The Four Pillars of Fiction need to be structurally sound in order to maintain your story’s integrity. Each pillar needs to be of equal height and width of the other pillars, or you may end up with a lopsided surface.
But with every rule comes an exception, and there are times where uneven pillars can either work for or against the story. We shall explore the convention of an even structure, and the possibility of leaving one intentionally short within good reason.
Welcome to a four part series where I will be detailing the fundamentals of writing fiction!
Together we will go into great detail on crafting solid blueprints that will help you develop a firm foundation for your story. Each pillar should seamlessly compliment each other and ultimately deliver a rivetting and captivating experience for your readers.
The plot is the pillar built from the events in your story. Every scene has a purpose, and every significant plot point must simutaneously ask new questions and reveal vital information about the world and its inhabitants.
Without any characters, there is no story. We need some form of a sentient being in which to experience the world through, as well as relate to in terms of emotionality and intellectual stimulation. I’ve already made several posts about characters, and that very fact alone is reason enough to prove just how important it is to have solid characters in your story.
Likewise with characters, a physical setting is required for a story or your characters will just be interacting in an empty vacuum. The world in which they inhabit needs to exist within the metaphysical laws of your story in terms of its relation to reality.
Magic? Technology? Or just plain contemporary? Whatever your setting is, it must serve as a logical physical playground for your characters to act out their particular drama.
We relate and reveal through conversation. What do your characters have to say about the world, themselves, and their situations? To each other? Every character is equipped with their own unique way of speaking that expresses their desires and inner turmoil.
And of course, conversation is not just limited to verbal communication. We will also take a look at how non-verbal communication can serve as a solid substitute for conventional dialogue.
Pack Your Bags For an Adventure
And that is all for a quick overview of what I will be covering in the next couple of weeks.
I hope you are as excited as I am right now to delve into The Four Pillars of Fiction!
Bring your existing tools and be ready to sharpen them, as well as craft several new ones along the way. Together we will build the most structurally sound stories.
Part 1: PLOT
You may be familiar with this basic outline of what a plot graph looks like, and it is nice for writing a basic outline for a story.
However, this is just a skeleton and we should add some layers to give it some flesh and bone.
What Plot Stands For:
Just like The Four Pillars of Fiction, these are The Four Pillars of Plot that uphold the structure. You need people in a location with an objective to tell a story, along with some tenacity to make that story worth telling.
Fundamentally, you need characters to exist in a physical space in which to act out their drama, and drama only unfolds because these characters have conflicting goals and motivations that prevent each other from getting what they want.
They may either deliberately want to prevent each other from achieving their goals–as is the case with the simple black and white, good guy vs bad guy stories–or they may even be of the same alliance with differing opinions and preferences that get in the way of them finding unity.
When it comes to your plot’s objective, what kind of message do you want to convey about the world? Is there an aspect of reality you want to capture and illustrate? Is there an ideal version of the world and human behaviour you want to propose? What is it that you want to say about our state as a species?
That is your Objective.
Creators of art, whether they’re conscious of it or not, will always end up injecting their personal philosophy into their work and use it as a tool to convey the different angles in which they perceive people and the world at lage.
There’s no way around it, characters will always have an objective, whether miniscule or grand, they want to accomplish something. Even a story about a guy who just lies around his apartment all day has the objective of…wanting to do nothing and there are some deep rooted reasons beyond “because he just wants to.”
Maybe he’s depressed and doesn’t want to go out, or he’s been out too much and he needs time to himself? Objective in stories are inescapable.
So to add that layer to our basic plot graph skeleton, it should look like this:
But that’s still not enough. A story needs Tenacity. Some high (or sometimes low) stakes to keep you at the edge of your seat, biting your nails, waiting to see what happens next.
The rule in life applies to fiction as well: no risk, no reward. The characters need to be at risk of losing something or we won’t be interested in them striving for anything. Surely, there are stories that are risk and conflict free, but with risk comes curiousity. Without risk and conflict, there really is nothing to be gained from it.
We want to be wondering how characters will survive dire situations because we consume fiction to not only root for these portrayals of the human ideal, but also to live vicariously through them. It’s through stories where we can safely experience what it’s like for someone to commit to their Objective and have the Tenacity to achieve it.
