5 Key Elements to Making a Fiction Story Work


Contributed by Karen Cioffi

Think about the last time you read a story that stayed with you. A story that made you feel. A story that took you on an adventure or had you sitting on the edge of your seat. A story that made you cry or laugh ... or think.

These types of stories have it. They have the key to making a story work.

So, how do you go about creating a stirring story?

Here are 5 top tips to writing a fiction story that works:

1. It’s got to have conflict.

All writers have heard this and the reason is because it’s true.

Your protagonist MUST be striving for something, and it should be something significant. She needs to have obstacles in her way that she has to overcome in order for the reader to be engaged enough to turn the page.

The reader has to be pulled into the story wondering if, and more so hoping that, the protagonist reaches her goal.

You wouldn’t have much of a story following a couple in an amusement park going from ride to ride, waiting on line for food, and so on. There’s nothing for the reader to get involved with. There’s no emotional element.

Or, what if a great writer puts two children in a story that takes place at the Bronx Zoo. The narrator describes in detail all the exhibits they visit and does it wonderfully. But, what does the reader have to sink her teeth into. Nothing.

One of my all-time favorite movies was Thelma and Louise. The conflict was never-ending. And, it was the conflict that keep you on the edge of your seat.

How would they get out of the mess they were in?!

That’s how you want your readers to feel. There needs to be conflict in order to make the reader feel. It doesn’t have to be ‘seat of your pants’ drama, but it needs to be significant. It can be external or internal, but it has to be something the reader can grab and hang on to. It has to make the reader get involved with the story and care about it.

2. The readers need to be invested in the story.

A good story brings the reader into the protagonist’s shoes. This is what will motivate the reader to like and root for the protagonist.

It’s all about making the reader ‘feel.’ The story has to evoke emotion on the reader’s part. The story has to have substance.

Going back to Thelma and Louise, one wrong decision spiraled out of control into what seemed to them as a live or die situation.

Circumstances and choices took them bounding out-of-control, as if caught up in a tornado. This kind of story creates investment.

It evoked emotion in just about everyone who saw the movie. Everyone was rooting for the protagonists.

In an article, “Make Readers Deeply Connect to Your Characters,” the author calls this key factor, “transportation.” You’re bringing the reader out of their reality and into your story world. You’re transporting them.

Like Alice when she steps into the rabbit hole. Down, down, down she went into another world.

3. The characters have to act ‘real’ and be likeable.

Your characters need to be multifaceted. They need to behave like real people. This means they’ll have good traits, but they’ll also have some bad traits or weaknesses. It may be they’re indecisive. Or, at the beginning of the story they may be frightened of everything.

Your characters should make great decisions, but they should also make poor ones.

Along with this, your protagonist needs to be likeable. He needs to have traits that the reader will admire and connect to. It’s important that the reader likes the protagonist.

Maybe your protagonist will be honest, heroic, responsible, generous, or loyal.

You get the idea. These are characteristics that most people admire in others. They’re characteristics that will draw the reader in.

I forgot what movie it was and I forgot the exact details, but basically the protagonist was sitting in a diner across from her date. Another woman, elegantly dressed, walked passed with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her shoe. The toilet paper woman was heading to a table where a man was waiting for her.

The protagonist excused herself for a moment. She got up and removed the paper from the woman’s foot by walking behind her and stepping on the paper. Then she sat back down and returned to her conversation.

The woman that passed by never knew the kindness the protagonist showed her. And, the protagonist didn’t mention what she did to her date.

This one simple act of kindness spoke volumes about the character of the protagonist. She’s the type of person you’d admire and like to be friends with.

4. The protagonist needs to have some heroic qualities.

At some point in the story, the protagonist needs to step up. This can be in several small incidents that she overcomes throughout the story. Or, it can be in one climatic incident that wraps the story up.

In general, and especially in children’s stories, the protagonist needs to take action and reach her goal.

It may be after one or two or three failures, but ultimately, the protagonist must step up. Whether it’s physical or emotional, whether internal or external, she needs to fight through all obstacles that stand in her way.

Readers want a purposeful story. They want and even expect the protagonist to be victorious. Don’t let your readers down.

5. Tie-up all loose ends.

When you’re getting to the end of your story, make sure all loose ends are tied up. Any tidbits of information you put out there must be resolved.

You want the reader to go away satisfied. You don’t want her wondering why something was mentioned somewhere in the story and not resolved.

One example is mentioning that the protagonist’s close friend lost his dog. Then there’s no mention of it. Was the dog found?


Another example is in a middle-grade manuscript I read. The author had the friend of the protagonist saying he couldn’t go to the protagonist’s special event because he had something URGENT to do that day.

Afterward there was no mention of the urgent matter.

This is a NO-NO. What was so urgent? Why was it mentioned, if it wasn’t followed up with?

As I read the manuscript I knew that part would either have to be addressed (tied-up) or eliminated.

These loose-ends are things that will gnaw at the reader. They will finish the book feeling like something is missing. Again, this is a NO-NO.

So, there you have it.

While there is more involved in writing good fiction, these five are at the top of the ‘good fiction story’ list.


https://www.cs.indiana.edu/metastuff/wonder/ch1.html (NO LONGER LIVE)

This article was originally published at: http://karencioffiwritingforchildren.com/2017/11/26/a-fiction-story-5-key-elements/


Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author. She runs a successful children’s ghostwriting, rewriting, and coaching business and welcomes working with new clients.

For tips on writing for children OR if you need help with your project, contact her at Writing for Children with Karen Cioffi.

And, check out Karen's The Adventures of Planetman picture book series and other books:



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Karen Cioffi said...

Do you have any other tips for making a fiction story work?

lastpg said...

Excellent article, Karen. Here's a tip for following the threads in stories regarding your example of the writer not following through with the URGENT matter. During revision, I like to see-saw between revising on the computer and printing the ms and revising by hand. When I revise by hand I use different color magic markers to highlight the different types of threads to make sure they are not only carried through, but also have an arc and a beginning, middle, and end. With my first book I discovered that the dog, who is a very important character in the story, had been left out of thirty-five pages! All of a sudden he appeared again! I remedied that by making his presence known during those missing pages.

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hey, Karen,

Great article. My tip for making a fictional story work is to make sure the main character changes or grows somehow as a result of dealing with the conflict(s) he/she faces- in other words, have a character arc.

Happy writing!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what a great tip. I never thought of using different colored highlights for different themes or subplots or central characters. I'm working on the sequel to Walking Through Walls and will use this idea to make sure everything is followed through. Thanks for sharing.

Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne,one of the basics that I forgot to mention! A character arc is essential. Thanks for sharing that!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

A great starter. When new writers have absorbed these tips, my advice: Take a beginning fiction class offered at an accredited university writer's department. Take it from frugal me, it will be the best money you ever invested in your writing career. Do be careful, though. That "accredited" is an important work. Universities vet their instructors.

Best to all new writers,
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, thanks for that important tip, and I'm sure beginning fiction classes are offered online now for those who don't have the time or ability to get to a facility. And thanks for reminding us to take classes at an accredited university.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Absolutely, @karencioffiventrice! It is one reason I am not still teaching at UCLA. I prefer in person teaching but online has the beautiful advantage of accessibility by larger numbers, people in rural areas etc. I shouldn’t forget to mention that! 📚🖊❤️

deborah lyn said...

Great article Karen! Thanks so much.

Karen Cioffi said...

Glad you liked it, Deborah!

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