Reading Fiction Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
What Is Fiction?
First, here are a few very general definitions to help you understand the different types or genres of literature. The word fiction refers to stories that are not literal accounts of factual incidents or people. History, for example, is different from fiction because a historical book describes real people and actual events—and does so as accurately and truthfully as possible.
Fiction, of course, might also be based upon actual events and real people. Mark Twain, for instance, wrote a novel about the life of Joan of Arc. She was a real person, and the major events in Twain's novel actually did take place. Yet the book is still a fictional account of Joan of Arc's life, because the author invented other characters and events and conversations that did not occur in real life.
Fiction is also generally written in prose. Prose refers to normal language; it is not poetry nor is it arranged the way that text is written in drama. We generally speak in prose; newspapers and magazines are written in prose; while poetry is written in lines and stanzas that may also rhyme and have meter. You will learn more about these things in a later chapter.
For now, it is enough to understand that fiction is an invented story that is written in prose—normal everyday language.
Types of Fiction
There are many different types of fiction, but for the purpose of the GED, you need concern yourself only with the largest overall definitions, such as novel and fable. There are, of course, many different types of novels—detective stories, gothic romances, humor, and so forth—but again, you do not need to worry about these finer points for your GED preparation.
Novels and Short Stories
Novels are prose stories that are long enough to fill an entire book. Short stories, on the other hand, are just that: shorter stories that might be anywhere from a few pages to 35 or so pages in length, but not long enough to fill an entire book.
Length is essentially the major difference between short stories and novels. An author can create similar stories, dealing with similar issues and creating similar characters, in either a short story or a longer novel. The only real difference is that, in a novel, the author has more time and space to develop ideas and characters and so forth than would be possible in a short story.
You will find excerpts from both novels and short stories on the GED, but for the purposes of the test, it will make little difference.
Myths, Fables, and Parables
A myth is a fictional story that uses invented characters or settings to teach some abstract idea. The classical myths of the Greeks and Romans, for example, told stories of fanciful gods and their dealings with human beings, stories that tried to explain aspects of life on earth.
For example, one famous myth tells the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedelus was a master craftsman, a brilliant genius who could make almost anything. One day, he created a pair of wings from wax and fitted them onto his son, Icarus. Icarus took off and flew, but his pride got the better of him and he began to fly higher and higher—even though his father had expressly warned him not to. Eventually, Icarus flew too high, and the heat from the sun melted the wings—and Icarus fell to his death.
This great myth tells a fascinating story, but it also presents a warning: Do not become overconfident; do not "get above yourself" and try to fly higher than you ought.
A parable is very similar to a myth. It is a short story (some myths can be very long and can intertwine with other myths) that quickly teaches some specific principle or idea, and is often religious in nature. Parables are found in the writings of almost all major religions. For example, the Bible contains many parables that are very well known in our modern world, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan:
But he… said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Then Jesus answered and said: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
"Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.
"So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two [coins], gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.'
"So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?"
—Luke 10:29–36, NKJV
The Bible relates that Jesus used a parable to answer a man's question. Jesus had been teaching his followers to "love your neighbor as yourself," and a man asked him, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answered him by telling this parable, a story which illustrated the idea that he wanted his listeners to understand. But notice that a parable expects the reader to figure out for himself what the lesson is; the writer of a parable may not come straight out and explain what it means.
A fable is very similar to a parable: It is a short story that illustrates some abstract principle or idea. Fables, however, frequently also explain the moral or lesson they are teaching. Also, parables generally involve people as characters, while fables often use talking animals and other nonhumans as characters.
You are probably familiar with some of the fables written in ancient Greece by a man named Aesop. One of the most famous and popular of Aesop's fables is "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." In this fable, a young boy gets bored while out tending sheep in the field all day, so he yells out, "Wolf!" Everyone from the village immediately rushes out to his aid, carrying pitchforks and other weapons to drive away the wolf—but there isn't any wolf. The boy, however, enjoyed the attention so much that he does the same thing the next day, crying out "Wolf!" at the top of his lungs when no wolf is there. He tries this once or twice more, each time with fewer people responding. Then one day a wolf really does come and attack his sheep; but when he yells out "Wolf!" nobody comes. This is where we get the expression crying wolf, meaning calling for help when no help is actually needed.
