Core Elements of Fiction: GED Test Prep (page 6)
The kind of literature that students are most familiar with (and therefore most comfortable with) is fiction. This article reviews the eight core elements of fiction, including plot, character, setting, and theme.
The word fiction comes from the Latin word fingere, which means "to make or shape." Works of fiction tell about characters and events created in and shaped by the author's imagination. Fiction includes the genres listed earlier: novels, short stories, poems, and plays. But because poems and plays have their own special characteristics and conventions, they will be covered in separate sections. The focus here is on prose fiction. Prose is writing that is not in poetic form (verse) or dramatic form (stage or screen play).
There are eight important elements of fiction:
- point of view
- language and style
Plot refers to the series of events in a story—the order in which the actions take place. A story's plot always revolves around some kind of conflict. The conflict may be between two characters, between the main character and an idea or force (e.g., nature or racism), or between the character and him- or herself.
Plot is often arranged chronologically (in time order), but authors sometimes vary the order of events to help build suspense and to control how much we know about the characters. For example, an author may use flashbacks to describe events that took place earlier in the timeline of action—events that might help us understand the character and his or her traits or motivations.
Plots usually follow a five-part "pyramid" pattern, though the pyramid should be lopsided, since the climax typically occurs near the end of the story:
- Exposition introduces readers to the people, places, and basic circumstances or situation of the story.
- Complication (sometimes referred to as "rising action") is the series of events that "complicate" the story and build up to the climax.
- Climax is the "highpoint" of the story, the moment of greatest tension (the peak of the pyramid). This is often the turning point of the story, when a character must make a difficult decision or take some kind of action.
- Falling action occurs when the missing pieces of the puzzle are filled in (for example, secrets are revealed, mysteries solved, confessions made). The story "settles down."
- Resolution or denouement is the conclusion of the story in which conflicts are resolved (at least to some degree), questions are answered, and characters are set to move on with a new understanding or under new circumstances.
Characters are the people created by the author to tell the story. They perform the actions, speak the words, and convey the ideas of the story. As readers, we see what the characters think, do, and say, and we try to understand why they think, do, and say these things.
Characters can be round or flat. Round characters are fully developed, complex, three-dimensional creatures. They are dynamic characters who embody contradictions and undergo change or growth of some sort throughout the story. Flat characters, on the other hand, are one-dimensional, undeveloped, and static. They are typically defined by one main characteristic and do not change. They are often stereotypes or symbolic.
Just as every story has a conflict, every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is the "hero" or main character of the story, the one who faces the conflict and undergoes change. The antagonist is the person, force (such as a disease or natural disaster), or idea (such as prejudice or crippling self-doubt) that works against the protagonist.
In fiction, characters reveal themselves through dialogue and action. In dialogue, characters tell us what they think, feel, and believe. How a character talks can provide information about the character's background (for example, a Southern dialect may mean that a character grew up in the South) and education (for example, a character who speaks with a highly sophisticated vocabulary may have spent several years in an institution of higher learning). Action undertaken by characters moves the story forward while creating dynamic, round characters.
The setting is the time and place in which the story unfolds. This gives the story a particular social and historical context. What was happening in the world at that time? What was happening in that particular place at that time? Remember that the setting of a piece of fiction is not the same as the publication date. Many stories written during contemporary times have settings dating back hundreds of years. When considering the setting, we should consider the political, social, and overall historical contexts of the time and place. For example, if a story takes place in 1762 in Boston, there are certain historical expectations. You can expect tensions to be high between Americans and the British. You can expect certain details of daily life, such as carriages, torches, and outhouses. If the story does not meet those expectations (if, for example, a character rides into town in a convertible), you need to consider why the author has broken those expectations.
Setting can be specific or universal. Some stories, for example, can take place anywhere and any time; the plot and characters are not unique to any historical circumstances. Other stories, like a story of the American Revolution, must take place in a certain place and time. Some of the story's themes (e.g., the importance of freedom) are considered universal.
Setting is often important in creating the tone of the story. Tone is the mood or attitude conveyed in the writing. For example, notice how Edgar Allen Poe uses setting to establish an appropriately gloomy tone for his horror tale "The Fall of the House of Usher":
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
Poe's word choice—dull, dark, soundless, oppressively, alone, dreary, melancholy—work together to create a dark and somewhat mysterious tone for the story.
Often the most important tone in fiction is irony. Situational irony occurs when there is incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually occurs. For example, in Guy de Maupassant's classic short story "The Necklace," Madame Loisel spends ten years of her life struggling to pay off the debt she owes for a necklace she bought to replace the one she had borrowed from a friend and lost. In the last lines of the story, Madame Loisel runs into that old friend and learns that she sacrificed in vain:
"You remember the diamond necklace you lent me for the ball at the Ministry?"
"Well, I lost it."
"How could you? Why, you brought it back."
"I brought you another one just like it. And for the last ten years we have been paying for it. You realize it wasn't easy for us; we had no money… Well, it's paid for at last, and I'm glad indeed."
Madame Forestier had halted.
"You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?"
"Yes. You hadn't noticed it? They were very much alike."
And she smiled in proud and innocent happiness.
Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her two hands.
"Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs!…"
Point of View
Point of view refers to the person who is telling us the story. All stories have a narrator—the person who describes the characters and events. Note: The author is NOT the narrator. In fiction, the narrator is always a "character" created by the author to tell the tale.
A first-person narrator tells the story from his or her own point of view using I. With this point of view, you see and hear the story from someone directly involved in the action. This is a very subjective and personal point of view. Here's an example:
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.
—Amy Tan, from The Joy Luck Club (1989)
In a story told from the second-person point of view, the writer uses the pronoun you, and thus the reader becomes a character in the story, thinking the thoughts and performing the actions of the main character:
Moss Watson, the man you truly love like no other, is singing December 23 in the Owonta Opera production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. He's playing Kaspar, the partially deaf Wise Man. Wisdom, says Moss, arrives in all forms. And you think, Yes, sometimes as a king and sometimes as a hesitant phone call that says the king 'll be late at rehearsal and don't wait up, and then when you call back to tell him to be careful not to let the cat out when he comes home, you discover there's been no rehearsal there at all.
—Lorrie Moore, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," from Self Help (1985)
With a third-person narrator, the author uses the pronouns he, she, and they to tell the story. This narrator is removed from the action, so the story is more objective. Third-person narrators are often omniscient: They know everything about the characters and tell us what the characters think and feel. Here's an example:
To tell the truth, he found it at first rather hard to get used to these privations, but after a while it became a habit and went smoothly enough—he even became quite accustomed to being hungry in the evening; on the other hand, he had spiritual nourishment, for he carried ever in his thoughts the idea of his future overcoat. His whole existence had in a sense become fuller, as though he had married, as though some other person were present with him, as though he were no longer alone, but an agreeable companion had consented to walk the path of life hand in hand with him, and that companion was no other than the new overcoat with its thick wadding and its strong, durable lining.
—Nikolai Gogol, from "The Overcoat" (1842)
Third-person narration can also be limited. This means the author still uses the third-person pronouns (he, she), but only imparts the thoughts and feelings of one character in the story. In this way, third-person limited point of view is very similar to first-person narration, but it does give as intimate a feeling as first-person narration does.
Language and Style
One of the main things that draws us to certain writers is their language and style. How do they tell the story? What sort of words and sentences do the writers use to tell the tale? Language and style consist of diction (the specific words the writer uses), figurative language (similes, metaphors, imagery, and personification), level of description and detail, and sentence structure.
A simile makes a comparison using like or as: Your eyes are like shining sapphires. A metaphor is more powerful. It makes the comparison directly: Your eyes are shining sapphires.
Personification is the attribution of human characteristics to animals or objects. For example, in the poem "The Eagle" from the pretest, the eagle is described as "clasp[ing] the crag with crooked hands." Eagles do not actually have hands. This is personification.
Imagery is the representation of sensory experience through language. Imagery helps us see, hear, taste, smell, and touch in our imaginations. Notice the powerful imagery and the similes in the passage below, from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street (1984):
Everybody in our family has different hair. My Papa's hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. Carlos' hair is thick and straight. He doesn't need to comb it. Nenny's hair is slippery—slides out of your hand. And Kiki, who is the youngest, has hair like fur.
But my mother's hair, my mother's hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama's hair that smells like bread.
However, style is more than just figurative language. It is the overall manner of writing, including sentence structure and the level of formality, which is managed through word choice. It is also a matter of how much description and detail the author likes to provide. Notice, for example, the drastically different styles of the two science fiction writers in the next example. One uses very long sentences and sophisticated, formal vocabulary. The other is much more casual, with shorter sentences and more everyday vocabulary.
From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818):
It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.
From Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969):
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941.He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963.He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
In fiction, writers often use symbolism to help convey the themes of their stories. A symbol is a person, place, or thing invested with special meaning or significance. It is a person, place, or thing that is both itself and a representation of something else (usually an idea). Flags are an everyday example of symbolism. A flag is a decorated piece of cloth, but it is also much more than that; it represents a group of people and the ideas that hold those people together. Colors are also highly symbolic. White may be used to represent purity or innocence; red to represent passion or bloodshed; purple to represent royalty. Birds often represent freedom, and an olive branch represents peace.
In "The Necklace," the necklace Madame Loisel loses becomes a symbol of what happens when we want desperately to be something or someone we are not, of what we can suffer when we are too proud to tell the truth to others.
All of these elements add up to express the story's theme. As noted earlier, theme in literature is like the thesis of an expository essay, but it is a bit more complex. You won't find a thesis statement in a short story or novel. Instead, you have to evaluate the whole and consider the questions the story has raised, the points it has made, and the positions it has taken. Indeed, stories can have several themes. The key is to ask yourself what the story adds up to in the end. What seems to be the message the writer wants to convey through all that has occurred? What ideas can you take away from the characters and events you just experienced?
In Frankenstein, for example, you might state the themes this way:
- People must be responsible for what they create.
- We should not "play God" and attempt to control or overrule nature.
- Everyone needs to be loved, and we bring destruction upon ourselves when we reject others.
All three of these themes and more come from the story—from all elements of fiction working together in the novel to convey the writer's ideas.
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