Sunday, May 20, 2012

Writing Elements Mix - Is There a Right Balance?

Writing Elements Mix – Is There a Right Balance?

By Karen Cioffi

Writing can be thought of as a recipe, a handful of plot, a quarter cup of setting, a third to a half cup of dialogue, and a half cup of action and forward movement. Then you also need to add just the right amount of theme, character, and style. Stir it all together and bake for several months (might be longer, depending on your oven), and that’s it.

Ah, if it were only that simple.

Today, there are a number of rules to writing that didn’t plague writers years ago when the world was slower and people actually had time to sit and read at a leisurely pace. Writers had the luxury of setting scenes in detail and didn’t have to worry about ‘telling’ too much.

Now, publishers want your story to begin with a BAM. Grab the reader right away, or you’ll lose her. And, it’s important that setting and telling are limited. In addition, don’t forget to magically weave backstory for your characters seamlessly into the mix.

So, what is the right balance of writing elements that will create a successful story?

Well, there really isn’t a pat formula. Each story will call for its own particular amounts of elements, and each publisher will have her own set of rules that the author must adhere to. But there are certain basics that all stories must contain.

The five basic elements of a story are:

Plot: The arrangement of circumstances and/or events in the story, including conflicts and resolution.

Character: Without the main character and supporting characters the plot is useless. It is the character’s struggle to overcome the conflicts or obstacles in his path that gives the plot life.

Setting: This element includes the physical backdrop of the story, the time period and location.

Atmosphere or Tone: The mood, including the setting, characters and their clothing, weather, and other elements within the story, determines the tone of the story.

Style: The author’s way of expressing herself is the style. Sentence structure, diction, choice of words, point of view, imagery, and symbols are all means of conveying a story that is unique to the author.

In regard to the amounts or balance of each element, the objective is to create a story that continually moves forward toward a satisfying conclusion while holding the reader’s attention.

You can have a plot driven story or a character driven story. You can also have a story with a lot of dialogue, but you need to be sure the story is focused, coherent, and engaging.

Often, as you self-edit you won’t be able to see if the elements are just right, You should have you manuscript critiqued and have an editor take a look at it to see if you’re on the mark. And, then after all that, it will be up to the publisher’s editor to give the final say on whether you have just the right balance of writing elements for a successful story.

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning author, freelance/ghostwriter, editor, and marketer. For more on writing and marketing visit and sign up for her FREE newsletter, A Writer’s World - you’ll get 2 FREE ebooks: Book Promotion: The Bare Basics and Power Queries.


  1. Karen,
    I chuckled when I read the part stating that bake time may vary. Good overview of the elements of story.

  2. Great article, Karen! You're so right about grabbing readers these days...I'm personally sad people aren't as patient with description. I love older fiction that lets you linger!

    The secret ingredient I'd add to the above mix is Tension. Every page, paragraph and sentence should have tension to carry the reader to the next line, according to writing guru and agent Donald Maass' terrific novel-writing workbook. It doesn't have to be a screaming cliffhanger everytime, but there should be a whisper of "what's next?"

  3. I taught that writing had six Cs as well as plot, dialogue,resolution, and setting: characters, conflict, climax, comprehension, clarity, and cohesion.

  4. I love the comparison of writing elements with a recipe. It's a good reminder that when revising writers need to look at the balance and adjust accordingly. :)

  5. Linda, so glad you caught that. :) Thanks for stopping by.

    Suzanne, It is a shame that readers are in overdrive these days. I love some of the older detailed fiction also. And, yes, there's tension and leading the reader to the next page or chapter. Thanks for stopping by.

    Vivian, Thanks for the tips!! I learn so much from you.

  6. Phyllis, LOL, we must have been commenting at the same time - didn't see you.

    It really is a balanced mix of trying to get it just right. Thanks for stopping by!