The Elements of Fiction



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  • Cresta McGowan
  • Works Cited:
      • Meyer, Michael. "The Elements of Fiction." The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Reading-Writing-Thinking). 8th ed. Boston/New York: Bedford/St Martin's, 2008. 67-339. Print.
  • PLOT
  • I put a group of characters in some sort of predicament, and then watch them try to work themselves free, or manipulate them to safety - those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot - to watch what happens and then write it down.
  • -Stephen King
  • Created by a writer’s imagination, a work of fiction need not be factual or historically accurate.
  • We can learn much about Russian life from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, but that historical information is incidental to Tolstoy’s exploration of human nature. Tolstoy, like most successful writers, makes us accept as real the world in his novel no matter how foreign it may be to our own reality.
  • One of the ways a writer achieves this acceptance and engagement - and one of a writer’s few obligations - is to interest us in what is happening in the story. We are carried into the writer’s fictional world by the plot.
  • Introduction - The beginning of the story where the characters and the setting is revealed.
  • Rising Action - This is where the events in the story become complicated and the conflict in the story is revealed (events between the introduction and climax).
  • Climax - This is the highest point of interest and the turning point of the story. The reader wonders what will happen next; will the conflict be resolved or not?
  • Falling action - The events and complications begin to resolve themselves. The reader knows what has happened next and if the conflict was resolved or not (events between climax and denouement).
  • Denouement - This is the final outcome or untangling of events in the story.
  • PLOT STRUCTURE
  • Plot Pyramid
  • Common Plot Strategies that keep you reading on:
  • Flashback - a device that informs us about an event before the opening scene of the work.
  • Conflict (or INCITING INCIDENT)- Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. himself
  • Foreshadowing - clues of events yet to come
  • Suspense - making a reader anxious to find out what happens
  • Anecdote - A very short tale told by a character in a literary work.
  • Sub-plot - A subplot, sometimes referred to as a "B story" or a "C story" and so on, is a secondary plot strand that is auxiliary to the main plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance. Subplots often involve supporting characters, those besides the protagonist or antagonist.
  • Anti-climax - A decline viewed in disappointing contrast with a previous rise; A sudden descent in speaking or writing from the impressive or significant to the ludicrous or inconsequential
  • CHARACTER
  • When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before - met him on the river.
  • ~Mark Twain
  • Character is essential to plot. Without characters Rowling’s Harry Potter Series would be nothing more than a journey through England and Meyer’s Twilight Series little more than a faded history of a sleepy town in the north where the sun never shines.
  • The methods in which a writer creates people in a story so that they seem to actually exist is called characterization.
  • Direct Characterization tells the audience what the personality of the character is.
  • Example: “The patient boy and quiet girl were both well mannered and did not disobey their mother.”
  • Explanation: The author is directly telling the audience the personality of these two children. The boy is “patient” and the girl is “quiet.”
  • Indirect Characterization shows things that reveal the personality of a character. There are five different methods of indirect characterization:
  • Speech - What does the character say? How does the character speak?
  • Thoughts - What is revealed through the character’s private thoughts and feelings?
  • Effect on others toward the character - What is revealed through the character’s effect on other people? How do other characters feel or behave in reaction to the character?
  • Actions - What does the character do? How does the character behave?
  • Looks - What does the character look like? How does the character dress?
  • Tip #1: Use the mnemonic device of STEAL to remember the five types of indirect characterization
  • Tip #2: Use indirect characterization to analyze visual media: Film: Look at how the character dresses and moves. Note the facial expressions when the director moves in for a close-up shot. Drama: Pay attention to the way that the characters reveal their thoughts during a soliloquy.
  • Flat Characters - background characters who are never described in enough detail to give a good mental image, and thus seem to be flat cut-out images. They seem to be stereotypes, even if they have names and some description. Examples: "the butcher," "the red-haired woman," "a little old man."
  • Round Characters - characters who are described in more detail, so that you have a good mental image of them. The main characters in the story will be round characters, and some of the more important background characters will also be round.
  • Dynamic Characters - characters who change over the course of the story.
  • Static Characters - characters who stay the same throughout the story.
  • Basic Types of Characters in Fiction
  • Protagonist vs. Antagonist
  • What’s really going on here?
  • The Protagonist:
  • Often called the 'hero' of the story, it is more accurate to say that the Protagonist is the main character- the one that your audience will follow for the majority of the story. This doesn’t always make him the good guy. At it's core, the Protagonist is the one with the obstacle to overcome.
  • The Antagonist:
  • In simple terms, the Antagonist is the force that your main character struggles against during your movie. The simplest and most common Antagonist is the villain, which must be overcome during the course of your stor, but it is not always the bad guy. Although this character is extremely important (because it gives your Protagonist something to struggle against), it is important to understand that the Antagonist doesn't always have to be another human character, nor does the Antagonist always have to be 'evil.' For example, a Protagonist can struggle against 'the coming storm on the horizon,' or can struggle against 'his girlfriend's father who doesn't want them to get married.'
