Four Elements, Part 1, maybe

Okay, so this is my first blog for Fictorians. Bit nervous, and all that. New territory for me, blogging is. But, having agreed to do it, here goes.

As I understand it, this is supposed to be a blog by writers about writing, and that those of us who participate can write on most any topic that appeals to us. That being the case, I’m going to spend a few words on the craft of writing fiction. Oh, not on the nuts and bolts of it, the grammar and vocabulary, the sentences and paragraphs. No, I’m going to wax at least semi-eloquent on what I think of to myself as the Four Elements of writing fiction: Characters, Plot, Narrative, and World-building. Others may disagree with me on the composition of the list, but to me these are the big four.

Different writers approach those elements in different manners. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, of The Lord of the Rings fame, did his world-building first. He created the languages first, then after asking himself the question “What kind of people would speak these languages?”, created the world and the peoples (a/k/a Middle-Earth), and only then began creating the stories, the histories that morphed into The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all of the other tales laid in that universe.

Other writers come up with the story idea first, then develop the characters and the universe.

Still others create a character first, and the story and the universe grow out of the question “What would this guy do?” I fall in that category most of the time: a character usually springs into my mind full-grown and full-blown, and I begin telling stories about him or her because I want to learn what he/she did.

Of course, an author is not locked into a single approach. We’re free to adopt whichever approach works best at a given moment or for a given idea. However, I suspect that most of us have a favored approach to the Four Elements. As I said above, I’m usually character-driven, and my track record is that my best writing occurs when I have a bond with my characters.

But regardless of which door an author uses to enter the hall of the Four Elements, he/she can’t exit without having visited all four of them and incorporating them into the work. There may be a few exceptions to that rule, but every story I can remember reading that I felt was written well and told a good story had all four elements present.

Of course, none of this is new thought. Reams of written texts and countless hours of discussion in seminars and other venues have chewed on these elements. And I don’t pretend to have distilled it all down to pure unalloyed truth. But it is kind of fun to spend time chewing on them some more.

Now, I’m going to tell you that all of the above was in the manner of introductory remarks, to set context, if you will. What I really want to do is narrow the discussion down to one of the elements: World-building. But I’ve about reached the limit of what I can do in a single post, so I’ll leave that for my next post. I’ll try to make it worth the wait.

About David Carrico

David is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He has been writing since 1977, but made his first sale in 2004. Most of his work has been written in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, and has either appeared in The Grantville Gazette electronic magazine (http://grantvillegazette.com) or in the anthologies Grantville Gazette III, Grantville Gazette IV, Ring of Fire II, Grantville Gazette V, and the forthcoming Grantville Gazette VI and Ring of Fire III.

5 responses on “Four Elements, Part 1, maybe

  1. KylieQ

    Great post, David. That’s interesting that Tolkien started with the language! I tend to start with a situation – usually an historical context I want to explore – and build from there by considering what characters would inhabit this situation and what would happen to them.

  2. Dylan

    That is a neat thought. I had remembered reading that once and had forgotten it. Pretty relevant as I go through my own world-building exercise; can’t wait to read more of your comments, David!

  3. Clancy Metzger

    I’m trying to decide – do I start with situation or character or story? After a little thought, I think I bounce around between them. Thanks for giving me room to think about my approach – it may change things up for me.

  4. David C

    Tolkien’s academic specialty was philology, the study of languages. Of course he started by inventing languages. 🙂 And that’s also why almost everybody else’s invented languages seem like baby talk in comparison–mine included. 🙂

    Great post, David. That’s interesting that Tolkien started with the language! I tend to start with a situation – usually an historical context I want to explore – and build from there by considering what characters would inhabit this situation and what would happen to them.

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