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Elements of Fiction

A. Plot

Definition of Plot: Events that form a significant pattern of action with a beginning, a middle and an end. They move from one place or event to another in order to form a pattern, usually with the purpose of overcoming a conflict. The plot is more formally called a narrative.

Elements of Plot:

is more formally called a narrative . Elements of Plot: Beginning a. Plot Line: a graph


a. Plot Line: a graph plotting the ups and downs of the central character's fortunes. A very conventional plot might look like the one above.

b. Initial Situation

I. Characters: Who are the central characters? What do they aspire to?

II. Setting: Where/when do the characters live? Does the setting contribute to the narrative?

III. Conflicts: What are the challenges facing the protagonist(s)? What are the conflict(s) that he or she (or they) will have to overcome?

The beginning is often called the introduction or exposition. By establishing the characters, setting and initial conflicts, the beginning "sets the scene" for the rest of the narrative. Dickens' famous opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," is a classic piece of exposition that helps establish the social and political background of the novel.

Rising Action

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I. Which event thrusts itself into the tension of the characters' situation and triggers the action of the story? A new event frequently jostles the smoothness of things and changes the course of action.

d. Episodes: After the introduction, a story usually presents a series of separate events in the plot, building from one situation to the next. A new episode (or scene) begins when the place and time change, or when something really important interrupts what has been happening. With each successive episode, the conflict becomes more and more intense, demanding some sort of resolution.

The Climax

e. Climax: the critical point at which the central character is about to win or lose all. When the probable outcome of the main conflict is finally revealed (i.e. the turning point), the story has reached its climax. In a Shakespearian tragedy, the climax occurs when the main character's "momentum" switches from success to failure. Beyond that point, the ending is inevitable. However, the climax does not mark the end of conflict; it only determines how the conflict will be decided. The climax usually occurs anywhere from 50% to 90% of the completed story.

Falling Action

f. Falling Action (or Resolution or Denouement): the events that occur after the climax that tie up "loose ends"; they perform the necessary plot actions to fulfill the protagonist's fortunes that are now clear after the climax. It is a tricky part of a narrative to write as the author has to decide which parts of the plot to tie up and which to leave as questions for the reader to think about (or leave for a future story). Part of the decision regarding what to tie up and what to leave open often depends on the extent to which the author wants to satisfy the reader's need for a sense of justice or closure.

g. Epilogue: the part that tells the reader what happens to the characters

well after the story is finished. It's seen in longer narratives (like novels and movies) rather than short fiction, but even then it is only used occasionally.

B. Author's Role in Plot

1. Plot grows out of the characters.

2. The author is always in control of what happens; fiction manipulates events; it is created.

3. Central focus of the story has to be intriguing, and the author has to arrange events in such a way as to:

a. Eliminate all events that are not significant.

b. Make each succeeding event more and more intriguing until he reaches the climax. The purpose of fiction is to entertain; how well are you entertained?

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C. Plot Techniques

1. Suspense: Frequently involves dilemma. e.g. Caught in a bad situation with a choice in a boating accident, you can save either your mother or your husband from drowning.

2. Flashback: The author waits until the story is moving and then flashes back to reveal biographical data or deep psychological reasons why a character acts as s/he does. It focuses more on why things happen, rather than on what happens.

3. Telescoping: It's a matter of economy. The author can't describe every motion of the character or event during the time the story covers. S/he has to choose the significant and merely suggest the others by saying they happened, without much description. Art attempts verisimilitude, not "reality."

4. Foreshadowing: The outcome of a conflict is often hinted at or "foreshadowed" before the climax and resolution. These clues are usually very subtle; you don't realize they are foreshadowing clues until you've finished the story. Early on in the novel Lord of the Flies, the boys roll a rock down from the light of the hill into the murky jungle below. The destruction of the foliage is a symbolic hint at what's to come: the boys' descent into savagery and destruction. Open School describes foreshadowing as "a technique that writers use to make the events in their stories more believable. In foreshadowing, the reader is given little hints about an important future event. Something like providing clues in a mystery novel, foreshadowing ensures that when an important event occurs, the reader thinks: "Oh, I should have seen that coming" rather than, "This doesn't fit anywhere in this piece!" Foreshadowing can be a small series of events leading up to a big event, or an event that is similar in a thematic way to something that happens later." Another example of foreshadowing in Lord of the Flies occurs just after the plane crash. The author, William Golding, describes the band of choirboys as dressed all in black and moving as if one creature. The black creature is led by Jack, which is a foreshadowing of the evil that will soon overtake him and his followers.

D. Conflict in Plot

Plot usually involves one or more conflicts, which are problems that need to be solved. The "movement" towards a solution is what drives the narrative forward, and is what occupies most of the protagonist's time. The more rewarding plots are often built around mental, emotional and moral conflicts. Plots involving physical conflict, war, exploration, escapes often contain the most excitement and suspense. Here are the major types of conflict:

1. Man's struggle against nature

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3. Man against society

4. Man against himself (i.e. a portrayal of an inner struggle)

The first three types are said to be "external conflicts", while the last is "internal conflict".

Identifying Conflict:

Who or what is the protagonist?

Who or what is the antagonist?

Why is this person or thing the antagonist?

Why are the antagonist and the protagonist in conflict?

Which events contribute to the developing conflict?

Which event or episode is the climax?

What does the outcome of the conflict reveal to you about the protagonist?

Did you feel sympathetic toward the protagonist or the antagonist? Explain why.

E. Setting: Aspects of Setting

Setting is defined as the physical location and the time of a story. In short stories, one or both of these elements are often not defined.

I. Physical World in which Characters Live

a. Geographical location, topography, scenery, even the arrangement of objects in a room can carry special significance. Note detail.

2. Spot words that ask you to hear, see and feel elements that make up and strengthen awareness of physical setting.

II. Characters Revealed by Setting.

a. Physical objects surround characters in different ways and these differences reveal traits and changes in characters.

i. Psychologically, spiritually, economically and physically.

ii. Observe feelings and actions of characters with respect to their surroundings; as setting changes, often so does character.

iii. Listen for any remarks characters make about their setting.

iv. Look for clues to characters in objects they have placed in their physical world.

III. Setting Revealed by Characters

a. Characters contribute clues about setting.

b. When time isn't made obvious, the reader can often make inferences from objects a character has placed in the setting

c. Dress and dialect contain clues as to historical period in which events take place, as well as to regional setting and social levels within a region.

IV. Plot Assisted by Setting

a. Some stories or plots can take place only in certain settings. Actions governed by particular customs and mores.

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b. Traditions established over many generations exert great influence on

what characters do.

c. Physical nature also creates conditions that affect plot: setting can confine action as, for example, on the sea, or on a mountaintop.

V. Atmospheric Setting

a. The mood is reliant on the words and tone of description; a jingle can be

light, full of life, and exciting, or, dark, foreboding, and full of evil.

b. The setting of a Victorian drawing room elicits an atmosphere of restraint and decorum.

c. Atmosphere can be overdrawn (as in many Harlequin romances) and become gooey with manufactured emotion.

VI. Theme Revealed by Setting

a. Some authors skilfully use atmosphere to introduce and reinforce the theme of the novel; what happens in setting (flood) happens to characters (changed course of action).

b. Setting may reveal how man sees nature, they may show hate, agony, courage, etc. or men's struggle for insignificant things.

F. Mood or Atmosphere

The mood is the feeling the reader gets while reading the story. The author helps to create the mood by using carefully chosen descriptive or evocative words. It can be compared to the use of music in films. Examples of mood are: hostile, optimistic, threatening, ominous, bitter, defiant, etc.

G. Theme

The theme is a recurring social or psychological issue, like aging, violence, alienation or maturity. The author or poet weaves the theme into the plot, which is used as a vehicle to convey it. The title of the story or poem is often of significance in recognizing the theme.

