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Related subjects: Literature types

Background Information

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An illustration from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, depicting the fictional protagonist, Alice, playing a fantastical game of croquet.

Fiction is the telling of stories which are not real. More specifically, fiction is an imaginative form of narrative, one of the four basic rhetorical modes. Although the word fiction is derived from the Latin fingo, fingere, finxi, fictum, "to form, create", works of fiction need not be entirely imaginary and may include real people, places, and events. Fiction may be either written or oral. Although not all fiction is necessarily artistic, fiction is largely perceived as a form of art or entertainment. The ability to create fiction and other artistic works is considered to be a fundamental aspect of human culture, one of the defining characteristics of humanity.

Elements of fiction

Even among writing instructors and bestselling authors, there appears to be little consensus regarding the number and composition of the fundamental elements of fiction. For example:

  • "Fiction has three main elements: plotting, character, and place or setting." (Morrell 2006, p. 151)
  • "A charged image evokes all the other elements of your story—theme, character, conflict, setting, style, and so on." (Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing 1992, p. 160)
  • "For writers, the spices you add to make your plot your own include characters, setting, and dialogue." (Bell 2004, p. 16)
  • "Contained within the framework of a story are the major story elements: characters, action, and conflict." (Evanovich 2006, p. 83)
  • " . . . I think point of view is one of the most fundamental elements of the fiction-writing craft . . ." (Selgin 2007, p. 41)

As stated by Janet Evanovich, "Effective writing requires an understanding of the fundamental elements of storytelling, such as point of view, dialogue, and setting." (Evanovich 2006, p. 39) The debate continues as to the number and composition of the fundamental elements of fiction.


Characterization is often listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. A character is a participant in the story, and is usually a person, but may be any persona, identity, or entity whose existence originates from a fictional work or performance.

Characters may be of several types:

  • Point-of-view character: the character from whom the story is viewed.
  • Protagonist: the main character of a story
  • Antagonist: the character that stands in opposition to the protagonist
  • Supporting character: A character that plays a part in the plot but is not major
  • Minor character: a character in a bit/cameo part


Plot, or storyline, is often listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. It is the rendering and ordering of the events and actions of a story. On a micro level, plot consists of action and reaction, also referred to as stimulus and response. On a macro level, plot has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Plot is often depicted as an arc with a zig-zag line to represent the rise and fall of action. Plot also has a mid-level structure: scene and sequel. A scene is a unit of drama—where the action occurs. Then, after a transition of some sort, comes the sequel—an emotional reaction and regrouping, an aftermath. (Bickham 1993, pp. 23-62)


Setting, the location and time of a story, is often listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. Sometimes setting is referred to as milieu, to include a context (such as society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story. In some cases, setting becomes a character itself and can set the tone of a story. (Rozelle 2005, p. 2)


Theme, a conceptual distillation of the story, is often listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. It is the central idea or insight serving as a unifying element, creating cohesion and is an answer to the question, 'What did you learn from the piece of fiction?' In some cases a story's theme is a prominent element and somewhat unmistakable. (Morrell 2006, p. 263)


Style is not so much what is written, but how it is written and interpreted. Style in fiction refers to language conventions used to construct the story or article. A fiction writer may manipulate diction, sentence structure, phrasing, dialogue, and other aspects of language to create style or mood. The communicative effect created by the author's style is sometimes referred to as the story's voice. Every writer has his or her own unique style, or voice (Provost 1988, p. 8). Style is sometimes listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction.


Types of prose fiction:

  • Flash fiction: A work of fewer than 2,000 words. (1,000 by some definitions) (around 5 pages)
  • Short story: A work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words. (5-25 pages)
  • Novelette: A work of at least 7,500 words but under 17,500 words. (25-60 pages)
  • Novella: A work of at least 17,500 words but under 50,000 words. (60-170 pages)
  • Novel: A work of 50,000 words or more. (about 170+ pages)
  • Epic: A work of 200,000 words or more. (about 680+ pages)

Forms of fiction

Traditionally, fiction includes novels, short stories, fables, fairy tales, plays, and poems, but it now also encompasses films, comic books, and video games.

The Internet has had a major impact on the distribution of fiction, calling into question the feasibility of copyright as a means to ensure royalties are paid to copyright holders. Also, digital libraries such as Project Gutenberg make public domain texts more readily available. The combination of inexpensive home computers, the Internet and the creativity of its users has also led to new forms of fiction, such as interactive computer games or computer-generated comics. Countless forums for fan fiction can be found online, where loyal followers of specific fictional realms create and distribute derivative stories. The Internet is also used for the development of blog fiction, where a story is delivered through a blog either as flash fiction or serialblog, and collaborative fiction, where a story is written sequentially by different authors, or the entire text can be revised by anyone using wiki.

Uses of fiction

Although fiction may be viewed as a form of entertainment, it has other uses. Fiction has been used for instructional purposes, such as fictional examples used in school textbooks. It may be used in propaganda and advertising. It may be perpetuated by parents out of tradition such as with Santa Claus or to instill beliefs and values. Although they are not necessarily targeted at children, fables offer an explicit moral goal.

A whole branch of literature crossing entertainment and science speculation is Science fiction. A less common similar cross is the philosophical fiction hybridizing fiction and philosophy, thereby often crossing the border towards propaganda fiction. These kinds of fictions constitute thought experiments exploring consequences of certain technologies or philosophies.

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