The 4 Most Important Elements in Fiction Writing

Space Shuttle launch. Essential elements of fiction writing.

All great fiction writing has more than 4 important elements; however, in my opinion, there are 4 that are the driving force behind your story.

Any avid reader can quickly identify when a book is going to be great or not. They may not be able to tell you the elements that are or aren’t there, but they’ve learned to recognize what a story needs for it to be a page turner.

Today’s post looks at those 4 foundational building blocks of fiction writing.

I’ve been reading a terrific book by Donald Miller titled Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message so Customers Will Listen. The book is geared to businesses, but it’s a good read for authors as well. After all, you are in the business of writing and selling your books.

Miller’s premise is that customers are best reached through the elements of story, and he takes a hard look at story structure.

These story elements are nothing new. Storytellers have been using them for thousands of years. But many writers fail to understand or lose sight of these elements as they get slogged down in the middle of their story.

Element 1: What does the hero want?*

The hero, aka the protagonist, wants something. Will the hero get what she wants? This is what keeps the reader engaged—wanting to find out if the hero reaches that goal.

The entire story is about the hero’s journey to your her goal. If you, as the writer, don’t know what that goal is, how can you write the story? And you must make that goal clear to your reader. If they can’t determine the protagonist’s goal, then they fail to ask “will she reach her goal?” and interest in the story wanes.

In most stories (there’s always the exception), the hero has both an external and internal goal. Often at the beginning of the story the hero is unaware of her internal goal.

In Disney’s movie Tangled, Rapunzel’s external goal is to see the glowing lanterns that fill the sky every year on her birthday. Her internal goal, which she states in her opening song, is to discover “when will my life will begin?” She doesn’t really know what life looks like but knows her life as it is isn’t true living.

Element 2: Who or what is opposing the hero getting what she wants?*

The who or what that opposes your hero is the antagonist of the story. In Tangled that antagonist is Rapunzel’s “supposed” mother, Gothel.

Keep in mind that the antagonist has a goal of her own as well. That goal is most often what comes into direct conflict with the hero in reaching her goal.

Every scene in which the protagonist appears involves a step toward that goal and some conflict in the way. This is often missing in a lot of the manuscripts I edit.

Element 3: What will the hero’s life look like if she does (or does not) get what she wants?*

The strongest stories include a death of sorts, be it literal or figurative. In Tangled Rapunzel faces a figurative death, bondage to Gothel. In romance it means losing the girl/guy of their dreams.

Whatever life without the goal looks like, it must be so compelling the hero will do anything to avoid it. Otherwise, the reader is left saying “so what?”

Element 4: Who is the guide who helps our hero reach her goal?

The guide is a person who gives the hero “a plan, and calls them to action.”*

In Tangled, Flynn Rider is the guide, so is Pascal, her pet chameleon (yes, you can have multiple guides). In Lord of the Rings, among the many are Gandalf and Samwise Gamgee. The guide offers the help and advice that spurs the hero on toward the goal.

These aren’t elements that some magician conjured back in 1000 B.C. Intrinsically, we know we have a purpose/goal in life. In caveman days, that purpose was to survive and nature was the primary obstacle.

In the 21st century, we still seek to survive, though depending on where you were born (e.g. New York City or a village on the Amazon River), the struggle presents different obstacles (opposition). Throughout our lives we find various guides to help us (e. g. parents, teachers, mentors, friends). For the Christian, the Bible and the Holy Spirit are 2 major guides.

These 4 things are the foundational elements in fiction writing that you build your plot around. Leave one out and you place your story in peril of the slush pile.

What goal have you given the hero of your work in progress, and what does he/she face if he/she doesn’t meet that goal? Leave your comments below.

For more on fiction writing read my series “6 Tasks to Accomplish with Act 1 of Your Novel.”

*From Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.


  1. This reminder sure helps to keep us on track in our writing. Thanks, Debra. I’m putting this in my newsletter.

Let your voice be heard. . .

%d bloggers like this: