Five Aspects of Every Narrative to Know for the AP English Literature Exam

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

There is a certain degree of universality regarding definitions of terms when analyzing literature. For clarity and understanding you should be aware of the following terms.


The plot is a series of episodes in a narrative carried out by the characters. Here are the primary terms related to plot. You should be familiar with all of them. Obviously each work manipulates these concepts in its own unique way.

  • Initial incident: the event that puts the story in gear.
  • Rising action: the series of complications in the narrative.
  • The climax: the highest point of interest, action, or tension. More subtly, it is a turning point in the protagonist's behavior or thoughts.
  • Falling action : the series of events occurring after the climax.
  • Denouement : the resolution that ties up the loose ends of the plot.

These form the skeleton of a discussion about plot. But there are also other elements that add to your comprehension.

  • Foreshadowing : hints at future events.
  • Flashbacks: cut or piece a prior scene into the present situation.
  • In medias res : literally, to be in the middle. This is a device that places the reader immediately into the action.
  • Subplot: secondary plot that explores ideas that are different from the main story line.
  • Parallel plot : a secondary story line that mimics the main plot.


Traditionally, setting is the time and place of a work, but it is also so much more. Setting is not accidental. It is a vital part of the narrative, and it can serve many functions. You should consider setting in light of the following:

  • General: to underscore the universality of the work ("The Open Boat")
  • Specific: to create a definitive ambiance that impacts on the work's possibilities (Gone with the Wind)
  • Character or foil: in relation to the protagonist (The Perfect Storm)
  • Limiting factor: to allow the plot, character, and theme to develop (Lord of the Flies)
  • To reveal style (The Secret Sharer)
  • To reveal character (Hedda Gabler)
  • To reveal theme (Heart of Darkness)


Character development can be both simple and complex. The author has a variety of methods from which to choose. Here's a mnemonic device that may help you analyze character: Use the word STAR.

  • S —what the character says;
  • T —what the character thinks;
  • A —how the character acts and interacts; and
  • R —how the character reacts.

Traditionally, characters carry out the plot and it is around the characters that the plot revolves and the theme is developed. There can be many types of characters in a given work:

  • Protagonist: the main character who is the central focus of the story. For example, Hamlet is the eponymous protagonist.
  • Antagonist : the opposing force. It does not always have to be a person. For example, the sea or the fish in The Old Man and the Sea.
  • Major: the character or characters who play a significant role in the work.
  • Minor: the characters who are utilized for a specific purpose, such as moving the plot along or contrasting with a major character.
  • Dynamic: refers to characters who undergo major changes, such as Jane Eyre.
  • Static: generally refers to characters who remain the same throughout the story. For instance, Brutus in Julius Caesar always considers himself to be an "honorable man."
  • Stereotype: a character who is used to represent a class or a group.
  • Foil: a character who provides the opportunity for comparison and contrast. For example, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius are foils for each other.

Character as Hero

Once again, you may encounter many variations on the concept of hero:

  • Aristotelian tragic hero:
    • Of noble birth; larger than life
    • Basically good
    • Exhibits a fatal flaw
    • Makes error in judgment
    • Possesses hubris (excessive arrogance or pride) which causes the error in judgment
    • Brings about his own downfall
    • Has a moment of realization, an epiphany
    • Lives and suffers
    • Examples: Creon in Antigone, Oedipus in Oedipus, Jason in Medea
  • Classical hero: a variation on the tragic hero:
    • Examples: Macbeth in Macbeth, Lear in King Lear, Hamlet in Hamlet
  • Romantic hero:
    • Larger than life
    • Charismatic
    • Possesses an air of mystery
    • "Saves the day" or the heroine
    • Embodies freedom, adventure, and idealism
    • Often outside the law
    • Examples: Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, James Bond, Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre
  • Modern hero:
    • May be everyman
    • Has human weaknesses
    • Caught in the ironies of the human condition
    • Struggles for insight
    • Examples: Willy Loman inDeath of a Salesman, Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath
  • Hemingway hero:
    • Brave
    • Endures
    • Maintains a sense of humor
    • Exhibits grace under pressure
    • Examples: Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Butch and Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • Antihero: Protagonist is notably lacking in heroic qualities:
    • Examples: Meursault in The Stranger, Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Homer Simpson of cartoon fame
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