What is theme?

It's the unifying or central concept of a story.

It's a theory of life which acts as the unifying force in a story, or the universal truth which the story illustrates.

The simplest way of defining theme is this: it is the description of the basic challenges of mankind (e.g. "the human condition").

In most stories it's not just a simple moral, which is usually what an author thinks about the theme.

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Identifying a story's theme:

Start with a clear idea of the character's situation and the plot. Why did the characters act as they did?

Examine closely the central conflict. Overcoming a conflict is often the basis of the recurrent human challenge in the theme.

Look closely at the events and/or characters that seem relevant to the main line of action. Why are they included?

Does the author offer an explicit view point about the theme, or does s/he merely describe the many points of view?

Look for literary devices such as symbolism or irony. They often reveal key elements of the theme.

H. Symbolism

In literature, a symbol is an object, event or a character that's used to represent an abstract idea; it is something which stands for something else. Symbols are clues to what's going on in the story and often stand for key parts of the theme. A symbol is related to metaphor and simile insofar as it's a type of figurative (indirect/dual) language. The key thing to remember is that readers aren't told that something is a symbol, unlike a metaphor (the flower of my love) or a simile (my love is like a flower).

A symbol just sits there inside the story its symbolic existence.

readers are simply expected to understand

White Dove - Peace

Santa/Mistletoe - Christmas

Red Roses - Love

Wedding Ring - Marriage/Eternal Love

The mockingbird in To Kill A Mockingbird - a symbol of innocent people being unjustly persecuted

Napoleon in Animal Farm - Joseph Stalin, dictator of the USSR

I. Point of View

"Point of view" (or p.o.v.) is the perspective from which a story is told. Let's say we're examining a crime scene. The police may have 10 witnesses who all saw the same crime. Yet they may give 10 different descriptions of what happened. Because they saw the same crime from different angles and from different lengths of time, they may have different perspectives on what happened. These different perspectives are called "points of view." In prose and poetry, fiction or non-fiction, someone is always between the reader and the events inside the writing. This "someone" is the author (as narrator), or the characters that the author creates. The narrator or the characters are the

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"witnesses," and you - the reader - are the police officer. You'll have to use your judgment to understand what exactly is going on. There are different types of point of view. A story can be told from the first person ("I", "my") or from the third person ("she", "they"). We can get into the minds of the characters ("omniscient") or we can simply see them from the outside, like real life ("objective"). We can see the story from a main character who is central to the plot, or from a minor character who is largely just an observer. Here are the six major types of point of view:

1. (3rd Person) Omniscient: Told from the p.o.v. of an outside narrator, the "omniscient" author nevertheless gets inside the thoughts and feelings of any character he or she wishes (in other words, two or more characters). This p.o.v. offers a lot of information, and is suitable for large, complex novels. This was a common p.o.v. in 18th and 19th century novels [authors of the time often entered the story as all-judging moralists], but it's much less common

2. (3rd Person) Limited Omniscient: In order to limit the information, and focus the attention of the reader onto one character, the author will sometimes tell a story by entering the mind of one key character (usually the protagonist). As in all 3rd person p.o.v.'s, limited omniscience does not use "I" or "my".

3. (3rd Person) Objective or Dramatic: Here the outside narration is completely bereft of (lacking) any interior thinking. The author, and the readers, can only observe exterior actions and dialogue, and from that infer a character's thoughts. In other words, the author must describe gestures and actions that indirectly show how a character feels, thinks and deals with internal conflict. Authors will use this p.o.v. to achieve a high degree of realism, since it mimics how we interact in real-life. It's also useful to shield the reader from the true thoughts and feelings of the characters, as in Shirley Jackson's suspenseful "The Lottery".

4. 1st Person Central: This perspective is told from the p.o.v. of the main character. It allows the author to bring the reader closer to the character, and create more sympathy for the character's struggles. However, it also limits the reader to one person's perspective, and we don't have a broader, more balanced point of view. Nevertheless, this view grants a sense of immediacy: we see everything through this character's eyes.

