Elements of Fiction


(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“How splendid it is to unfurl one’s sail and blow straight ahead on the gust of great story telling.” Virginia Woolf

“Through the story’s translation and ordering of life, the unconvincing raw material becomes the very heart’s familiar. Life is strange. Stories hardly make it more so; with all they are able to tell and surmise, they make it more believably, more inevitably so.” Eudora Welty

“I can’t think of anything else necessary to a writer except a story and the will and the ability to tell it.” John Steinbeck

“The thing that made be become a writer was that desire: a desire simply to tell stories.” Salman Rushdie

“Any story told twice is fiction.” Grace Paley

“Once it starts, it should not have any intention save only to be written.” John Steinbeck

“A story has a life of its own. It must be allowed to take its own pace. It can’t be pushed too much. If it is, the warp shows through and the story is unnatural and unsafe.” John Steinbeck

“It’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.” Stephen King

“A great story is one that keeps your imagination racing, your eyes glued to the page, and your finger poised to turn the page.” Othello Bach

“But remember that you don’t write a story because you have an idea but because you have a believable character or just simply because you have a story.” Flannery O’Connor

“Must not think too much of the end but of the immediate story — instant and immediate.” John Steinbeck

“What is a good story? I give you three things which strike me. First, it is simple — by which I mean straightforward, easy to grasp, and therefore liable to be well remembered. . . . The next mark of a good story is, surely, its general interest. The good story, to put it as shortly as I can, turns upon some crisis, or problem, which would be of importance, intense importance, to us; to you and me in our lives. . . . Then the third essential of a good story — a good story takes off well. It takes off from a situation which holds promise.” Elizabeth Bowen

“A story is like a machine with numerous gears: it should contain no gear that doesn’t turn something.” John Gardner

“Any part not congruent with its whole is an embarrassment.” St. Augustine

“I must determine without guiding rules — nothing but my honest thoughts and emotions — whether or not the story works, that is, interests me and moves me.” John Gardner

“Nine times out of ten, a good magazine will print a first-rate story by an unknown before they run a second-rate story by a marquee name.” Jon Jackson

“The question of length can only arise if it does not hold interest.” John Steinbeck

“A story is as long as it is compellingly told.” Ulf Wolf

“A short story, being of limited length, should properly deal only with a single incident — some one problem set up and resolved, without too many complications. . . . By contrast, a novel necessarily deals with a series of events.” Ayn Rand

“Consider what this story is about; what it tries to do; how it fulfils itself; how it might achieve its ends better.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“A strong story can carry a weak character, a strong character cannot carry a weak story. The story has to be compelling, captivating.” Barnaby Conrad.

“If a story were presented exclusively in terms of dramatic action, it would be a play.” Ayn Rand

“The whole art of fiction consists in telling a story.” Virginia Woolf

“Yes — oh, dear, yes — the novel tells a story.” E.M. Forster

“The good young writer knows, the potentially successful one, knows what he knows and will not budge — chiefly knows that the first quality of good storytelling is storytelling.” John Gardner

“They [the readers] open a novel with the expectation of finding a story, hopefully with interesting characters in it, possibly an interesting landscape here and there, and, with any luck at all, an idea or two — with real luck a large and interesting cargo of ideas.” John Gardner

“I am strong on the belief that you can’t write a story until you have a story to write, but then you sometimes find one by messing around with this and that.” Flannery O’Connor

“Of course, the more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique. A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.” Flannery O’Connor

“I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.” Flannery O’Connor

“Besides theme, the story must have another thing: situation. The situation is something more than a series of episodes and happenings through which the story moves. There is nearly always an overall situation which is a ‘controlling’ thing. Often it is a situation between two persons: the unhappy passion of Anna and Vronsky in Anna Karenina, or in Wuthering Heights the stronger-than-death tie between Catherine and Heathcliff.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Though the story is invented it must ring true through the power of imagination which is something higher than invention.” Elizabeth Bowen

“I have very little to say about short-story writing. It’s one thing to write short stories and another thing to talk about writing them, and I hope you realize that your asking me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish to lecture on swimming. The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it. Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.” Flannery O’Connor

“A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” Flannery O’Connor

“The content of the novel is what affects us; and the content, because it expands in the reader’s mind, may by far exceed what is stated in actual writing — this, in fact, is one evidence of creative power.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.” Stephen King

“The unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader — your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story.” Stephen King

“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven. Once you get Once you get beyond the short story, though (two to four thousand words, let’s say), I’m not much of a believer in the so-called character study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss.” Stephen King

“My take on all these things [theme, pacing, onomatopoeia, back story, other elements of fiction] is pretty simple. It’s all on the table, every bit of it, and you should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story.” Stephen King

“Well, if you know the beginning of your story, and you know the end, all you have to do is get from one to the other.” LeGette Blythe

“Stories are vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.” Pat Conroy

“The writers who scoff at the primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them.” Pat Conroy

“I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food or drink because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.” Pat Conroy

“Remember, a novel — indeed, any story — is an elaborate delivery system for knowledge both trivial (details of a character’s dress) and profound (the nature of war). Narrative succeeds because events are told in the right order to create the desired effect. We need to know one thing to comprehend the next thing, and so on, in a matrix of accumulated knowledge, always moving forward.” Philip Gerard

“Story logic includes all questions of plausibility, psychology, and fact: Would this really happen? Would this character think like that? Is this true to the laws of nature?” Philip Gerard

“Writing a good story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end without confusion and with a sense of suspense during the tale and significance afterward is one of the hardest things in life to do.” Philip Gerard

“It’s easy to be lyrical — any well-read undergraduate can spin whole paragraphs of lovely descriptions of nature, or romantic ruminations on love and death. Telling a good story is hard.” Philip Gerard

“If you don’t know the story before you begin the story [novel], what kind of storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind — making it up as you go along, no better than a common liar.” John Irving

“The short story, which reveals itself to the writer as it unfolds.” Philip Gerard

“In the short story, as Edith Wharton puts it, there’s almost no delay between the flash and the bang; like a painting, it can be apprehended nearly all at once.” Philip Gerard

“The first big challenge — and don’t underestimate it — is simply sustaining a long, interesting story from start to finish. Not just linking together a bunch of scenes or anecdotes or ruminations or slice-of-life moments, but building a big story that is all one thing, that finishes what it starts, that arcs convincingly from clear beginning to recognizable end — a big, luminous creation in which you’ve managed to hold up the roof so the people inside can conduct their sacred communication with the reader.” Philip Gerard

“Next, write a good novel.” Philip Gerard

“Music, though it does not employ human beings, though it is governed by intricate laws, nevertheless does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way. Expansion. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.” E.M. Forster

“It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound — that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly. It hasn’t to await the test if time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at sight we could never forget it.” Robert Frost

“It’s human nature to love a story and hate a lecture.” Philip Gerard

“The four necessary ingredients: interesting characters, meaningful action toward a goal, obstacles to reaching that goal and an outcome that matters.” Philip Gerard




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Ulf Wolf

Ulf Wolf


Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write. Wolfstuff.com.