The Basic Elements of Writing
By Alice H. Dunn, 2016
In the best writing class I took in college, the teacher said I had a “voice”. I knew she meant it as a compliment, but I wasn’t sure just why. Did she mean that when I wrote something, the reader could tell how I felt about it? That was the rather indistinct idea she gave me. I have pondered what else it might mean for the next 33 years.
Last month at my writing group (Idaho Writer’s League, Pocatello Chapter) we had a discussion about a shared novel chapter involving where and how the writer introduced a new character. This writer definitely has a voice, and he uses it in his own distinctive style, which is like no other. The problem boiled down to two things: point of view and logic. I was not satisfied that we had helped him solve the problem clearly. It wouldn’t hurt to summarize the basic meanings of a few writing terms with an eye to using what we know about them to improve our work.
Voice—To briefly answer the question with which I started this piece, voice is the way the writer’s ideas, beliefs, and opinions are exposed in his/her writing. Voice contains and shapes the story. The writer’s voice should also suit the story.
Logic—It’s pretty plain that even though logic may be hidden in mystery, no piece of writing ends well if logic is not eventually satisfied, case in point, Jessica Fletcher’s wind-up at the end of every Murder She Wrote installment.
Theme—The focus of the piece of writing; what the story is about. Consistent focus must be maintained throughout.
Style—The means by which the writer uses his/her voice, such as how he selects words and puts them in place to best suit the story. Any writer may vary his/her style to write with local color, ornament, force, countrification, sincerity, or artifice, or poetically, or in a journalistic style, or in any other way he/she chooses to demonstrate his/her own style.
Point of View—Who tells the story. This may be an omniscient narrator who knows and sees all and can report anything logical with the final outcome of the story even if no character knows things that are reported. The POV may otherwise be either 1st person or 3rd person. In first person, everything reported must be as the narrator sees it—I saw, I heard, I did, etc. In third person, everything reported must be what the character telling the story sees, hears, does, etc. Other characters can contribute information through dialogue and actions that the POV character interprets. Only what is logical for the POV person to know at the time of the scene belongs in that scene. In summary, the POV character brings knowledge with him/her to the scene and may learn from other characters and from observations during the scene.
If POV changes, there must be a break or a new chapter to accommodate the new POV, and it must be a clear change. For example, in one chapter may have one character as narrator (That means what happens in the chapter is logically known to the person through whose eyes the action is being experienced and reported, and he/she is referred to by name or a pronoun for that name. The next chapter might be what is happening to a different character and is reported from his/her POV.) Or sometimes when the writer has two or three characters with related things going on at the same time, their stories can be told in a parallel manner by writing different sections of the same chapter, each section from the POV of the involved character. In summary, when POV changes, the story needs a new division, be it a clearly indicated section or a new chapter.
Person—The essence of each character.
Structure—The way the story develops with highs and lows, problems and solutions, building toward the denouement and resolution.
Sequencing—Presenting small and large events logically so that focus remains clear while creating tension and surprises that result in suspense and desire in the reader to seek the final outcome.
Genre or Type—The above elements apply to writing in any genre although much else can vary. A genre is loosely defined as a “school of fiction”. Some genres (not an exclusive list) to consider as to how the elements apply and what other elements might be important to them individually are briefly described below:
Romantic—stories such as Ivanhoe and Westward Ho. This genre includes sub-genres such as adventure, heroic fiction, escape, historical fiction, western, stories about far away places, and stories that pit the noble against reality.
Romance—A beautiful young woman is saved from danger by a handsome hero. They fall in love (and may be shown in a steamy session or two.) Christian romance contains religious references and practices. It is usually less steamy.
Sentimental—the story emphasizes feelings and emotions. Classics such as Tristam Shandy and the Vicar of Wakefield are examples of sentimental literature.
Realism—Dickens, Thackery, and Sinclair Lewis wrote in this genre. It is considered the definition of fiction: “…exhibit life in its true state… ” (Dr. Johnson, I assume Samuel.)
Naturalism—True stories told as exactly as possible. Dreiser wrote in this school. Detective stories are this genre.
Stream of consciousness—This genre attempts to represent the flow of ideas and images through the mind. Virginia Wolf, James Joyce, and Collette wrote in this genre.
Fantasy—Dream world (Alice in Wonderland), not bound by the limits of real life (Gulliver’s Travels), science fiction, supernatural tales, etc.
Information for this posting came from Johnny Payne, Voice and Style; Ronald B. Tobias, Theme and Strategy; James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel; Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 4th edition; and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th edition. I also refer the reader to the excellent piece on point of view by Hemlata Vasavada in the Palouse Chapter News of the April,2016, Leagazette of Idaho Writer’s League. It can be found at www.idahowritersleague.com.