5. 1st Person Peripheral: This also uses "I" or '"my," but from the p.o.v. of a minor character who observes - usually in a more neutral and detached manner - the actions of the main characters. Like with 3rd person objective, the detachment from the main character(s) creates a lack of knowledge, and heightens the suspense.

6. 2nd Person: This is a relatively rare point of view and is difficult to sustain. It is based upon the address of one speaker to a second person. It uses the "you" and "your" pronouns throughout, which, as you can imagine, is difficult to maintain without sounding repetitive. Here's an example: You will receive the

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revised essay criteria by Tuesday, September 22. You will have an opportunity to

respond to it in writing before October 17. In fiction, the "you" being addressed

is often a central character, and the effect is to turn the reader into the character.

A classic example of this is Will Baker's "Grace Period".

Point of view is a major tool for an author. You can understand a lot about the craft of writing by seeing how an author chooses his or her point of view. Ask yourself if the story would be different if it was told from another point of view. How does it affect your feelings for the characters, or your understanding of what is happening? Do you feel closely connected to a particular character, or can you understand many of the characters, including the antagonist? You'll be surprised by how different a story might be with these different perspectives.

J. Characters

"What does characterization do for a story? In a nutshell, it allows us to empathize with the protagonist and secondary characters, and thus feel that what is happening to these people in the story is vicariously happening to us; and it also gives us a sense of verisimilitude, or the semblance of living reality. An important part of characterization is dialogue, for it is both spoken and inward dialogue that afford us the opportunity to see into the characters' hearts and examine their motivations. In the best of stories, it is actually characterization that moves the story along, because a compelling character in a difficult situation creates his or her own plot."

Karen Bernardo, Characterization in Literature

In fictional literature, authors use many different types of characters to tell their stories. Different types of characters fulfil different roles in the narrative process, and with a little bit of analysis, you can usually detect some or all of the types below.

Major or central characters are vital to the development and resolution of the conflict. In other words, the plot and resolution of conflict revolves around these characters.

Minor characters serve to complement the major characters and help move the plot events forward.

Dynamic - A dynamic character is a person who changes over time, usually as

a result of resolving a central conflict or facing a major crisis. Most dynamic characters tend to be central rather than peripheral characters, because resolving the conflict is the major role of central characters.

Static - A static character is someone who does not change over time; his or her personality does not transform or evolve.

Round - A rounded character is anyone who has a complex personality; he or she is often portrayed as a conflicted and contradictory person.

Flat - A flat character is the opposite of a round character. This literary personality is notable for one kind of personality trait or characteristic.

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become conventional or stereotypical through repeated use in particular types of stories. Stock characters are instantly recognizable to readers or audience members (e.g. the femme fatale, the cynical but moral private eye, the mad scientist, the geeky boy with glasses, and the faithful sidekick). Stock characters are normally one-dimensional flat characters, but sometimes stock personalities are deeply conflicted, rounded characters (e.g. the "Hamlet" type).

Protagonist - The protagonist is the central person in a story, and is often referred to as the story's main character. He or she (or they) is faced with a conflict that must be resolved. The protagonist may not always be admirable (e.g. an anti-hero); nevertheless s/he must command involvement on the part of the reader, or better yet, empathy.


Stock -








Antagonist - The antagonist is the character(s) (or situation) that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, the antagonist is an obstacle that the protagonist must overcome.

Anti-Hero - A major character, usually the protagonist, who lacks conventional nobility of mind, and who struggles for values not deemed universally admirable. Duddy, in Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, is

a classic anti-hero. He's vulgar, manipulative and self-centred. Nevertheless,

Duddy is the centre of the story, and we are drawn to the challenges he must overcome and the goals he seeks to achieve.

Foil - A foil is any character (usually the antagonist or an important supporting character) whose personal qualities contrast with another character (usually the protagonist). By providing this contrast, we get to know more about the other character.