All stories have a storyteller, or narrator. The narrator is the person who is telling the story—whether the storyteller is actually a character in the story or just the words of the author unfolding the story. It is important to understand that in fiction, however, the narrator is not the author. A narrator is a fictional character—whether that character is part of the story or not—and the things that a narrator says may or may not reflect what the author actually believes. We will discuss this further in a moment.
There are many ways of telling fictional stories, and these methods are sometimes referred to as point of view. This simply means that a story is told from a particular viewpoint. It might be the viewpoint of the main character, who is retelling a story that happened to him. It might be the viewpoint of an unnamed narrator who is merely telling a story that he is not personally involved in.
The two major types of narrator are first-person narrator and third-person narrator. A story that is told in the first person is one where the narrator is actually a character in the story. Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn is told by a character within the story: Huckleberry Finn himself. This is a first-person story. The first-person narrator often refers to himself within the story, using the pronoun I.
Here is an example of first-person narration, from the opening lines of Huckleberry Finn.
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom's Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.
The third-person narrator is not a character in the story, but someone who is simply telling the story without being part of it. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" uses a third-person narrator. Here are the opening lines from that fable:
A young boy was herding sheep in a field outside of his home town, and one day he became bored. He looked around for something to entertain him, and so he decided to yell out the alarm—"Wolf!"—at the top of his lungs to see what would happen.
Notice that the story is being told in the same way that we might tell a story about something that happened to a friend. The person telling the story is not actually taking part in the story. But if you rewrite this fable using a first-person narrator instead of a third-person narrator, this is what it might be like:
One day, I was herding sheep outside of town, and man, was I bored! It was lonely work, too—I had nobody to talk to but a bunch of smelly sheep. Then I got a cool idea: what would happen if I yelled out "Wolf!" as loud as I could?
The third-person narrator might also be an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator, which means that the narrator knows what a character is thinking, and in fact knows everything about the characters within the story. Here is what this fable might be like with a third-person omniscient narrator:
A young boy was herding sheep in a pasture outside of town, and he was very lonely and bored. He felt as though he had been abandoned by his family and friends, who never came to visit him. This made him feel very sad, but then his sadness turned into a bitter resentment. "I'll show them," he thought to himself. "I'll shake up their little world real good!" At that moment, he yelled "Wolf!" as loud as he could, then sat down in contentment to watch the fun.
Notice in this third example how the narrator knows what the boy is thinking and feeling, what his mind is preoccupied with, and so forth. As the story goes on, the narrator might also know what the townspeople are thinking, and what is motivating them to rush out to the field, and what they feel when they discover that it's a false alarm, and so forth. This is a deeper level of storytelling, in which the omniscient narrator is able to tell the reader a great deal more about the characters than merely what happened to them.
Technically, there is also another type of narrator: the second-person narrator. The second-person narrator would address the reader directly, speaking to the reader as you. This book, for example, is written using the second-person narrator. This form of narrator is rarely used in literature, however, and is found more frequently in nonfiction works, such as this book. You will learn more about this form of writing, also known as direct address, in Chapter 4.
In addition to a plot and a setting, most fiction also contains characters—the people who are involved in the story itself. Some stories involve a great many characters, while other stories may be about just one or two characters. The novels of Charles Dickens, for example, generally involve a great many odd and amusing characters, while the novels of Thomas Hardy might involve just three or four.
We frequently speak about the main character in a story, by which we mean the most important character or characters within the story. But the more precise way of approaching characterization is to consider the protagonist and that antagonist.
The protagonist is the hero of the story. This is usually the character who is struggling to overcome the conflict of the plot. The antagonist, on the other hand, is the character who resists the protagonist, who struggles to do the opposite. The conflict of the plot may well be between these two characters, as they struggle in opposite directions.
This resistance can take just about any form, but the old-fashioned Western offers the clearest example. The protagonist in such a story might be Whisperin' Pete, the law-abiding citizen who comes into town and is reluctantly made sheriff. He is told that the dreaded Bozo Brothers gang is headed their way, and they intend to shoot up and wreck the dusty little town. The protagonist of such a plot would be struggling to resist evil and protect peace and justice. The antagonist, however, would be the characters—in this case, those ol' nasties the Bozo Brothers gang—who are trying to disrupt that peace and tranquility. They are the ones who are resisting the actions of the protagonist.
The place where a story occurs and the time at which it occurs are called the setting. The parable of the Good Samaritan takes place on a road between Jericho and Jerusalem, so we would say that it is set on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. We are not told when the story happened, so we must assume that the time period of the story was not important in the author's mind. In fact, Jesus deliberately made his settings very generic—just some farmer's field or some woman's house, at no particular time. He did this because he wanted his listeners to apply the morals of his stories to their own lives, effectively taking Jesus' ideas and applying them to their own settings—to their own place and time, rather than thinking only of some ancient time in some faraway land.
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, by contrast, is set in Mississippi and Missouri in the early 1800s. This particular setting for Twain's novel is very important because the story includes situations that happened in that time period and place. For example, the novel includes a character named Jim, who is a runaway slave. Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn after the Civil War, when slavery was ended in the United States, so he needed to set his novel in the past if he wanted to include runaway slaves.
A story's setting can also influence its atmosphere. The word atmosphere refers to the general feeling or mood that a reader detects in a story. You use these words in the same way when you speak of entering a room where there is an atmosphere of tension because people are having an argument, or when you speak about "the mood of the party" or "the feeling that I got in the job interview," and so forth.
Some stories deliberately try to bring out a specific atmosphere that is important to the story itself. For example, a ghost story will frequently strive for a spooky atmosphere. A good ghost story will use the setting to help bring out that atmosphere. This is why so many ghost stories are set in huge old mansions atop some lonely hill. These stories also frequently take place late at night—preferably on a dark and stormy night. All of these are part of the story's setting, and such a setting goes a long way to establishing an atmosphere that is perfect for a ghost story.
It is important to notice that the atmosphere of a story is related to the setting: The place and time where the story takes place create a certain mood or feeling as you read. This is quite different from another element of fiction—the tone of a story.
The tone of a story is defined by the attitude of the author toward the subject matter. This is a very subtle concept, and it requires some practice to learn how to understand what an author is trying to convey to the reader—particularly because the author may not directly state his or her attitude. In fact, a piece of literature may actually say the opposite of what the author actually believes, and it is up to the reader to detect the author's true viewpoint by reading carefully.
First of all, it is important to understand that the narrator is not the author. Even when a story is told in the third person, the narrator is still a fictional character who is telling the story. The narrator, therefore, may not be speaking what the author actually believes.
Consider the following excerpt from A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled….
A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
Jonathan Swift is using tone to convey his true ideas to his readers—even though his narrator is actually saying the exact opposite. Swift wrote A Modest Proposal as a scathing attack on landlords and on the political economists in Ireland who seemed to be consumed by greed and indifference to the lower classes in the country. The tone in A Modest Proposal is ironic; it says the opposite of what it means.
Irony is one major example of tone that you will frequently encounter in literature. An author is ironic when he or she says one thing but actually means something different. We all use irony from time to time in everyday speech—one form of irony is known as sarcasm. Let's say, for example, that you meet a friend who has made a drastic change to her appearance, dying her hair purple or something of that sort. You might say the following upon seeing the new hairdo:
"Wow, your new hairdo is… really nice."
Now, that statement can be interpreted in different ways. It could mean just what it says: that you truly like the new hairdo and think it's attractive. But it could also mean just the opposite: that you don't like the new hairdo, and that you think it's not attractive.
Try reading that sentence aloud twice. The first time, read it as if you really mean it; the second time, read it in a way that suggests you don't really mean it literally.
How did your two readings differ? What did you do differently the second time from the first? You probably conveyed your true meaning by your tone of voice. The words, taken literally, mean that you like the new hairdo; yet, by changing your tone, you are able to communicate to your friend that you don't like her new hairdo—even though your literal words are saying that you do.
