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 other CWN 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.

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 roadmap 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 point of view and narrators and how to use them.

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

Elements of a novel: Dialogue

Dialogue is your characters' conversation presented directly on the page. If I tell you that Marcia asked John out, that's not dialogue. Dialogue is when I show it to you in Marcia's exact words. Example: "Want to go to a movie?" Marcia asked John.

Read more about how to write dialogue.

Dialogue tags are phrases such as "he said," and "Marcia asked John," which let your reader know which character is speaking at each point in the dialogue. You don't have to use dialogue tags when it's clear who's speaking without them.

Read more about dialogue tags.

Practice writing dialogue with these story starters.

Photo credit: Jeremy McKnight

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