The Style of Elements

In other articles, I’ve written about how a story rests on three pillars: plot, setting, and characterization. While I still believe in this, I consciously left out that most elusive of traits, style.

Note that the title, The Style of Elements, is a reference to what I think is the most vital book in every writers’ library, The Elements of Style. TEoS emphasizes brevity and clarity, and I champion its use. Seriously, you must own that book and commit it to memory.

However, style is more than that. Style is not a “pillar.” It’s hard to define. It’s the spaces between plot, setting, and characterization, and every writer has it. It’s the actual text, the choice of words, the brushstrokes that go into the painting. It’s the soul of art.

Therefore, I’m changing my pillars metaphor. Because I’m a sci-fi/fantasy writer, I’ll use something a bit more suitable, The elements of “magic:” Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.

For this metaphor, try to think of writing as Alchemy. Each element will give you different effects, but all four are necessary for a good story. The amount of each is up to you.

Does the title make a bit more sense now? I hope so.

I’m not giving very much on tips here. I only wanted to set up a different way of looking at a story. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from teaching, it’s that you never know what’s going to connect.

five elements

Earth: Earth is the setting. It’s the solid bones and frame that your story rests upon. Without setting, you’re floating in the abyss, without direction, without focus. Too little setting and the reader can’t visualize the scene. Too much and the reader is buried by unnecessary details.

Usually, genre fiction (Sci-fi, westerns, fantasy, historical, etc) requires more setting than mainstream fiction. Because you’re taking the reader outside of the familiar, you need to give them landmarks so they don’t get lost. A story about waiting in line at an ATM requires less setting than one on Jupiter. We all know what an ATM line looks like.

For more about setting in sci-fi and fantasy, check out this article.


Water: Water is characterization. It’s the heart of the story. People keep reading when they connect with the characters. It gives life to the setting and response to the plot (or rather, plot responds to character). Without characters, everything will wither and die. Most importantly, characters–like water–flows and changes, (ice, steam, muddy, clear, etc) hopefully reaching a sea of tranquility.

Obviously, not every character can be a complex, three-dimensional being. In fact, having every character be complex takes focus away from the main characters (who should be). Too much floods the earth and douses the fire. The main character has to be well-defined, and needs to “travel” and change form. Water is inherently malleable, like people. The usual way to do this is The Hero’s Journey, but remember that it’s only a tool. Don’t just fill in the blanks. Put your own twist on it.

For more on The Hero’s Journey, check out this article.


Fire: Fire is the plot. It gives the story energy and moves it forward. It rages across the Earth and sets Water boiling. Yet it must be watched, kindled, and contained. A fire out of control will destroy everything you’ve built, Instead of building useful heat, it spreads until there’s only ruin. I’ve read far too many books where the plot got away from the writer, and the reader (me) got burned. But keep a balance. Too little plot will create no energy, and the reader will put the book down.

In other words, keep your plot burning, but under control. Use outlines. Take notes. Prepare. Plot is like building a campfire, and a good campfire uses different wood for different stages. Think before you light.


Air: Air is style. It’s the life that the author breathes into the story, the unique touch that only they can give. It’s what separates every writer. It can’t be seen, but you can see the effects it has on the other elements. It makes the fire flicker and puts ripples in the water. Too much will literally carry the reader off, but there’s no way to have too little. It’s in every word you choose, every paragraph, every period. Air is the breath that carries your voice.

All I can say about style is that if a reader can notice it, it’s probably too much. If you are affecting a certain style, stop. Find your own voice, not someone else’s. Bring what only you can bring, and write. There’s an axiom that it takes 1000 pages before a writer finds their voice. That means that you have a lot of writing ahead of you. If possible, write under the guidance of others, like a critique group, writing class, or writing coach. It’ll keep your breath from stinking.


Get to it, and remember to breathe.

Like New York? Like History? Like Fantasy? Check out my latest novel, The Watchmage of Old New York. It’s been compared to everything from The Dresden Files to Gangs of New York to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Don’t take my word for it (ok, take my word for it), pick it up at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and/or all the other sites out there. You might even find it in a local bookstore.


cosmic-cat tripping balls redux