Compare these two stories:
“I went to work, did my job because I wanted to make money, and then I came home.”
vs. “I went to work hungover, it was very busy, I could have called in sick, but I need to make rent so I can lie around my apartment all day.”
What’s the fundamental difference between these stories? They both have goals and motivations, but the second one has conflict that requires some overcoming. That’s what we relate to when we experience stories.
I’ll let the graph speak for itself, for there’s much much more to cover in the next three entries.
Let me know if you would like for me to elaborate on any of the additions made in this chart, and I’ll gladly save the exploration of them in a future post.
Part 2: Characters
Your story’s objective is only as powerful as the characters that convey it.
Each member of the cast must represent opposing sides of the main argument, thus providing several different angles to perceive your story’s philosophy.
I’ve already written a couple of other posts about characters, both of which you can check out here for more:
–but for today, let’s focus on why characters should be as extensively explored as I have in previous posts.
Me, Myself, and Who Am I?
Fundamentally, every story’s main character is on a quest to achieve self-knowledge. This goes for both putty characters and pebble characters. Think of throwing a pebble at a wall, the physical structure of the pebble remains the same, whereas throwing a blob of putty will cause it to reform.
That’s what characters experience; being thrown against a wall, so to speak, and they either change or don’t change throughout the course of your story. Either way, their purpose remains the same; to argue for one or several sides of the objective.
I know that there’s a plethora of stories where morality is ambiguous (and that they’re usually much more interesting), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s take the basic concept of Good vs Evil to illustrate how characters argue for each side. And by argue, that could mean verbal or physical combat, or in just the way that they conduct themselves.
Generic Good Guy is a law abiding citizen, doing some good for his friends, family, and community. Everything he does in the story is for the benefit of others or for himself without hurting anybody except possibly…
The Typical Bad Guy whose sole purpose is to watch the world burn. He causes destruction everywhere he goes, expressing his preference to be evil and not care about hurting others because it’s what he intends anyway. Generic Good Guy may hurt other people unintentionally, but he usually owns up to it, while Typical Bad Guy has no remorse for the pain he causes.
In this basic story dynamic of Good vs Evil, the argument is (usually) that good triumphs over evil, all the time.
Who Would You Be Without Adversity?
To convey this, Typical Bad Guy will have to test Generic Good Guy on the grounds of his ethics, philosophy, strength, and integrity by throwing obstacles in his way. Perhaps Generic Good Guy’s objective is to a safe and adjusted life, but TBG is getting in the way of that by hurting GGG’s social circle and disrupting his day to day life.
It is through adversity where Generic Good Guy will discover or grow into a force for good. If he’s a putty character, maybe he’s a weak underdog type who has to train in order to defeat the almight Typical Bad Guy. Or perhaps he’s a pebble character that has strength and prowess, but hasn’t had the chance to exercise any of it because he hasn’t been challenged yet.
In either case, the end result is the same. The character has developed some level of self-knowledge by fighting for what he believed in, whether he won or lost against his opposition. He now knows what strength he’s capable of, or made himself capable of it through hard work and determination.
Pouring Some Sugar in Generic Brand Oatmeal
Now, that was a very very basic example I had to keep simple in order to elaborate on a more complex concept. Stories these days have many more layers in their examination of the objective, and even more layers in their characterization.
Ultimately, characters are meant to represent several sides of an objective, and they do that by trying to express their personal preferences, only to have them attacked or dismissed by the other characters.
The key ingredient to conveying Objective is having characters disagree with each other and fight over who gets to assert their preference, or if any common ground can be met between them in less black and white type of stories.It is through disagreements between characters that we are given the opportunity to passively experience different sides of an argument–and decide for ourselves which characters we agree with, if any at all.
Part 3: Setting
Characters can’t just exist as talking heads in an empty vacuum, they need a setting in which to act out their drama.
And it can’t just be any place chosen at random, it needs to be a specific place that your types of characters would logically exist in.
Maybe you can have cowboys in space, or advanced aliens in the Sahara Desert, if you can make it work and make sense. But typically, you want your characters to match their setting.
The CN Tower? Where Am I?!
My favourite setting in fiction is contemporary; stuff that takes place in the modern world with our current level of technology and realism. I can maybe do with a few fantastical or sci-fi elements, like time travel therapy in Being Erica, or spy tech in Nikita. But usually no magic, or fancy gizmos for me, and more focus on straight up day to day people whose lives I can relate to.
If I wanted to write a story about what it’s like to move from a small town and into the city, I’d perhaps use Toronto as my setting for my character to experience getting used to the hustle and bustle of a busy downtown area.
Or if you wanted to write a story about magic and wizards you can use Toronto as a landscape for an urban fantasy, or create a world that takes place in something that resembles medieval times.
Either way, if you’ve got a solid plot and a properly fleshed out cast of characters, any setting could work for your story so long as it serves a purpose.
The more elaborate your setting is, the more important it is to have a solid plot and cast so that whatever imaginitive concepts you come up with, they do not detract from the story’s philosophy, rather compliment it instead.
Setting as Story
Let’s take the film Inception for instance. It’s technically contemporary, but they have technology that allows a group of corporate spies to enter the dreams of their targets to extract information from–and plant new ideas into–their subconscious.
They extract information through their dreams! How cool is that?! Allow me to geek out about that for a second…
So the trippy elaborate concept of going into people’s dreams and the dream worlds themselves aren’t just an aside mentioned as a concept in this world. They’re the primary setting and concept that the whole story itself revolves around.
This idea alone, although interesting, would fall flat if there was nothing for us as movie goers to relate to, and so what makes this story so interesting is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb. He’s the leader of this extraction group, and despite his expertise at his job, he is often haunted by projections of his deceased wife Mal who shows up in other people’s dreams from time to time.
The theme of loss, grievance, and regret is just a few of the many themes in Inception. On the surface, Inception is about this covert group of dream spies trying to help their client take over a competitor’s business.
At its core though, it’s really more about the power of the subconscious and how much it can disrupt our lives if we do not resolve our personal trauma. It messes with us emotionally and interferes with our work and personal lives the way it does to Cobb throughout the film.
The setting is the dream world, and the objective of past pain is manifested in the form of Mal’s projections showing up when Cobb is trying to work in the dreams of people who have no idea who Mal even is. Apparently, working as an extractor, you need to be free of your own mind so that your own mental anguish does not seep into your target’s subsconscious.
Unfortunately that’s what causes Cobb to have some difficulty at his job!
In a Nutshell
If you’re going to come up with elaborate rules for how the metaphysics of your setting work, make sure that they’re not too convoluted and that they actually serve a purpose in your story beyond making a dude say “whoa that’s trippy!”
The setting and concepts need to compliment the characters’ behaviour and the plot’s objective.
If you have characters who can use magic like the cast of Harry Potter, then the whole magic school setting and the importance of magic should both take focus of the story, as well as mean something to the characters.
If you have characters who know how to use advanced technology, then ideally the world the story takes place in should be advanced enough for it to make sense for such technology to exist. Think Star Trek and Star Wars and how their gear just wouldn’t work in say…Indiana Jones, unless you really grasp at straws for it to work!
Part 4: Dialogue
So you got your plot, your characters, and the setting?
All that’s left to do is make these people talk, and following in the principle provided in this blog series, what they think and say needs to serve a purpose.
Why Don’t You Say it to My Face?
When characters speak in fiction, it is meant to resemble a more concise version of human interaction. It subtracts the filler pleasantries and zooms in on the most important aspects of a conversation, and so any small talk topics like the weather and sports should be exempt from dialogue.
Unless, of course, weather and sports are important aspects of the story…
Otherwise we love experiencing fiction because we get to eavesdrop on people’s most vulnerable conversations.
Sound creepy? It kinda does, but these characters aren’t real!
Or are they?
Well, they are only as real as you can portray them in terms of their emotional reactions to their interactions with each other and the world you created for them.
Dialogue should reveal four things:
To reveal plot, characters need to talk about the central theme and objective in a way that lets you in on the most crucial concern in their world. Perhaps it’s poverty in a post-apocalyptic world, and so the characters will talk a lot about how there’s a shortage of food and shelter after some devastating event that destroyed their world.
Everything they talk about should be about survival and rebuilding their society. In doing so, they also get to reveal the setting since it serves as a backdrop for the plot.
Along with exposition and narrative, talking about the place they live in is another way to help describe the setting. As a viewer, we will see their world in a certain way, but it’s interesting to see when a character’s views contradicts ours.
Perhaps the post-apocalytpic world might seem bleak and hopeless to us, but the inhabitants and the way they speak can reveal how much hope they have in their own survival. Furthermore, it can reveal what kinds of bonds are created in such hardship.
As Long as We’ve Got Each Other
So on top revealing plot and setting, dialogue must also reveal character. When people talk, they are always revealing what they think and how they feel, whether they intend to or not. It’s inescapable. Each person is equipped with their own unique way of expressing themselves in terms of what they value and what they want.
Now it’s tricky because you don’t want your characters blatantly saying “we live in an apocalytpic world and starve every day.” You have to find a way that makes it sound natural, much like every day conversation, but of course remembering to always keep it concise and in relevance to the plot.
Life would be much easier if people were more direct and honest about how they feel and why they have those feelings, but we usually end up expressing all that in different ways that can be interpreted in different ways since we all have our own subjective experiences and opinions.
Because we all have such differing preferences and opinions, we often end up in arguments revealing what we all expect of each other and the world, thus revealing how we relate to each other. Where we differ and where we have commonalities is the bridge between two people, and there’s a push and pull dynamic that occurs in fiction and in real life.
We often want people to like the same stuff as us, but without the difference of opinion we would not have the privilege of being challenged to re-evaluate our values, feelings, and beliefs.
And that is the very point of fiction; to allow us to safely and passively experience a manifestation of our inner clash of values played out to us in another real with its own metaphysical and epistemological laws. With characters who represent different sides of ourselves and we get the chance to pick and choose, based on the consequences of their actions and interactions, what values and beliefs we must keep or discard–all done in a way that entertains us while informing us.
Thus concludes The Four Pillars of Fiction series, thank you for your time. Let me know if these posts have been helpful and if you have any feedback or criticisms on how to possibly improve future and current writing tips, let me know! I’m always more than happy to hear your thoughts whether they’re simple kudos, questions, or criticisms.
Building It Starts: at Home With the Four Pillar Structure
In the following graph, I have outlined the story’s Plot, Location, Objective, and to prevent spoilers, I’ll allow the chracter graph to illustrate the Tenacity.
I’ll keep everything after the rising action the same just so you get an idea of how those questions become important in relation to what I have introduced in my PLOT.
It Starts: at Home Spoiler Free PLOT Graph
Characters With Similar Differences
The main characters of my story seem like complete opposites at first glance, but they share the same kind of vulnerabilities…that take on different forms from each other.
Sorry if that sounds confusing, but basically the plot revolves around how parenting effects young adults, how they end up treating each other at school due to their upbringing, and ultimately in the form of issues surrounding self esteem and popularity.
The way these characters compliment each other and clash against each other looks a little something like this:
The Settings Surrounding the Homes
As I’ve said earlier in this series, my favourite setting is comtemporary so that I can focus much more on the character development and interpersonal relationships. All of which is possible in a much more advanced setting than mine, but here’s a rough sketch of what this basic world looks like.
Thus Truly Concludes The Four Pillars of Fiction Series
Thank you very much again for your time, and as always I hope you’ve enjoyed, and gained value, from The Four Pillars of Fiction series.
Let me know if the points I’ve made in the series were much better having been substantiated by my own story’s examples, if you preferred the abstract one from the characters post, or the direct Inception example for settings.
I wanted to mix it up each post as I believe each method served the purpose it needed to for each pillar.
For those of you who are wondering how I made all of these graphs, I have been using Scapple, a top notch mind mapping program you can download at http://www.literatureandlatte.com
For dialogue examples from It Starts: at Home, click here for a full scene.
Til next time, keep on writing!