The Francis turbine is a reaction turbine, which means that the working fluid changes pressure as it moves through the turbine, giving up its energy. A casement is needed to contain the water flow. The turbine is located between the high pressure water source and the low pressure water exit, usually at the base of a dam.

The inlet is spiral shaped. Guide vanes direct the water tangentially to the turbine wheel, known as a runner. This radial flow acts on the runner's vanes, causing the runner to spin. The guide vanes (or wicket gate) may be adjustable to allow efficient turbine operation for a range of water flow conditions.

As the water moves through the runner its spinning radius decreases, further acting on the runner. For an analogy, imagine swinging a ball on a string around in a circle; if the string is pulled short, the ball spins faster due to the conservation of angular momentum. This property, in addition to the water's pressure, helps Francis and other inward-flow turbines harness water energy efficiently.

At the exit, water acts on cup shaped runner features, leaving with no swirl and very little kinetic or potential energy. The turbine's exit tube is shaped to help decelerate the water flow and recover the pressure.