Reading Fiction Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading (page 2)
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.
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