. The more people that can relate to your characters, the more likely they are to feel for them and want to read on.

It’s possible to write from the point of view of a villain, if you can give them some endearing qualities. A lot of recent TV shows have done this, including Supernatural.

Crowley, for example, is King of the Underworld. But he’s got a human side. He cares about Sam and Dean, even if he doesn’t want to. Thanks to the way he’s written and Mark Sheppard’s acting, he’s one of the most popular characters on the show.

The angels, meanwhile, all do things that could be interpreted as evil, but which they see as ‘the greater good’. There’s a fine line between good and evil, and the angels and demons frequently cross it.

How a character interprets their actions can say a lot about them, and make even the craziest of motives more believable.

3. Easy-to-follow structure

What ingredients does a short story need?

How are you going to structure your story? Is it linear or non-linear?

Is it divided up into chapters or volumes?

When writing a short story, if it’s less than a few thousand words, it’s not necessary to section it off unless you’re switching between characters.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about where to end your chapters in a novel. A lot of writers do it on instinct.

I usually go for at a moment of tension, or a funny line. This makes the reader want to read on, and if they really can’t, it gives them something to think about until next time.

If you don’t want to follow a traditional chapter structure, you could break up your novel based on days/dates; months; characters/points of view; world/plane if you’re writing fantasy…the possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.

Breaking up your story in something other than the traditional ‘Chapter 1, Chapter 2’, etc, is becoming increasingly common, and why shouldn’t it? It gives you greater creativity and flexibility than a rigid chapter structure.

4. Engaging plot

Plot is the most important part of any story. When Jenny Savill, a literary agent with Andrew Nurnberg Associates, did a guest talk during my Creative Writing MA, she said that the most important element to a story is a good plot. If the plot doesn’t grip her, she’s not interested.

I would highly recommend planning your story before you start, particularly if it’s a novel. The deeper into it you get, the easier it becomes to lose track of where you’re going. Having a vague idea of where your characters will end up—even if they change course along the way—helps you to stay motivated and have something to work towards. It also stops you from including too many filler scenes that don’t move the plot along.

(Said filler scenes are useful to write when figuring out your characters, but should be cut when editing later on.)

5. Interesting subplot(s)

This doesn’t apply to flash fiction or short stories under several thousand words. Subplots are far too complicated for something with such a short word count.

If you’re writing a longer piece of fiction, however, you may find this useful.

Subplots allow for a break in the main plot without the reader leaving the story. They can be used to complement the main plot, or can be unrelated. The longer your piece, the more subplots you can get away with. If your piece is a novella, you may not feel the need for a subplot, but you can include one if you wish. In a novel, there are often several tributaries going off the main plot, usually tied together somehow.

Try not to go overboard with subplots though: you don’t want to confuse people. Also keep in mind that if your novel ever gets turned into a film, said subplot(s) will get cut. The Avoxes in The Hunger Games, or the Headless Hunt in Harry Potter are a good example of this.

6. Your audience

What does a novel need to have? Audience. It's super important to keep your audience in mind AT ALL TIMES when working on your piece.

Who are you writing your story for?

If it’s yourself, your partner, your kid, doesn’t matter. So long as you have that person in mind.

Having an audience in mind makes your story easier to write because you can ask yourself how they would feel about a particular scene, and if it’s age-appropriate.

Not only that, but when you come to the selling/marketing of your story, you have a better idea of how to publicise it and where.

7. Effective but not overused dialogue

I love dialogue. It’s one of my favourite things to write. You can learn so much about people just from the words that they use. But there is such a thing as too much dialogue.

Give each of your characters a unique voice and way of speaking. This helps them to stand out in the reader’s mind and makes them more interesting. A good  example of a character’s unique voice is Hagrid from Harry Potter.

8. Visual description

Despite my love of dialogue, I know that without description, in most cases, it would fall flat.

Sometimes, you don’t need dialogue. Less really can be more when it comes to dialogue, so keep this in mind when writing it. Ask yourself if your character could show that they’re angry, instead of telling the reader that they’re really angry. (Yes, I know you’ve heard ‘Show, Don’t Tell‘ before, but it really is good advice.)

Consider this:

‘I’m angry,’ she said.

With this:

She clenched her fists, her face turning red.

The second one is more effective because we can see that she’s angry. We’re a visual species, and the easier it is for us to picture something, the more involved we become.

Not only that, but by showing the reader instead of telling them, we’re giving them a mental workout. They interpret the characters’ actions in their own way. This is probably why reading fiction (particularly literary fiction) has shown to increase empathy in people.

Tl;dr

  1. Pick your narrator(s) and point-of-view carefully
  2. Have likeable characters
  3. Make sure it’s easy for your reader to follow
  4. Come up with an engaging plot
  5. Decide on subplot(s) (if the piece is long enough)
  6. Know your audience
  7. Use dialogue effectively
  8. Make your description visual—show, don’t tell

Over to You

What do you feel are the most important elements to a piece of fiction? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


If you enjoyed this, you can find the rest of the ingredients series here:
1. Fiction (You’re here!)
2. Poetry
3. Screenplay
4. Stage plays
5. Copy
6. Blogs

Updated: 29/01/17

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1 Comment

  1. I like this recipe for novels&short stories. The part about showing, not telling, is particularly important: «Ask yourself if your character could show that they’re angry, instead of telling the reader that they’re really angry.»

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