Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

Resources for Writers

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Fiction is composed of distinct parts. You can think of them as the building blocks that you’ll use to construct your fiction project. Once you learn to identify these blocks and how they work, they’re fun to play with. But if you get the balance wrong by, say, overloading your project with exposition (tell), your project may, well, topple over.

If you look on the internet, you’ll see authors differ on how many modes of storytelling there are, and even what they are called. That can get confusing. But the concepts are basically the same. Here are four basic blocks from which we construct scene: action, dialogue, exposition and description. We also use transitions and interior monologue. And I’ll make note of a special sort of scene: flashback.

You're likely familiar with each of these terms, but I’ll give you my definitions, followed by very simple examples taken from the opening of The Stalker, one of my literacy learner or hi-lo novels (written at a low reading level for those improving their reading skills).

ActionACTION is what the characters do, how they move within the scene, what is happening. Example:

     I grabbed the phone from the nightstand.

The line above is an action beat. Beats are the small actions we give to characters, usually inserted within dialogue, that orient the reader as to who is speaking, where the characters are and what they are doing. Beats also help to convey emotion and can offer pacing and rhythm to the prose.

 DialogDIALOGUE is what the characters say to each other, in conversation on the page. Example:

     "Nice day for a little kayak trip, eh?" he said. "But I wouldn't go out if I were you."

     "Who is this?"

Exposition In EXPOSITION things are explained and background information is given. When exposition occurs in dialogue, it’s called expository dialogue. You've heard the expression "show, don't tell." Exposition is all about "tell." Example:

     I run sea kayak tours. My staff and I guide tourists as they paddle my boats around the many islands along the coast of Vancouver Island.

Description DESCRIPTION engages all five senses and paints a picture of the setting and characters in the reader's mind. Example:

      Artists' studios, cafes, and a fish and chips shop lined the waterfront. Fishermen's boats were tied up along the docks beside the tourists' sailboats and motorboats. Across the inlet, mist drifted down the rocky cliffs.

 TRANSITIONS are used whenever there is a change in the story, say at the beginning of a chapter, when we move from one place and time to the next, or from one point of view to another. We use transitions to orient the reader as to where, and when, they are now, and who they are with. Example:

     The stalker phoned me for the first time early on a Saturday morning. The ringing of my cell phone woke me.

INTERIOR MONOLOGUE is the character’s thoughts. When we read interior monologue, we’re inside the character's head, mind-reading. Example:Blocks

     I felt sorry as soon as the words came out of my mouth.

Again, all these modes of storytelling, or building blocks of fiction, combine to form scenes. SCENES move the story along and hold the readers interest. Things happen in front of the reader, in real time (the "now" of the story). When handled well, the reader feels they are right there with the protagonist.

FLASHBACKS are special kinds of scenes that take the reader back in time in relation to the “now” of the narrative. They are the character’s memories.

BlocksIn the past, I've brought my son's building blocks into my classes to demonstrate these basic building blocks of fiction. Think of a scene as a block on wheels: it moves the story forward. Transition (or narrative summary) is a bridge that connects two blocks of scenes (it moves from one place and time to the next). Description is a block that builds up from the scene: it creates the picture of landscape or character in the reader's mind. Lastly there are the small blocks of exposition or explanation (tell). Exposition is useful and necessary, but, like description, should be used sparingly as it weighs the narrative down. Narrative drive -- that tension that keeps the reader reading and asking, "what's going to happen next?" -- stalls when the author or a character starts describing or explaining too much.

One way to really get a handle on these building blocks of fiction is to check out how they work within stories and novels you admire. Try highlighting the different building blocks using different colours.

Want to know more? Here's a detailed overview of Narrative Modes in Fiction. While I recommend reading the whole blog, scroll down to the heading "the Narrative Modes in Fiction."

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.