This is an example of how authors use irony in writing, just as Jonathan Swift did in A Modest Proposal. An author establishes a certain tone by a careful use of words, settings, atmosphere, and other elements. One of the most important elements of tone is the author's word choice.
When reading that sample sentence earlier, you were able to convey two different meanings from the same words, and you did so by changing the tone of your voice, perhaps by winking or raising an eyebrow, perhaps with subtle hand gestures. But a writer cannot use hand gestures and voice intonations on the written page, so a specific tone must be established by other means if the reader is to understand the writer's meaning fully.
One of the most common methods of conveying subtleties of tone is to select words and phrases that will communicate that tone to the reader. Read the two following passages—both of which describe the same event. Pay attention to the wording of each passage, and consider how the choices of words and phrases convey two different opinions about the event.
Drew had recently broken off his engagement to Lily, and Lily was feeling pretty sad about it. Just the other day, Lily walked into a restaurant for lunch—and found that Drew was there eating with his new girlfriend.
Lily didn't know what to do, and Drew was pretty embarrassed. He just sat there, looking at Lily and not saying anything. Lily finally turned and left the restaurant. Drew and his new friend just sat and finished their lunch.
Drew went and backed out of his engagement to poor Lily, and it just utterly broke her heart. Then he has the nerve to go out for lunch with his new girlfriend—and to Kitchen Little, of all places, which he knew was Lily's favorite lunch spot.
So poor unsuspecting Lily walks into the restaurant the other day for lunch—and stops dead in her tracks! There's Drew and his latest "friend" plopped right in the middle of the joint, chowing down like nothing in the world was wrong!
Lily broke down and started sobbing—and Drew just sat there and glared at her! It was horrible. Finally Lily turned on her heel and rushed out, leaving selfish Drew to finish his guilty meal.
How does the author of passage B convey a clear sense of anger and resentment? Notice some of the words and phrases that are used in passage B that are different from A: it just utterly broke her heart versus Lily was feeling pretty sad about it; Drew is described as chowing down in passage B, while he is simply eating in passage A.
Notice also how the writer of passage B has used descriptive words to make the reader feel compassion for Lily, such as poor Lily and unsuspecting Lily. Then compare the descriptive words about Drew in passage B, such as selfish and guilty. In passage A, we are told that Drew just sat there, looking at Lily, but in passage B, we are told that he glared at her. The word glared suggests something very different from the word looked, and all these words and phrases subtly guide the reader to an understanding of the author's tone: that Drew is a selfish and uncaring person who broke innocent Lily's heart.
Language and Style
Every writer has a unique style, a unique way of telling a story or expressing ideas, in the same way that every painter or sculptor or musician is said to have his or her own style. In the world of jazz, for example, the style of Louis Armstrong is very different from the style of Dizzy Gillespie—even though both musicians played the trumpet.
The same distinctions can be made in the world of fictional literature. Two writers may address the same topic, and yet their respective styles are very different. Consider, for example, these two excerpts from books about being a boy in the American Midwest. The first is from Penrod by Booth Tarkington; the second is from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson.
Penrod sat morosely upon the back fence and gazed with envy at Duke, his wistful dog.
A bitter soul dominated the various curved and angular surfaces known by a careless world as the face of Penrod Schofield. Except in solitude, that face was almost always cryptic and emotionless; for Penrod had come into his twelfth year wearing an expression carefully trained to be inscrutable. Since the world was sure to misunderstand everything, mere defensive instinct prompted him to give it as little as possible to lay hold upon. Nothing is more impenetrable than the face of a boy who has learned this, and Penrod's was habitually as fathomless as the depth of his hatred this morning for the literary activities of Mrs. Lora Rewbush—an almost universally respected fellow citizen, a lady of charitable and poetic inclinations, and one of his own mother's most intimate friends.
—From Penrod, by Booth Tarkington.
So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly. One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly. In fact, because time moves more slowly in Kid World—five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of more than five miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases, and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable—it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling.
The slowest place of all in my corner of the youthful firmament was the large crackedleather dental chair of Dr. D. K. Brewster, our spooky, cadaverous dentist, while waiting for him to assemble his instruments and get down to business. There time didn't move forward at all. It just hung.
—From The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson.
