Fiction is fabricated and based on writers’ imaginations. Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. Many writers use historical or current events as jumping off points since every story must start somewhere. Whatever writers’ inspiration, they use specific narrative techniques to heighten their story’s impact.
Major narrative techniques include character, plot, point of view, setting, and certainly some kind of conflict. These elements overlap and depending on the story, it’s often difficult to determine which is the most important. Some people say it’s setting, others character, but they’re also interdependent. Characters are often based on real people, but writers, once the characters are fully developed, let them take on a life of their own. Characters make decisions, create problems they need to solve, and generally determine where the action goes, thus determining the plot of the story. Character, the individual person or people chosen to drive the story, necessitates conflict and writers must base the story around the character’s bravery, cowardice, strength, or weakness. As in real life, characters are judged by what they say, what they do, and what others say about them. Conflict comes from what the character does, whom he interacts with, or from an inner conflict he needs to overcome. The external conflict could be about man against nature (a person being stranded on a life raft on the ocean and here also setting comes into play), man against man (a character competing for something or someone), or man against himself (a character struggling to overcome a personal shortcoming).
Like all literary elements, plot is a term to denote the events in a story which relate to each other in a pattern or sequence. Character and setting determine the sequence or organization. Point of view is an important element of fiction because it determines who tells the story. In the first-person point of view, the story is told by a character in the story using the pronoun, I. Often the narrator is the main character, so the point of view is the first-person protagonist. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn lets Finn narrate the story from his point of view. If the narrator is a secondary character, the point of view is first-person observer as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story or Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin in “The Purloined Letter.” The very popular third-person point of view uses the third-person pronoun to describe all of the action in a story.
Setting is where the story takes place and that includes physical setting, chronological setting, and historical setting. Setting can be invented by a writer and needn’t follow precise and accurate details. Stephen King, for instance, sets many of stories in Derry, Maine, which is based on his hometown of Bangor. The ‘where’ of the story can be general, such as a field in the country or specific, like an apartment in a big city. The ‘when’ can also be general or specific. Frequently writers choose general settings because they want the story to be universal and not limited by time and place, such as Shirty Jackson’s “The Lottery”.
Writers use description to establish mood and to draw pictures of the world in which the characters live. It’s important to describe what the characters would see and let description interrupt the story. Invoking multiple senses and strong emotion in the reader is important to draw them into the story, and the much-used ‘show-don’t-tell’ paradigm falls in this category. As Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”.
Symbols are used by writers to show something which means something else, usually a tangible thing standing for something intangible. Very simply, a red rose means “I love you.” Symbols add interest and depth, but most writers use them sparingly and with caution.
How a writer uses specific literary devices depends on the format or genre he chooses to tell his story. A story can be about anything at all. That’s the hard part.