  • The reason a story has less 'flexibility' with a Protagonist is because you will follow him (or her) around for the entire piece; your reader will need to be able to identify with them. Note that this is different than needing to have a reader like your Protagonist... A Protagonist may be completely unlikable (an anti-hero, if you will), but the reader will still need to be able to identify with the Protagonist on a basic level.
  • Setting
  • I love the way a short story can offer a sharp concentrated insight like a stiletto thrust. I love the way you can experience a whole lifetime in a few pages.
  • ~Andrea Lee
  • Setting is the context in which the action of a story occurs. The major elements of setting are:
  • Time - Morning/Night, Early/Late, 1955/2025, etc…
  • Place - North/South, Africa/England, Inside/Outside, etc…
  • Social Environment - Formal/Informal, Young/Old, School/Hospital, etc…
  • Point of View
  • It is not necessary to portray many characters. The center of gravity should be in two persons: him and her.
  • ~Anton Chekov
  • Point of view comes in three varieties, which the English scholars have handily numbered for your convenience:
  • First-person point of view - is in use when a character narrates the story with I-me-my-mine in his or her speech. The advantage of this point of view is that you get to hear the thoughts of the narrator and see the world depicted in the story through his or her eyes. However, remember that no narrator, like no human being, has complete self-knowledge or, for that matter, complete knowledge of anything. Therefore, the reader's role is to go beyond what the narrator says.
  • For example, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of Scout, a young child. She doesn't grasp the complex racial and socioeconomic relations of her town — but the reader does, because Scout gives information that the reader can interpret. Also, Scout's innocence reminds the reader of a simple, "it's-not-fair" attitude that contrasts with the rationalizations of other characters.
  • Third Person Omniscient: This is when the writer tells the story using the third person (he said, she did, etc.) The writer has access into every action and even the thoughts of all the characters. He is all-knowing, in other words. Omniscient point of view means the writer is a God.
  • Third Person Limited: The writer still uses the third person, but his insight into every thought is now limited to just one character in the story, or maybe a few different characters separated by parts of the book. He still has some pretty godlike powers, but he's not all knowing.
  • WE DO NOT USE 2ND PERSON POV! DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT SELECTING THIS CHOICE ON A STANDARDIZED TEST!!!!
  • Symbolism
  • Now mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.
  • ~Ralph Ellison
  • A symbol is a person, object, or event that suggest more than its literal meaning.
  • Symbolism often throws off a reader as they review the literature. They often question themselves thinking, “I didn’t see that when I was reading the story.”
  • Most readers go through the story for first time getting their bearings, figuring out what is happening to whom and so on. Patterns and details often require a SECOND or even (say it ain’t so) a THIRD reading before a symbol sheds its light. Often when the symbolism is recognized, there is an “a-ha” moment for the reader. Symbols are usually embedded but NOT hidden; they are carefully placed. What is often needed to see them is careful consideration of the reading material and some good ol’ fashioned COMMON SENSE!
  • Types of Symbols
  • Conventional Symbols - symbols widely recognized by a society or culture.
  • Certain kinds of experiences also have traditional meanings in Western Culture (that’s you!) For example: Winter, the sun setting, and the color black often represent death, while spring, the rising sun, and the color green often represent life or new beginnings.
  • Writers use these conventional ideas in their stories to convey an idea. Kate Chopin uses the imagery of spring in “The Story of an Hour” to emphasize the new freed feeling Ms. Mallard feels at the news of her husband’s death.
  • Literary Symbols - this type of symbol can include conventional or public meanings, but it may also be established internally by the total context of the work in which it appears.
  • A literary symbol can be a setting, character, action, object, name, or anything else in a work that maintains its literal significance while suggesting other meanings. Symbols can not be restricted to a single meaning; they are suggestive rather than definitive. The many walls in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” can not be reduced to one idea - they have many meanings in the story: the walls symbolize the deadening, dehumanizing, restrictive repetitiveness of the office routine, as well as the confining, materialistic sensibilities of Wall Street. They suggest whatever limits and thwarts human aspirations, including death itself. As the reader, we never know precisely what shatters Bartleby’s will to live, but the walls in the story give us symbolic meaning to his death.
  • Allegory
  • When a character, object, or incident indicates a single, fixed meaning, the writer is using an allegory rather than a symbol. Where symbols have literal functions as well as multiple meanings, the primary focus in allegory is on the abstract idea called forth by the concrete object.
  • C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a good example of an allegory.
  • Aslan represents the figure of Jesus Christ.
  • The Stone Table refers to the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, according to the Bible.
  • The sea becomes a boundary between Narnia, the Earth, and "Aslan's country," or heaven.
  • Theme
  • To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
  • ~Herman Melville
  • Theme is the central idea or meaning of a story. It provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, and symbols of a story are organized.
  • Theme is not always easy to identify. A few pointers to help you determine the theme or a piece of literature on your SECOND or THIRD reading are:
  • Pay attention to the title of the story..
  • Look for details with symbolic meaning - consider names, places, objects, etc…
  • Decide whether the protagonist changes or develops some important insight as a result of the action in the story.
  • Write down your ideas of theme in your own words - avoiding just nothing the subject. The story may be about revenge, but the theme should make a statement about revenge!
  • Be sure that your statement is a general idea of theme and not a specific focus on people, places, or incidents in the story.
  • By wary of using clichés - they tend to short circuit the idea.
  • Be aware that some stories emphasize theme less than others. Stories that have as their focus adventure, humor, mystery, or terror may have little or no theme..
  • Style, Tone, and Irony
  • I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story.
  • ~Raymond Carver
  • Style is a concept that everyone understand on some level because in its broadest sense it refers to the particular way in which anything is made or done. Style is all around us: cars, clothing, buildings, dance, music, politics - in anything that reflects a distinctive manner of expression or design.
  • Authors also have different characteristic styles.
  • Style refers to the distinctive manner in which a writer arranges words to achieve particular effects.
  • DICTION refers to a writer’s choice of words. Because different words evoke different emotions, the writer’s choice of words is critical to the story.
  • Tone is the author’s implicit attitude toward the people, places, and events in a story. When we speak, our tone is conveyed by our voice inflections, our wink of an eye, or some other gesture. In a literary work that spoken voice is unavailable; instead we must rely on the context of which a statement appears and interpret it correctly.
  • To determine tone in writing you have to consider diction and syntax (the grammatical structure in the sentence) in the author’s representation of information.
  • Screaming or Yawning?
  • Irony
  • Irony is a literary device that reveals a reality different from what appears to be true.
  • There are three main types of irony:
  • Verbal Irony - consists of a person saying one thing but meaning the opposite. If a student driver smashes the driver’s ed car and the instructor says, “you did well today” the statement is an example of verbal irony. Verbal irony is usually calculated to make light or banter someone with false praise or “teasing” through the use of sarcasm.
  • In literature, however, verbal irony is not openly aggressive; instead, it is more subtle and restrained though no less intense.
  • Situational Irony - this exists when there is an incongruity (difference) between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.
  • An example of situational irony is a scene in a movie where a man is about to shoot someone, however, when the noise of the gun being fired occurs, instead of the bullet hitting the victim, the shooter himself is shot by someone else.
  • Another example would be a woman who is apprehensive about attending a wedding due to being single, she however goes and there meets her future husband.
  • In literature, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet provides an example of tragic situational irony. Juliet takes a drug to fake her death, Romeo however takes poison as he believes Juliet to be dead, when she awakens from her self-induced coma, she finds Romeo's body and thus kills herself for real.
  • Dramatic Irony - creates a discrepancy between what a character believes or says and what the reader understands to be true.
  • The most sustained example of dramatic irony is undoubtedly Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus searches to find the murderer of the former king of Thebes, only to discover that it is himself, a fact the audience has known all along.
  • In a horror movie, suspense is often built up by the use of spooky music. The viewers often know that someone is going to die or get ripped up, or, at least, something is going to jump out because of the music that THEY can hear--and, of course, the characters cannot. Because the viewers know something the characters do not, this is dramatic irony.
  • Another similar example is when the main character (in a scary movie), is being chased by a killer and we know that the killer is hiding in the closet but the character does not know that.
  • Allegory - as noted before, When a character, object, or incident indicates a single, fixed meaning
  • Novel - A fictional prose work of substantial length. The novel narrates the actions of characters who are entirely the invention of the author and who are placed in an imaginary setting. The fact that a so-called historical or biographical novel uses historically real characters in real geographical locations doing historically verifiable things does not alter the fictional quality of the work. Nor does it qualify a work labeled a novel by the author as a historical text.
  • Novella - a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel
  • Parable - A brief story, told or written in order to teach a moral lesson. Christ's tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-7) is an example.
  • Prose - Prose is writing that resembles everyday speech. The word "prose" is derived from the Latin prosa, which literally translates to "straightforward".
  • Short Story - A short fictional narrative. It is difficult to set forth the point at which a short story becomes a short novel (novella), or the page number at which a novelette becomes a novel. Here are some examples which may help in determining which is which: Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" is a short story; John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" is a novella; and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" is a novel.
  • Poetry - Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.
  • Informational text - reading material that is designed to inform, teach, or explain
  • Non-Fiction Text - text that provides true and accurate details such as a documentary or an autobiography.
  • Essays - An essay is usually a short piece of writing. It is often written from an author's personal point of view. Essays can be literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. An essay can be narrative (telling a story), persuasive (making a point), compare/contrast, expository (informative), autobiographical (your own story), cause/effect, descriptive, or literary analysis (going deeper into the literature). Essays ARE NOT ALWAYS 5-PARAGRAPHS! Structured essays will have requirements, but free response ask you to know when to begin, what to say, and when to end! It is finished when it is finished!


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