There are three basic parts to a Fluorescent lamp system. The lamp, the starter, and the ballast.
The lamp has two electrodes (one at each end), a phosphor coating, and mercury and argon inside.
The starter uses an initial current to ionize the gas between the electrodes. The starter then turns off and allows the current to continue to flow through the ionized gas in the fluorescent lamp's tube. This creates an arc which in turn glows inside the tube. When the current is flowing through the argon gas, it is actually giving off an ultra-violet electromagnetic wave from the excited electrons, but because of the phosphor coating on the inside of the tube, the lamp itself emits visible light.
The ballast is essentially the controller for the lamp. You can purchase ballasts for all kinds of uses like quick-start, efficiency, power level, etc. The ballast limits and controls the amount of current being supplied to the lamps to keep them from being destroyed.
Every lamp is going to have whats called a Light Loss Factor, which is essentially saying no lamp is perfect and due to usage, dirt, etc, you are going to loose efficiency. The ballast will actually allow you to control some of the elements of nature (at an expense though). For example, if you have a light loss factor of .9 (or 90% efficiency) due to dirt and other natural elements, you can use a ballast that will overdrive the lamp at 1.1 (or 110%) to achieve nearly 100% lighting. This will eventually decrease the lamp life, but you would be getting better lighting.
Fluorescent lamps are an incredible technology that is very common these days. Even more lamp models are coming out to allow us to use them in our own homes and not just in industrial settings. You can see from the images some different standard lamp models. Although it looks like a regular screw in light bulb what you don't see is the ballast and starter are built into the clay base of the bulb.
howstuffworks.com had some great illustrations which I've included here
I don't have any personal photos to include here. I think howstuffworks.com did a great job of illustrating it. But I wanted to give my explanation of how it all breaks down in addition to these illustrations.