Friday, October 9, 2015

Element-ary Education

Happy fall! I hope you’re getting to enjoy all the pleasant things autumn brings. Maybe it’s even inspiring your writing project…something about autumn’s mood tends to touch the imagination.

Inspiration is always welcome, but particularly when your story doesn’t seem to be working in one way or another. Every writer has something he or she especially struggles with, since one person can’t be natural at everything. Sometimes that is just the writer’s style—such as when someone isn’t overly descriptive, because his story is action-packed, or when someone can’t write novels shorter than 100,000 words, because she’s gifted at spinning long works. The opposite of a struggle is sometimes the writer’s strength.

Simultaneously, however, we have a duty as writers to write as well-rounded and balanced a novel as we reasonably can, for our readers’ sakes. Certain elements of a story are essential to get right, such as character, plot, dialogue, setting, pacing, description, and theme.

Because there are elements I struggle with (I’m not the only one, right??), I find it helpful to run a checklist or questionnaire in my mind as I write or edit. Something like this might work for you as you mull over your story:

  • Is my main character likeable and interesting? Are all my characters interesting and contributive? Do they always act consistently?
  • Is my plot intriguing? Even if it’s not fast-paced, does it have enough tension and conflict to keep people reading to the end? Is it boringly predictable?
  • Is my dialogue realistic? Does it flow off the tongue, or does it sound stilted? Do the characters speak in character?
  • Are there enough details about my setting for readers to see the story? Do I show how it is distinct, and why it fits the story?
  • Is my pacing too slow or too fast? Do I gloss over important scenes or give too much attention to trivial ones? Do I vary the speed of the narrative?
  • Is my description of anything too heavy-handed or too sparse? Is it uniquely done? Have I described all the important things—most signifcant characters, objects, emotions, et cetera?
  • Is my theme clear? Do readers come away from my book knowing what I was trying to say? Am I too preachy?

I think every good novel has nailed these elements, albeit in the writer’s unique style and within the book’s genre and purpose. We don’t expect L. M. Montgomery to make our hearts race with a suspenseful plot, and we don’t expect Jane Austen to regale our senses with scenery description. But each author has made deliberate choices about how he or she has told the story, and it forms a beautiful work of art that inspires and delights thousands of readers.

Once you evaluate your work, note what you do well and what you don’t quite reach par on. Beta-readers can help out there. Rejoice if you shine in something and polish it up even more—it’s something that defines you as a writer, and you should make it outstanding. (Note: it doesn’t have to be one of those indespensable elements; it could be humor, suspense, mystery, etc.) For those things that you have trouble on, really, really work on those. Scrub them until they’re clean. Get advice from writers who are good at them, or read books or website articles devoted to explaining them. Don’t leave a single part of your writing behind!

I could tell you tales of the writing elements I’ve had to work on! Stiff dialogue, plot bunnies that go nowhere, unnecessary description…. Do you care to share something you’d like to improve on? 

Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history...and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog 


  1. I definitely need to work on action scenes and unique characters. Thank you for this post!

    1. Thank you for sharing! I hope your endeavors go well. The first step is recognizing you need to work on it, so good job!
      You're welcome, and thank you so much for commenting.


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