Enjoying fiction: literary analysis
We read for different purposes – a newspaper to keep informed about world affairs and daily events; school textbooks to increase our knowledge about a subject; instruction manuals for new purchases such as a bookcase from IKEA so we can put it together. And, hopefully, we read for pleasure as well. Often it is fiction we read for pleasure.
What is fiction?
This can be defined as a type of literature drawn from the imagination of the author that tells about imaginary people and events. Both novels and short stories are fiction. When we read, we step into another world at the turn of a page. We are given the writer’s view of reality – a slice of life as it were. In the fictional world, we meet imaginary characters in a made up setting, who are involved in a story, or sequence of events, that engages us. The more we know about the mechanisms behind any work of fiction, the better we can enjoy what we read. Let us begin by taking a closer look at the characters in fiction.
Our response to characters in a work of fiction depends on how real they seem to us. We have problems enough understanding ourselves, so it is a comfort that we can understand the characters that we meet in a work of fiction. Therefore, they must be believable in the surroundings they are put it.
The storyteller of either novels or short stories is not a painter but he or she certainly leaves images in the minds of the reader. This is what characterization is - the writer’s presentation and development of characters. Characters with depth are often referred to as well rounded characters. These are dynamic characters whose actions are not always predictable and who most often change in the course of the story. Flat characters, on the other hand, are characters who have only one or two main personality traits and are therefore easily recognizable, often as as stereotypes.
The actions of flat characters are often predictable and they are static; that is, they do not change. Characters in novels may have more complex personalities as the author has more pages in which to develop them, but we find countless memorable characters in short stories as well.
Plot is not a new term to most third year students, but most students would probably be hard put if asked what the difference is between story and plot. At the risk of over simplifying the matter we can say that:
- The story is the answer to “What happened?”
- The plot tells why it happened in just that way.
E. M. Forster, a British novelist, short story writer and essayist puts it this way:
- “The King died and then the Queen died” is a story.
- “The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.
In other words, one action causes another. In both novels and short stories we find this causality. The plot in works of fiction generally revolves around a conflict or crisis. Short stories may be limited to one clear plot, whereas novels may have several subplots. Let us examine the standard structure of a simple, short story.
EXPOSITION: the introduction of the characters and the conflict
COMPLICATION: the action creates an increasingly complicated situation, producing rising tension
CLIMAX: the high point is reached at which the conflict comes to a head
RESOLUTION: the conflict is resolved and tension falls back to normal
This is much the same dramatic structure as that found in a play or movie, and for the same reasons. Things must proceed swiftly, at one sitting or within a few hours at the theatre. In longer works of fiction such as novels, we often find this same basic structure but the action is usually not experienced as intense as in short stories.
Setting and point of view
The setting refers to the time and place in which a work of fiction takes place. A short story generally has only one setting for the same reason that it usually has only one main character – the need for focus and lack of space. Whereas a short story needs to be “economic” in this respect, however, a novel can have several settings.
The point of view in a work of fiction refers to who is telling the story. Put another way, point of view is the position from which the story is told. A voice outside the story (i.e. not a character in the story) which is able to see and know everything in the story (including every character’s thoughts) is referred to as the omniscient or all-knowing point of view. This is found in both short stories and novels. The advantage to this is that it is easy to involve us in the story if we know the thoughts of all of the characters. The obvious disadvantage is that we may lose out on the element of curiosity and suspense if we are told by the author what everyone is thinking.
The author can also choose to give us the thoughts of just one or two of the main characters. This is known as the third person limited point of view. In addition, there is the first person point of view in which the story is told by one of the characters in the story (“I”).
Theme is the underlying idea(s) in any work of fiction. It is the comment a piece of literature makes on the human condition. