Essential Elements of a Novel

Here you'll find a quick overview of the elements of a novel, or almost any kind of fiction. You'll also find links to pages about how to write short stories or novels.

Elements of a novel: Character

Characters are the imaginary people you write about in your fiction or drama. Examples of fictional characters: Harry Potter, Hamlet, Oliver Twist, Cinderella.

The main character of your story is called the protagonist.

An antagonist is a character who causes problems for the protagonist in the story.

Read about creating characters.

Get a free worksheet for writing character profiles.

Elements of a novel: Plot

Plot is what happens in a work of fiction, and the order that it happens in.

For a work of fiction to be worth reading, something has to happen by the end. You have to take the reader to from Point A to Point B. This journey might be:

  • a change in the character (for example, the character matures or overcomes a challenge).

  • a change in the situation (for example, zombies take over the town).

  • a change in the readers' understanding (for example, in the beginning, readers think the protagonist was falsely accused of murder, and at the end, readers understand that he is guilty).

Your novel's plot is the road map you will take from Point A to Point B.

Read more about plot.

Practice plot development with these fiction writing prompts.

Elements of a novel: Setting

Setting is where your novel takes place. Your setting might be a room, a forest, a battlefield, a spaceship...

Setting can:

  • Create atmosphere for your fiction, help your reader imagine the scenes.

  • Convey information about a character. For example, if your character's life is in chaos, you could express this by showing her in her messy home.

  • Provide plot opportunities. For example, if your setting is a Florida swamp, and you put a hungry alligator in your character's path, then something interesting is likely to happen.

"Showing" instead of "telling" will help your reader imagine your setting. Read more about "showing" versus "telling" here.

Practice using specific details to describe your setting. Try these creative writing prompts to start.

Elements of a novel: Point of View

Narrative point of view is the perspective from which you tell a work of fiction. From what angle do the readers see the action? Are they at the police station? Looking over the murderer's shoulder? Inside the murderer's brain?

Another way to think of point of view: If your novel were a movie, the point of view would be the location of the camera.

Your narrator is the voice that's telling the story.

  • A first-person narrator tells the story using the words "I" and "me," as if he/she were actually there.

  • A third-person narrator tells the story from the outside and doesn't use the word "I" and "me" to describe the story's events because he or she isn't a participant. Instead, this type of narrator describes the characters as "he/him" or "she/her," etc.

Read advice on different kinds of narrators and how to choose.

Take our 8-week course on narrative point of view.

Practice point-of-view techniques with these story starters.

Elements of a novel: Dialogue

Dialogue is your characters' conversation presented on the page.

In direct dialogue, you quote a character's words exactly, like this: "Do you want to go to a movie?" Marsha asked.

In indirect dialogue, you tell the reader what the character said, like this: Marsha asked John if he wanted to go to a movie.

Dialogue's a great way to bring characters to life on the page by allowing readers to hear their voices.

Read more about how to write dialogue.

Practice writing dialogue with these story starters.

Elements of a novel - Description

Description helps make a novel vivid in the reader's imagination.

You can weave description naturally into a scene, including sensory details—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, temperatures...

Take our free three-day course on writing description!

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What next?

Want to learn how to write fiction, for free? Check out these online writing courses.

Are you a writing teacher? Our teaching section has creative writing lesson plans you can use.