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  • The 4 Modes of Fiction (and how to use them to write better).

The 4 Modes of Fiction (and how to use them to write better).

Plus, a different way to think about show, don't tell.

Fiction writing has four different modes: description, action, dialogue, and narration. In this article, I’ll show you the dos and don’ts of each mode, and teach you how to use all four modes to improve your writing.

The first three modes are dramatic modes. The last mode, narration, is a explanatory mode. Dramatic modes show the story (ie. Paint a picture, for Mastering Fiction students). Explanatory modes tell the story. There is an appropriate place for both showing and telling in fiction, so do not discount the importance of narration.

#1 Description: details that relate to the five senses, details about things.

  • Do: Vividly describe settings, characters, and sensory details to immerse readers in the story world.

  • Don’t: Describe what the POV character or the reader doesn’t care about.

#2 Action: physical and bodily behavior of a character.

  • Do: Use active verbs instead of verb-adverb pairs to describe character behaviors (eg. sprinted vs ran quickly). 

  • Don’t: Use action by itself, without other modes of writing.

#3 Dialogue: speech of a character.

  • Do: Fill your dialogue with tension and ensure dialogue serves a story purpose.

  • Don’t: Write unnatural or expository dialogue.

#4 Narration: exposition, recollection, thoughts, feelings, transitions, etc.

  • Do: Use narration to break up big chunks of other story modes, peek into the minds of the characters, or to slow down the pace of the story. 

  • Don’t: Use narration for important story events, or as a crutch to get you out of trouble.

#1: Description

Description is writing about details that relate to the five senses, or details about things. It is the most basic building block of fiction. It is also the cinematic mode of storytelling, because it allows the reader to visualize the story.

The goal of description is context. You want the reader to know exactly what is happening. This helps the reader understand the story.

Description can be split into four categories:

  1. Description of what: describe the objects or set pieces that impact the story.

  2. Description of where: describe the setting, location, or place where the story happens.

  3. Description of when: describe the time of day, season, era of the story.

  4. Description of who: describe the people that are part of the story.

In general, you want to describe everything that matters, and nothing that does not matter. If a character is casually drinking coffee, you don’t have to describe the coffee or the mug. But if the character is going to throw the mug at another character, you might want to describe the mug (heavy, gray, etc) so the reader has a mental picture of it.

A common mistake is over-describing. Beginner writers often spend too much time describing their characters and settings. You don’t need to describe the shape of a character’s moustache unless it matters to the story. You don’t need to describe the patterns on the wallpaper either. Over-describing is the easiest way to lose the reader.

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#2 Action

Action is writing about the physical and bodily behavior of a character. It ranges from multi-step actions (eg. climbing up a tree) to microscopic actions (eg. twitching eyelid).

The goal of action is advancement. Actions take the reader from A to B. Action moves the reader forward in time. You can control the speed of the passage through space and time by changing the types of action you write.

  • Faster: He sprinted to the bus stop and leapt into the bus, just as the doors began to close.

  • Slower: His heart pounded. His lungs burned. He zipped past the other pedestrians, dodging cars and bicycles as he skidded into the bus stop. With each step, the gap between the bus doors narrowed.

A common writing myth is that action makes the story exciting. In fact, action alone is often boring. Experienced authors use action to strengthen the other modes of fiction. Below is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Even though the purpose of this passage is to describe the judge, notice how McCarthy combines description with action to bring the character of the judge to life:

“Foremost among them, outsized and childlike with his naked face, rode the judge. His cheeks were ruddy and he was smiling and bowing to the ladies and doffing his filthy hat. The enormous dome of his head when he bared it was blinding white and perfectly circumscribed about so that it looked to have been painted.”

Here is the passage with just description: “Foremost among them, outsized and childlike with his naked face, was the judge. His cheeks were ruddy and he wore a filthy hat. The enormous dome of his head was blinding white and perfectly circumscribed about so that it looked to have been painted.”

Now, just action: “The judge rode, smiling and bowing to the ladies and doffing his hat. He bared his head.”

#3 Dialogue

Dialogue is writing the speech of characters. I also like to include dialogue tags and formatting in this mode of writing, since dialogue tags impact our understanding of the speech.

The goal of dialogue is conflict. Dialogue is best used to show disagreement or tension between characters. Dialogue is also used to give the reader insights on the personality and habits of a character.

A common mistake is using dialogue to deliver expository information. This makes the dialogue sound unnatural. It also annoys readers.

  • Expository dialogue: Jake frowned at Abby. “I can’t believe you forgot my twenty-eighth birthday, big sister.”

  • Natural dialogue: Jake frowned at Abby. “You forgot, didn’t you?”

For dialogue tags, you prefer to should use “said” or omit tags altogether. Use tags only to enhance or alter the reader’s understanding of what is being said.

Also, “yawned”, “groaned”, “ gasped”, “frowned” etc are not dialogue tags. Dialogue tags indicate who is speaking and how they’re speaking. Gasping is not a manner of speech, it’s something you do as you speak. Therefore, these are independent actions. In fiction, dialogue tags are separated from speech with commas, while independent actions form their own sentences. For example:

  • Tag: “What a day,” Billy said.

  • Action: “What a day.” Billy yawned.

#4 Narration

Narration is writing exposition, recollection, thoughts, feelings, transitions, etc. It is the only non-dramatic mode of fiction.

The goal of narration is explanation. This is where you can deliver chunks of information that need not to be shown. Narration is also used to break up the story into sections, transition from one scene to the next, and control the pacing and tone of the story.

Here are a few types of narration:

  • Exposition: Explaining to the reader what has happened, what is happening, or what will happen.

  • Recollection / Memory: A character relaying what happened in the past, often in the style of classic storytelling. (eg. “Back in the 70s, an old man lived across from my house.”)

  • Thoughts and Feelings: A character’s introspection. Explaining to the reader what a character thinks or how a character feels. This could be explicit (eg. “Bobby felt in-the-dumps all morning.”) or implicit (eg. “A dark cloud hung over Bobby all morning.”)

  • Transition: Moving the story from one place and time to another. (eg. “Six weeks passed without any news from Bobby.”)

Use narration for information the reader needs to know, but does not need to experience. The biggest mistake of narration is expecting the reader to be able to see or experience what you narrate.

For example, “Bobby felt in-the-dumps all morning.” sufficiently explains that Bobby is depressed, but it does not help the reader see Bobby’s depression or feel empathy for Bobby.

Infographic: 4 Modes of Fiction Writing


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