Symbolic - A symbolic character is any major or minor character whose very existence represents some major idea or aspect of society. For example, in Lord of the Flies, Piggy is a symbol of both the rationality and physical weakness of

modern civilization; Jack, on the other hand, symbolizes the violent tendencies (the Id) that William Golding believes is within human nature.

Direct presentation (or characterization) - This refers to what the speaker or narrator directly says or thinks about a character. In other words, in a direct characterization, the reader is told what the character is like. When Dickens

the most

tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" - This is very direct characterization!

Indirect presentation (or characterization) - This refers to what the character says or does. The reader then infers what the character is all about. This mimics how we understand people in the real world, since we can't "get inside their heads".

In other words, in an indirect characterization, it's the reader who is obliged to

figure out what the character is like. And sometimes the reader will get it wrong.

describes Scrooge like this: "I present him to you: Ebenezer Scrooge

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Ten (Direct or Indirect) Ways in which a Character Can Be Revealed

I. By psychological description.


By what others say about him or

II. By physical description.


III. By probing what s/he thinks.


By his or her environment.

IV. By what s/he says.


By her reaction to others.

V. By how s/he says it.


By his reaction to himself.

VI. By what s/he does.

X. By his reaction to himself. VI. By what s/he does. Things to Remember: 1. Literary

Things to Remember:

1. Literary characters may embody more than one of these character types at the same time. A dynamic character may also be the antagonist, and a protagonist can also be, say, a flat and stock character (i.e. the one-dimensional hero).

2. Here's a very common mistake: while characters are often round and dynamic, that does not mean these two terms mean the same thing. The former refers to a character's complexity, while the latter refers to a character's development over time. Students also make this mistake with flat and static characters.

K. Irony

Does the author employ irony? Is it used in specific instances, or is it revealed at the end of the narrative? What is the effect on the theme and you, the reader? Generally speaking, irony is a reversal of expectation or discrepancy in understanding. In literature, irony helps to explain what is and what seems to be. Here are four common types of irony:

I. Verbal: is saying the opposite of what is meant; sarcasm is the most common example.

pouring rain outside - “Nice day…”

see a 7 foot tall person - “Hi, Shorty.”

person hits a home run - “Not a bad hit.” [This kind of verbal irony, called understatement, was a favourite of my father!]

II. Situational: occurs when surprising details, often revealed near the end of a narrative, are unexpected or contradictory.

A fireman’s house burning down

An uncoordinated dance instructor

An Olympic swimmer who drowns.

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A marriage counselor who's been divorced three times

Alanis Morissette: "It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife."

III. Dramatic: is the contrast between what one character says and what the reader or viewer knows to be true. For example, in a horror movie, you should never go to the bathroom yourself. The effect is to help the reader know the truth.

Little Red Riding Hood - Red Riding Hood does not know who she’s talking to - but the reader does.

The 2 stepsisters don’t know what happened to Cinderella at the ball, but their subsequent insults contrast strongly with what we know.

IV. Cosmic (i.e. Irony of Fate): is the discrepancy between personal desires and the harsh limits of the larger world.

Romeo and Juliet are destined - as "star crossed lovers" - to experience a brief and tragic marriage. When Romeo shouts out "I defy you stars," you know he's in trouble.

Existentialists like Camus point to the meaninglessness of human existence; against the absurdity of seeking meaning in a meaningless world, one must overcome this irony with the courage to make meaning, not find it.

this irony with the courage to make meaning, not find it. L. Other points to consider
this irony with the courage to make meaning, not find it. L. Other points to consider

L. Other points to consider

I. Does the author write from any particular doctrine such as Christianity, socialism, or nationalism?

II. Do events occur logically and naturally, on the basis of cause and effect, or does the author contrive the events artificially in order to achieve an effect of purpose?

III. Does the story provide a sense of totality? Do all the events contribute to a single effect, impression, illusion or theme? Or is the structure intentionally loose and sprawling? Source: