Essential Elements of Poetry
There are many types of poetry, some very long, some very short. It can be difficult to see how a haiku could possibly have anything in common with an epic poem like The Iliad or a Shakespearean sonnet. But there are some things that all (good) poetry has in common, and none of them are meter or rhyme. Poetry is generally measured by the language used and responses it evokes. We’re big on originality too.
Elements of poetry include:
1. Language/Imagery — Does your poem use rich, unique language? Does it use repetition of sounds to create a unique rhythm? Does your poem paint a vivid picture? Do you use metaphor, simile, personification, anthropomorphism, etc. to bring your descriptions to life? Consider this gem from Robert Browning: “Take away love and our earth is a tomb.” Does your poem use imagery this effectively?
2. Emotional/Intellectual Response — Poetry should move the reader in some way, be it reverie, sadness, fear, joy, amusement, anger, or whatever other emotion you’re going for. However, not all poetry is meant to evoke an immediate or overwhelming emotional response. In those cases, your poetry must make readers think, to consider, to ponder. Poetry is like a great meal. You sit down with it, savor it, consider its ingredients, and wonder how different it may have been if the chef had made other choices (even though you love it just the way it is). In other words, great poetry leaves readers feeling and thinking.
3. Voice — Does your author’s voice come through? One of the hallmarks of great poetry is the personal connection to the author, which means readers should be able to detect something of who you are through your words, images, thoughts, opinions, etc. Generic poetry has no connection to the author, no voice. Make sure your voice comes through loud and clear.
4. Theme — Great poetry has something to say, usually connected to some big idea. And by big idea, we mean something impactful. The theme does not have to be universal or popular or global. But it should have some weight to it, whether it’s a big topic, a strong experience, a bold opinion, or even a small topic/experience/opinion told in a big way. Your poem should have a clear theme and purpose.
5. Originality — The topic doesn’t have to be unique, but something about the poem should be. It might be the presentation, the perspective, the language, the rhythm, the imagery. What makes your poem different? What makes your poem stand up and shout, “I gotta be me!”
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Essential Elements of Short Story
Short stories are not just mini novels, even if the key elements of both are essentially the same. The way plot, character, etc. are handled in short stories is really quite different, because there simply isn’t enough time to do everything a novel can. Still, short stories are stories, and some important elements must be achieved to keep readers glued to the page, however briefly.
Elements of short stories include:
1. Discernible Plot or Purpose — Not all short stories have an actual plot. Consider character-driven day-in-a-life stories, for example. But every short story should have either a well-developed, easy-to-follow plot or a well-defined purpose (e.g., examination of character). Also, keep the subplots to a minimum. Short stories heavy with subplots are likely to be incomplete and confusing and probably should be expanded into novels.
2. Strong Characters — By strong, we mean characters with well-defined, easy-to-distinguish qualities and personalities. They can be weak people, but that weakness should not be subtle. You don’t have time to develop characters slowly, so readers need to meet them and get to know them quickly. Short stories are often character-driven, so presenting readers with fully-formed characters from the get-go is a must.
3. An Appropriate Setting — It may seem like there isn’t time to mess with the setting in a short story, but don’t skimp on this important element. The setting can create atmosphere, set the tone, and even act as another character. You don’t necessarily need to spend time describing the setting. What matters is how the setting influences your characters. The question is, is your story set at the right time and in the right place to make your story as effective as possible?
4. Conflict — As always, don’t leave out the conflict, whether internal or external. Your main character needs to have a problem to solve (or to at least try to solve—conflict is required; conflict resolution is not). Conflict can be big or small, overt or subtle, but it needs to be there and readers need to be able to tell what it is.
5. Literary Devices — Because of the limitations of length, and because it’s just good practice, use of literary devices—like metaphor, imagery, bold word choices, and foreshadowing—can help build the story faster, further engage readers, and craft a full world in fewer words. This is why poets are often excellent short story writers. Use literary devices to describe people and places, to build tension, and to bring actions to life.
More resources for writing great short stories:
Essential Elements of Memoir
Memoir is a type of real-life narrative nonfiction that differs from autobiography in that memoir is specific to a central lesson or theme, whereas autobiography is the complete story of the author’s life thus far. If you’ve written a short piece about your life, it’s definitely memoir, not autobiography (it’s tough to fit an entire lifetime in under 5000 words).
Elements of memoir include:
1. Central Lesson or Theme — While even a short memoir may contain a variety of experiences, each experience described should connect to the central lesson or theme. For example, the lesson may be how you learned to stand on your own two feet or how you found the courage to overcome addiction. The theme could be surviving abuse or finding professional success and fulfillment.
2. Author’s Voice — Your memoir should be told in your unique voice. This is not the time to try to sound like every other author or to fit into some sort of genre-specific mold. It’s your story, and it should be told in your voice. In fact, that’s exactly what readers want. Just ensure that the voice is authentic, consistent, and easy to understand.
3. Conflict/Obstacles — A great memoir, like any story, includes conflict and obstacles that the protagonist (a.k.a., you) must overcome. Conflicts can be character related (e.g., an abusive parent, an overly demanding coach, a misogynistic boss), situation related (e.g., surviving nature, struggling to get an education, trying to shatter the glass ceiling), or personal (e.g., trying to overcome self-doubt, addiction, or an eating disorder).
4. Emotional Journey — Memoirs are not simple retellings of events. Save that for your autobiography. Memoirs tell the story of a life in all its grit and glory, sarcasm and silliness, and heartache and heroism. Help your readers feel what you felt.
5. Narrative Style — Your memoir tells your story, so it should be written using all the elements of storytelling that “experts” keep trying to beat into you—character and plot development, active language, sense of time and place, secondary characters and subplots, consistent POV, and show, don’t tell, among others. Make sure you tell your story in a fully realized, engaging, and immersive way.
Read more about how to write a great memoir:
Essential Elements of Essays
An essay is an analytical piece of writing that endeavors to make an argument or to impart information about a particular subject. Essay styles range from the academic 5-paragraph essay to the far less structured personal narrative essay. Some of the elements are the same across the spectrum and some are not. This fact is reflected in the list below.
Elements of essays include:
1. Thesis/Theme — The thesis/theme is whatever the author is going to attempt to inform readers about or prove to them. An academic-style essay includes a thesis statement, usually in the first paragraph. A narrative essay is less overt about the thesis/theme, but there should be one and it should be easy to discern. Additionally, the thesis/theme (i.e., the topic) should be very focused (pick a specific aspect of the topic and drill down into it) and the supporting points/story should not include any unnecessary details.
2. Organization — Essays cannot ramble. They must be well organized and easy to follow. Most essays include an introduction, supporting (“body”) paragraphs, and a conclusion. Your introduction presents your argument and your thesis (sets the scene), each body paragraph presents one supporting aspect of your argument (tells the story), and your conclusion wraps it all up (resolves the conflict).
3. Supporting Points/Storyline – In an academic-style essay, the thesis should be carefully supported with specific facts and examples. The supporting points should be relevant to the thesis and be well explained, and quality sources should be cited as necessary. Narrative essays don’t require supporting facts necessarily (i.e., the supporting points come from the author’s life more so than from research); however, the story should be well told, include compelling conflict, and include details that support the theme.
4. Definite Purpose — Regardless of the topic, your essay should have a definite purpose, which may be to inform, to persuade, to describe (e.g., a person or place), to relate (e.g., an event), or to compare and contrast two or more things or ideas. As strange as it may seem, this applies to narrative essays as well. It’s not enough to have a well-define topic; you need a reason for sharing it.
5. Author’s Perspective — Essays should impart the author’s perspective about the topic, even if the purpose of the essay is simply to inform or describe and especially if it’s a narrative essay. Your perspective should be part of the focus of the topic, which you achieve by infusing the essay with your opinions. Whether you’re supporting one side of a controversial topic or sharing a life lesson you learned through a comedy of errors—your perspective is what sets your essay apart from everyone else’s.
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Essential Elements of Flash Fiction
Even though flash fiction is very short, it should still tell a story, have interesting characters, and thoroughly engage readers. The essential elements of flash fiction may vary somewhat depending on who you ask, but just about everyone agrees on the following list. The general consensus is that flash fiction needs to have an impact—a lot of it. The elements below will help you achieve just that.
Elements of flash fiction include:
1. A Focused Plot — Despite the length of flash fiction, the stories must still feature a discernible plot or, at the very least, a discernible purpose, and that plot must be sharply focused. There is simply no time for rambling plots and subplots. Pick a purpose and laser-focus on it.
2. Strong Characters — You don’t have much time for character development and description, so your characters (and there should be very few of them) must be immediately interesting and distinct.
3. Rich Language — Again, you can’t waste words making lengthy descriptions or beating about the bush. Using imagery, metaphor, and symbolism will help build amazing worlds and characters and get across complex ideas and themes without gobbling up precious space. Colorful, rich, poetic language is the flash fiction writer’s best friend!
4. Conflict — As with any story, conflict is key. Conflict creates the opportunity for growth and change. Plus it keeps readers interested. Conflict can be internal or external, real or imagined, but it absolutely must be there.
5. Solid Ending — Many flash stories end with a twist, which is always fun for readers. But while a surprise ending is not required, a damn good ending is essential. Your ending should leave readers thinking, perhaps even wanting more. After all the work you did on the other four elements, don’t skimp on your chance to make a lasting impression.
Read more about how to write flash fiction:
Essential Elements of Excerpts from Novels
This is tricky, because there are many elements to a good novel, and most of them cannot be fully established in an excerpt that is, at most, only 10% of the completed story. So what makes for a good novel excerpt? Below are the elements our judges look for.
Elements of novel excerpts include:
1. A Clear Plot Foundation — While the full plot cannot possibly be revealed, a solid foundation needs to be laid. Readers should be able to tell that the story has a distinct direction in mind (although note that it’s OK if the plot indicated is a red herring, as is often the case in genres like mystery and suspense/horror). The bottom line, some indications of a plot must be apparent. Hints at subplots are OK too as long as they don’t cause confusion.
2. Dynamic Characters — An excerpt likely won’t introduce all the main characters, and it certainly won’t flesh out all those characters, but it should clearly demonstrate that the characters featured are dynamic and interesting and worth getting to know. Readers should walk away from the excerpt wanting to know them better.
3. Creativity — How deep your creativity runs can only be fully evaluated on the completed novel, but your excerpt should showcase your abilities to be original, imaginative, and descriptive. Does it feel predictable? Is the language tired and cliché? Or do the story and the language feel fresh and new? Note that trope-heavy writing may not fare well here unless those tropes are presented in a unique way.
4. Style/Tone — These elements are grouped together because they’re interrelated. Your style and the tone it creates are essential elements to anything you write but are perhaps even more important in a novel excerpt that is meant to entice readers to want the rest of the story. If your horror excerpt isn’t suspenseful or your romance excerpt doesn’t evoke swooning or your fantasy excerpt isn’t, uh, fantastical, readers won’t trust that the rest of the book will be either. Your style and the resulting tone must match the genre and the story you’re trying to tell.
5. A Good Hook — After reading your excerpt, readers should feel compelled to read the rest of the book. They should want to know what’s going to happen, which means that you have to grab them with a good, strong hook. It may be a character or an action or a mystery or a conflict or . . . you get the idea. As the Blues Traveler song says, “The hook brings you back.” Make sure your novel excerpt has a good one.
As a side note, be aware that a novel excerpt does not have to be from the beginning of the book. Your best match for the elements above might be in chapter seventeen, and that’s OK. As long as readers can follow the passage you’ve chosen to share, then share away!
More about writing novels:
Essential Elements of Miscellaneous Nonfiction
For our purposes, “nonfiction” is used to refer to any writing that is factual but does not qualify as a memoir or an essay. That’s a wide-open field of possibilities and is difficult to narrow down to five common elements, but here goes…
NOTE: Before you decide to categorize your piece as simply “nonfiction,” make sure it doesn’t qualify as an essay. Check out our “Elements of Essays” to help you decide.
Elements of nonfiction include:
1. A Central Topic — This could be the subject of a biography, recipes, how to build or make or do something, and so forth. It could also be an idea or belief. The central topic must be very obvious, and everything in the piece must revolve around it (hence the term “central”).
2. A Clear Goal Regarding the Central Topic — Perhaps your goal is to teach, inform, or persuade. This goal must be very clear to readers. If your piece is an excerpt from a book or other larger work, then the goal must be obvious even though you won’t actually achieve it within this excerpt. If your piece is complete (has a beginning, middle, and end), then the goal must be realized.
3. Supported Facts — Your nonfiction piece should feature facts that are supported with either your own experiences or well-documented research, and any sources should be cited properly with footnotes or endnotes.
4. Real-World Relevance — The topic of your nonfiction piece should be relevant in some way to people’s lives, at least to those people who are interested in the topic (universal relevance is nearly impossible to establish and definitely not required). What gives your piece value? Why should readers want to read it?
5. Compelling Language — Even a piece about how to build a shed can be interesting if it’s written that way. Dry, tedious language is no fun in fiction, and it has no place in nonfiction either. The language used should be interesting and rich, not pedantic and preachy. Don’t be shy about using metaphor and robust descriptions. Make your readers want to learn about the mating habits of cockroaches or the economic impact of electric vehicles (well, you can at least try to make them want to learn it).
Read more about how to write nonfiction: