Fiction Terminology

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Terminology for the study of fiction, based on the terms introduced in R. S. Gwynn's Literature: A Pocket Anthology (Penguin-Longman).

Allusion

A reference to another work in a short story. May include other works of literature, art, mythology, historical events, TV shows or movies, songs, pop culture, etc.

Antagonist

A character or force against which the protagonist struggles--may or may not be a "villain."

Characterization

The means by which writers present and reveal character--includes appearance, speech, behavior, thoughts, relationships, reactions, and other details.

Characternym

Naming a character to highlight a trait. E.g., Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash.

Climax

The moment of highest tension in a story that determines the narrative's resolution. The turning point of the action of the plot.

Chronological plot

A plot where the incidents of a narrative are related in the chronological order in which they occurred.

Complication

An incident that disturbs the status quo and contributes to the narrative's rising action. Complications may be external (e.g., a strange comes to town) or internal (involving a character's psychology or emotions, for instance).

Conflict

A struggle between opposing forces in a narrative, usually resolved by the end of the work. The classic conflicts include (1) person vs. person; (2) person vs. nature; (3) person versus him/herself; (4) person vs. fate; (5) person vs. society. May include mutations, such as person vs. technology (a variation on person vs. society) or person vs. aliens (a variation on person vs. person).

Dénouement

From French for the untying of a knot. The resolution of the plot of a literary work. In a "closed dénouement," all the loose ends are resolved and explained. (E.g., Sherlock Holmes explains everything.) In an "open dénouement," questions are left unanswered. (E.g., Poe ends his stories suddenly without any explanation.)

Dialogue

The conversation among characters in a literary work. In American works, dialogue is traditionally signaled and punctuation with quotation marks.

Dialect

A regional variety of a language distinguished by grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation. When writing in dialect, an author attempts to recreate the idiosyncratic language of a particular time and place because it reveals something about character or theme.

Exposition

The necessary background information given at (or near) the start of a narrative so the reader can understand events--the who, what, when, and where of a story.

Falling Action

The action following the climax of the work that moves towards the narrative's dénouement or resolution.

Fiction

An imagined prose narrative. The opposite concept is "nonfiction," including genres such as history or biography.

Flashback

The insertion of an earlier event into the normal chronological order of a narrative.

Foil

A character who contrasts with the protagonist and, consequently, helps us understand the protagonist. To be foils, the two characters must share a number of characteristics which serve to highlight the distinctive difference(s) between them.

Foreshadowing

Hints of what is to come in the action of a story.

Verbal irony

Rhetorical irony; when characters say the opposite of what they really mean. May include sarcasm, understatement, and hyperbole.

Situational irony

Irony of circumstance; a plot twist where there's a discrepancy between what we expect to happen and what actually happens.

Dramatic irony

The reader is more aware than the characters in a work (often, but not necessarily, a drama), and what the characters say takes on a new significance to the audience. That is, we understand more about what's really going on than the character does. The gap between our understanding and the character's understanding is dramatic irony.

Cosmic irony

Occurs when it seems that God or fate is manipulating events so as to inspire false hopes in the characters, hopes which are inevitably dashed.

Narrator

The implied speaker of a fictional work, to be distinguished from the actual author.

Plot

A narrative's sequence of events, arranged in a purposeful, dramatic order.

Point of View (POV)

The perspective from which a story is narrated--identification of a story's narrator . . . which is different from (and created by) the story's author. Identification of POV includes person (first, second, third) and other relevant descriptors, such as omniscience, reliability (reliable or unreliable), and--if a participant in the action--importance in the story (major or minor character).

POV | First person

The story is told from the perspective of a person who's directly involved in the action of the story—often the protagonist. Factors to consider: reliability and whether the narrator is a major or minor character.

POV | Third person, omniscient

The narrator is a non-participant (unnamed, unknown, and not part of the action). When omniscient (all-knowing), the narrator has god-like powers—able to move to any time period, can report on any action (sees all), and knows the intimate thoughts and feelings of characters (even if the characters themselves don't!).

POV | Third person, limited omniscience

The narrator is a non-participant, and the narrator's omniscience is limited to only one character (or at most two) within the narrative. The narrator tells us what this person is thinking and feeling but can only describe other characters from the outside. Also "selective omniscience."

POV | Third person, objective

Also "dramatic point of view." As if the narrator were a reporter--the narrator is omniscient to the extent he/she can describe the action of any time or place. BUT the narrator does not enter into the thoughts, feelings, or motivations of character. The readers must judge events and reach conclusions on their own . . . much as if one were watching a movie.

POV | Third person, editorial omniscience

The same as third person, omniscient, except the author intrudes directly into narration to help shape the reader's reactions by sharing his/her opinion as author or commenting upon the action. Common to 19th c. fiction, such as Hawthorne's short stories.

POV | Second person

Rare point of view in which the story is told so that the reader is drawn directly into the action by using second person: "So you walk into the coffee shop, look around, and choose a table near the sunny window." Used during the 1980s-1990s by some authors.

Protagonist

The main character of a literary work. May or may not be of a "heroic" nature. May or may not be human (e.g., Wall-E or Lassie).

Antihero

Also anti-hero. A protagonist who does not embody heroic or traditionally admirable characteristics.

Rising action

Intensification of events in a plot, set in motion by conflict and complications. Leads to a narrative's crisis and climax.

Setting

A narrative's context; it includes the time, place, physical features, and social environment of a story.

Style

The characteristic use of language by a single author--idiosyncratic and identifiable. Includes considerations such as syntax, diction, length of sentences and paragraphs, use of description and dialogue, typical POV, private symbols, recurring themes, tone, etc.

Subplot

A parallel and more minor plot in a narrative that coexists with the main plot. Often involves secondary characters.

Symbol

A symbol is "A person, object, image, word, or event that evokes a range of additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than its literal significant. Symbols are educational devices for evoking complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations that would make a story more like an essay than an experience" (Meyer 2194).

Traditional symbol

A symbol that is easily recognized by a culture across generations. Warning: since traditional symbols are culture-specific, they do not carry the same resonance among different countries or across the ages.

Literary symbol

A contextual symbol created by an author within a particular work for a particular purpose. A literary symbol may be "incidental" (unique to a single work) or "private" (repeated and developed by a single author among many of his/her works).

Theme

Theme is the central idea or meaning of the story: "Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer's vocabulary. 'Poverty,' 'war,' and 'love,' for example, are not themes; they relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sentence-one clear sentence that expresses a story's irreducible meaning." —Robert McKee

Tone

The writer's own feelings or attitude toward the subject. Typically we describe tone through words descriptive of emotions, such as bitter, sentimental, comic, tragic, ambivalent, angry, light-hearted, etc.

Static character

A character whose personality is fixed and does not change, sometimes willfully choosing to live a limited life.

Dynamic character

A character who changes significantly during the story's action; note the change is not always for the better or it may be painful (such as disillusionment).

Internal conflict

A psychological, emotional, or moral struggle within a character.

Flat character

A character who is not well developed, has few identifiable characteristics, and may be reduced to a stereotype, such as the "overprotective mother" or the "alcoholic father" or the "annoying neighbor."

Formula fiction

Fiction that rigidly follows the conventions and clichés of a particular genre. E.g., having a cute, little alien or robot for comic relief in a science fiction story (such as Ewoks, E.T., R2-D2, Wall-E).

Realism

"Slice of life" approach to fiction, without supernatural or exotic elements.

Round Character

A character who is well developed by the author--one who has psychological depth and many facets to his/her characterization. An individual, as opposed to a stereotype.

Literary genre

A type of literature, such as "short story" or "novel."

Naturalism

Outgrowth of realism, with an emphasis upon insight into human behavior by applying understandings from psychology and sociology.

Synopsis

Brief summary of a narrative's incidents.

Unified plot

The narrative's events take place roughly within the time frame of a single day.

Episodic plot

The narrative's events stretch out over a long period of time--weeks, months, or years. Episodes of the plot are connected through transitions.

Dramatic structure

The way an author manipulates the our emotional involvement in a story.

in medias res

"in the middle of things"--starting a story in the midst of the narrative's chronological events.

Crisis

When the plot seems to come to a head and potential resolution, but then there's some kind of reversal that delays matters--perhaps a sudden and dramatic change. Aristotle uses the term "peripety" (or peripeteia) for this kind of reversal.

Peripety

The crisis in a narrative. When the plot seems to come to a head and potential resolution, but then there's some kind of reversal that delays matters--perhaps a sudden and dramatic change. Also spelled "peripeteia."

Story of initiation

Story in which the protagonist undergoes an experience (a "rite of passage") which contributes to his/her maturity. These stories often focus upon a young person who teeters on the brink of adulthood, but they also may feature adults who exhibit from some kind of naïveté, emotional innocence, or arrested psychological development. Sometimes the experience is abortive, and we realize that the character refuses to grow or change.

Archetypal plot

A commonly used and recognized situation and cast of characters, such as the "love triangle" or the "story or initiation" or the "hero's quest." Such plots seem universal to the human experience regardless or culture, time, or place.

Magical realism

A form of realism which treats the miraculous as everyday, mundane occurrences with a detached irony.

Novel

A literary genre which is a fictional prose narrative of extended length.

Short story

A literary genre which is a short fictional prose narrative. Includes tales, fables, parables, and anecdotes. Poe said that a story should be short enough to read in one sitting.

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