These two books deal with similar things, telling humorous stories about boyhood. But the two writers deal with the subject very differently, and their two styles are also very different. Tarkington, in the first passage, has a strong vocabulary and is able to use a wide array of words to describe his character; while Bryson uses very plain, everyday language. Tarkington's sentences are formal and carefully structured and punctuated; Bryson's sentences are very casual and almost careless in the use of punctuation.
You have already seen how word choice can affect the tone of a passage, but word choice can also be an important element of style. Words are frequently used metaphorically—that is, to mean something other than the literal definition found in a dictionary. This brings us to our next topic.
Writers frequently use language to draw word pictures, to suggest ideas that may not be conveyed if one reads the words in a strictly literal sense. We all use language figuratively every day, whether we realize it or not. For example, you might speak about a person who got angry, saying that he lost his temper. The literal meanings of those words would suggest that a person had misplaced (lost) his hardened metal (temper refers to the strength of steel). But we understand that expression to mean that a person has gotten angry.
In this example, we used words to create a word picture, suggesting that a person who gets angry easily is like steel that is not properly tempered or hardened. Untempered steel breaks easily and does not bend and flex like a good sword blade, for instance. A person who quickly gets angry is like that steel: He cannot bend and flex with life's surprises, and he quickly snaps and gets angry.
There are many ways of using language figuratively, and we will consider some of the most common.
A simile is a comparison of two things that are not alike or related in which the writer uses the words like or as to suggest that the two unrelated things actually are related or comparable in some way. The word simile suggests that two things are similar—they are like each other. When you see a comparison using the words like or as, it is probably a simile.
Once again, we all use similes in ordinary conversation, whether we know it or not. A young man might tell a young woman that her eyes are "as blue as the sky." There is, on a literal level, no relationship or similarity between the sky and a pair of human eyes. Yet young lovers have compared the two since the beginning of time.
This is an example of a simile. The young man is telling his heartthrob that her eyes are blue—yet he is doing much more than that. Consider how the young woman might respond if the young man said, Say, your eyes are blue! Then consider how she might respond when he tells her, Your eyes sparkle like the sun, and the sky itself envies their beautiful blue color! Using similes helps the reader understand some idea or principle in a new way by drawing comparisons between things that we might not ordinarily consider to be related.
A metaphor is a simile which does not use the words like or as. A metaphor states that two things are identical, saying that Thing A is Thing B. For example, the young man might tell his heartthrob, "Your eyes are sparkling gems." That is a metaphor, because he is saying that her eyes are sparkling gems—even though we know, on a literal level, that eyes are not gems. If he told her that her eyes were like sparkling gems, he would be using a simile.
We should also distinguish between metaphors and definitions or descriptions. A metaphor, like a simile, compares two or more things that are not directly related. A definition, on the other hand, describes the basic nature of something. If you say to someone, "Your plan is a bad idea," you are defining his plan, not using a metaphor. But you could use a metaphor by saying, "Your plan is a breath of fresh air." Fresh air and plans are not related; this figure of speech is a metaphor. "Your plan is as fresh as the morning dew" is a simile, because it uses the word as to make the comparison. Metaphor is a much stronger, more forceful way of making a comparison.
Another common writing technique is personification, which describes some abstract idea or principle as though it were a living being. A good writer will use personification to help the reader gain insight into some abstract principle.
Justice, for example, is an abstract idea, not a human being. Yet you have probably seen statues or pictures of Lady Justice many times. She is usually pictured as a woman wearing a blindfold, holding an old-fashioned set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. This personification of the abstract idea of justice helps us understand several things about justice:
- True justice is blind, not giving unfair favor to one person over another.
- Justice discovers the truth by balancing one person's views against those of another person.
- Justice must also have the power to enforce truth, punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent.
These concepts are pictured by the famous statue of the woman. Her blindfold represents principle A, showing that justice is blind. Her scales represent principle B, showing that justice weighs out the truth. Her sword represents principle C, showing that justice has power to defend the truth. Thus, the statue of justice is an example of personification.
