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Elements of fiction

This page presents brief descriptions of some common elements and devices of fiction that are important to understand in order to achieve the fullest appreciation of literary fiction, i.e. short stories and novels. The list below is far from exhaustive, and I may add to it as we proceed through our exploration of fiction in the remaining weeks of the semester. For further explanation and illustration of the items below or to explore additional elements of fiction, refer to chapters 1-6 in The Norton Introduction to Literature. For concise definitions of literary terms, see the glossary at the back of the book, pp. A1-A8.


Theme

The theme of a story is its "message." In the simplest, broadest terms, one quality that differentiates works of "literature" from other written texts (especially those intended primarily to entertain) is that literary works often present a theme, or "message" that applies beyond the level of plot with continuing relevance for a wide audience beyond the world presented in the literary text. A literary work's theme makes some commentary upon or offers insight into the human condition more generally.

Think of a fable, for instance, where the universal theme is stated directly as the "moral of the story." In the famous fable about the tortoise and the hare, the message is that focused, extended perseverance leads to a better outcome than dashing around in erratic bursts of frenzied high-speed activity. The theme isn't a matter limited to the two characters in the story, or even turtles and rabbits more generally: the fable's theme pertains to you and me, and all of humanity.

Some works' themes are relatively limited in scope: among other themes, for instance, Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House points out the destructive nature of a legal system more intent on perpetuating itself as a system than providing justice. On the other hand, the commentary on the destructive nature of guilt in the widest possible terms in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment clearly applies to all human beings—we all experience powerful feelings of guilt at times. To a certain extent, literary works exploring the most universal themes tend to have the longest staying power.



Setting

A story's setting is the time and place in which the events of the story take place.  A story's setting often has significance beyond merely establishing the stage upon which the characters move.  The "when and where" of setting is always important in developing plot and establishing a story's mood; specific elements of setting may have symbolic or thematic importance as well.



Plot

Plot refers to the ordered structure of the events in any story, or as Aristotle defined it, "the arrangement of the incidents" such that there is a recognizable and causally related beginning, middle, and end with all parts being essential to the whole. While a story's plot may present story events in chronological order, it is important to note that a plot does not necessarily always coincide with the chronological sequence of events. Sometimes storytellers rearrange time sequences, beginning in the present, for instance, but then moving backwards and forward in time as the author sees fit. One common pattern is for a plot to begin with the present and then travel back in time to establish necessary background to characters and events that lead up to or explain the present situation that opens the story.

Plots are commonly divided into the following component parts:

Exposition: The beginning of the story, where the setting is established, the central characters are introduced, and the central conflict confronting the protagonist(s), or main character(s) is set up.

Rising action, or complication: The middle of the story contains episodes intensifying, elaborating, and developing the initial conflict, usually increasing suspense by increasing the difficulties facing the protagonist and leading up to the story's crisis, or climax.

Crisis or climax: the ultimate moment of the plot, where the opposing forces in the story's central conflict come to a head and force the deciding action where the protagonist's situation in regards to the central conflict either worsens or improves most substantially and finally: the climax of a plot is the moment in which the central "narrative question" is to be answered. For instance, in detective fiction the central conflict is usually the question of "whodunit?" or who is the party guilty of the crime, and the climax is the scene or episode in which the detective confronts the guilty party and the fate of the criminal is to be decided.

Falling action, or denouement: Denouement means literally "unknotting," and the denouement of a story presents the final unraveling of the plot, where the climax is resolved, all important plot questions are answered, and if I may reverse metaphors, significant loose ends are "wrapped up." The falling action brings closure and leaves the protagonist(s) in a state of satisfactory final stasis.



Point of view

Point of view describes, first, the narrator's relationship to the world of the story—as either external observer or as inhabitant of the fictional world as a character, and second, the narrator's relative knowledge of the events he or she relates.  Point of view is usually divided into categories of 1st and 3rd person, with more specific classification as follows:

The first-person narrator is a character in the story who speaks as "I" (or "we").  First-person narrators may be peripheral observers (Watson, in the Sherlock Holmes stories), or they may be the central characters of their narratives (Huck in Huck Finn).  One of the challenges for the reader of first-person narratives is to judge the narrator's reliability.  When there is recognizable distance between the attitude of the narrator and the implicit attitude of the author, there is ironic point of view, and it is up to the reader to evaluate the personal qualities of the narrator in order to understand the events of the story correctly.

The third-person narrator is a speaker who exists outside or above the world of the story and who speaks of characters only as "he," "she," and "they."  Third-person narrators may have complete knowledge of all the characters: an omniscient narrator may editorialize or comment on the characters and events from a position of superiority.  Omniscient narrators may move selectively in and out of the minds of any number of characters, reporting thoughts and feelings in addition to describing and commenting upon characters, actions, and events.

In limited third-person narration, the narrator describes the events of the story mainly through the focusing consciousness of only one of the characters—this character is frequently the story's protagonist.  There are stories, too, that shift the limited third-person perspective from character to character in different episodes.

At the farthest extreme from both the first-person narrator and the third-person omniscient narrator is the third-person objective narrator.  Third-person objective narration is sometimes called the "fly on the wall" method or the "camera eye" point of view.  This third-person perspective presents actions, speeches, and appearances without comment and without entering into the minds of any of the characters.

 


Symbolism

Symbols: A symbol, simply put, is something in a literary work represented on the concrete, literal level of meaning that also has significant meaning on a higher plane of interpretation—beyond the literal level of the text. For instance, in a story about a man on his deathbed, the chiming of a clock may be on the literal level a descriptive detail of scene—the author's reporting of an actual sound the characters hear—but on a higher interpretive level, the chiming of the clock might symbolize the inevitable passing of time carrying the man to his death. The chiming could also symbolize the ringing of funeral bells. . . . For a non-literary example, consider the symbolism inherent in a black cat. Literally, a black cat is a feline quadruped prone to carrying fleas in its coat and ripping up furniture with its claws. On the symbolic level, though, black cats are thought to represent bad luck (or "evil," or witchcraft).

Allegory: In essence, allegory involves a coherent system of symbolism in a given work, where characters, events, and/or matters of setting operate on two (or more) different levels of meaning simultaneously. One of the most well-known examples of allegory is George Orwell's novella, Animal Farm. The surface level of this story is concerned with the interactions of barnyard animals on a farm owned by a man named Mr. Jones—and the story makes clear and complete sense on this level of being a tale about cows, horses, pigs, chickens, etc. But on the allegorical level, Animal Farm is a cautionary tale about the evils of Soviet communism, with direct one-to-one correspondence between specific animal-characters and actual historical figures important in Soviet Russian history: the pig Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, e.g., Snowball, another pig, represents Leon Trotsky, and the horse, Boxer, represents the "common man," and so forth.



Irony

There are many varieties of irony.  Basically, irony suggests a discrepancy between what is and what is expected.

The most common type of irony in fiction is irony of circumstance, sometimes called "cosmic irony."  In this specific meaning, irony occurs when the reader's expectations are strangely surprised by an unforeseen twist, often an apparent "twist of fate."