Overstatement and Understatement
Writers will sometimes emphasize a point by deliberately overstating or understating some truth. Overstatement, sometimes called hyperbole (pronounced high-PER-boh-lee), is exaggerating the truth to the point that it is no longer true. You have probably heard overstatement used many times, in expressions such as "that person is older than dirt" or "he has more money than he knows what to do with" or "you missed it by a mile." These are examples of overstatement or exaggeration.
The opposite is understatement, in which a writer or speaker deliberately falls far short of the truth when describing something. You may have heard someone refer to the Atlantic Ocean as "the big pond," or describe someone who has been injured as "not amused." These are examples of understatement because they deliberately fall far short of the truth in their descriptions.
Writers use overstatement and understatement for many reasons. Mark Twain often used both to make his readers laugh; other writers use these elements of figurative language to emphasize a point. Describing the Atlantic as a pond, for example, causes a reader to stop and consider how very large the Atlantic really is.
We have been considering the ways that words and phrases can be used figuratively to mean something more than just a literal interpretation. Writers also use this technique on a larger scale, telling a story that makes sense in a literal interpretation but may also mean something more in a figurative interpretation. We call this technique symbolism.
Symbolism is the art of using a story to represent some abstract idea. Characters within the story might represent abstract principles, for example, and their actions within the story might be used to address some general, abstract ideas.
For example, Herman Melville's famous novel Moby Dick tells the story of Captain Ahab's lifelong struggle to catch a white whale. Ahab's ship is named The Pequod, which was also the name of an Indian tribe living in New England. The story of Ahab's pursuit of the whale is understandable on a literal level as a simple story about the life of a New England whaler in the 1800s. But it can also be read symbolically, to represent the pitfalls and consequences of maniacally chasing one's goals in life.
Another form of symbolism is called allegory. An allegory tells the story of very two-dimensional characters whose sole purpose is to represent some idea or principle, and whose actions represent that idea. (You will learn about two-dimensional characters later in this chapter.)
For example, John Bunyan wrote a famous allegory entitled Pilgrim's Progress. The characters in the story have names such as Faithful and Ignorance and Atheist and so forth. Each character represents some aspect of human nature, and each behaves in a way that illustrates that character trait. So a character named Mr. Greed, for example, would always be greedy, and everything that he would say would illustrate the concept of greed.
Allegory is a form of symbolism, but not all symbolic literature is allegory.
Fictional literature generally tells a story, and stories always have a plot. The plot is simply what happens in the story, the sequence of events that the story describes. Most literature follows a very basic formula in developing a story's plot, and the most important element of that formula is conflict.
The conflict within a plot is generally some form of struggle between two parties. The struggle might be between two or more characters, such as in a war story that deals with soldiers from two armies. The conflict might be between a character and some outside force, such as nature or the law. The conflict within Moby Dick, for example, is a struggle for survival between the character of Captain Ahab and the whale he is hunting. The conflict might even be within a character's own nature, such as a hero or villain who is consumed with pride or greed or jealousy.
The traditional plot is made up of five distinct parts: exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and resolution. We will discuss what these terms mean in a moment, but first it is helpful to visualize plot structure like a lopsided triangle, as in the following diagram.
- Exposition: The traditional plot begins with an exposition, which is the introduction of main characters, setting, and so forth. This is the opening of the story, in which the writer introduces some of the story's characters, and the place and time where the story takes place, and so on. Here is where the writer sets the stage for the story that will follow.
- Complication: The complication occurs in a story when some element of conflict is introduced. This is the point where the reader discovers that something is wrong: There are two characters who are struggling against each other, or the main character is fighting against the forces of nature, or some such conflict.
- Climax: The climax occurs in the plot when the conflict is brought to its greatest point of tension. This is the point where the two characters finally square off and confront one another, or where the main character is brought face to face with his own weakness, for example. At this point, the characters are frequently forced to make some major decision or take some drastic course of action. This is the point of reckoning.
- Falling Action: This is the point in the plot where a reversal takes place, the point where the decision or action of the climax brings about some result. Perhaps the villain's power is broken, or the proud character is humbled, or the main character overcomes the forces of nature.
- Resolution: The plot concludes with a resolution to the conflict. The warring characters might make peace, or one of them might be victorious over the other. The ending might be happy or it might be sad, but the conflict has been resolved in some way.
The characters in fiction are the people who take part in the story. Some stories include characters who act and think and speak like people that you meet in real life; other stories have characters who seem very predictable and unrealistic. We refer to the former as three-dimensional characters and to the latter as twodimensional characters. For instance, Pilgrim's Progress, the allegory discussed earlier, presents very twodimensional characters—people who don't act or speak like real-life people because their purpose is to represent specific character traits of human nature.
Most traditional plots have two major characters: a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is frequently the main character, the person whose story we are most interested in. The antagonist is the person or thing that opposes the protagonist, the character that produces the conflict that is at the core of the plot. In fact, the antagonist may not be a person at all—it might be a force of nature, or even some aspect of the main character's own personality. But it is the antagonist who struggles against the protagonist, and their struggle is the conflict which drives the plot.
Some stories rely heavily upon the personality of its characters to move the story along. In such fiction, characterization is very important—that is, it is important that the reader gets to know the characters and understand what motivates them to do what they do.
There are many ways in which a writer enables a reader to get to know the characters. One of the most obvious methods is to have the narrator tell the reader what a character is thinking and feeling, explaining exactly why the character is about to say or do something. Here is an example:
John was feeling trapped in his job, fed up with his boss's constant criticism and ever-changing priorities. He couldn't help wondering if she hated him just because he was a man—yet he was terribly afraid to say that out loud, lest he be accused of being "sexist." He struggled and seethed and wondered—quietly, always quietly—until the day he was passed over for promotion. On that day, something snapped. And John went haywire.
This story goes on to describe what John said and did when he went haywire, but the reader has no question as to why John went haywire. The narrator has clearly described what drove John to distraction.
Sometimes, however, a writer leaves it up to the reader to get to know the characters just by spending time with them within the story. This is more lifelike; after all, in real life we don't have a narrator explaining to us why another person behaves strangely—we only come to understand people by spending time with them.
A writer will frequently accomplish this through dialogue—the things that the characters say to one another. By paying attention to the dialogue in a story, we can gain deeper insight into a character's personality, background, motivations, and so forth. For example, a book might contain a character who speaks with a Southern accent and another who speaks with a New York accent. The narrator never tells the reader specifically where each character grew up, yet the reader can infer the characters' backgrounds without being told.
A character's actions also help to develop characterization. The notion that "actions speak louder than words" is just as true within fiction as it is in real life. An author can reveal a great deal about a character simply by describing what the character does in various situations. The narrator does not need to tell the reader explicitly what the character's motivations are, nor does the character come out and tell us within dialogue—yet we can still infer much information just based upon the character's actions or behavior in a given situation.
Many pieces of fictional literature have some underlying idea or message that the author wants the reader to understand. This is called the theme of the story: the idea that the author is trying to convey to the reader.
A writer may address a theme from many different angles within a single novel. For example, one of the themes in Huckleberry Finn concerns the evils of slavery in America prior to the Civil War. Mark Twain developed this theme throughout the book by showing the bad treatment of slaves, the self-sacrificing goodness of the runaway slave character named Jim, the inconsistent ways that slaves were treated in the South, and so forth.
Understanding the theme of fictional literature will require you to use all of the things that we have discussed in this chapter: You look for repeated ideas that come out in action, dialogue, setting, atmosphere, characterization, and so forth. Sometimes it is tempting to read too much deeper meaning into a work of literature than the author intended. For example, reading Booth Tarkington's story about Penrod, you might think that the author's theme has to do with child abuse or some other controversial topic. Although this is not a theme of that novel, you might easily be misled into thinking that it is.
A theme is an idea that is addressed throughout the book or story, not just an idea that is addressed in passing. Themes are well developed, appearing and reappearing in the story through the dialogue that characters speak, actions that characters take, situations that characters find themselves in, and so forth.
Reading carefully and intelligently is important because it is easy to misunderstand what an author is trying to say if we are not careful. But when we understand how the elements of fiction work together—things such as characterization and dialogue and plot structure—we will be well equipped to interpret literature in the way that the author intended.
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
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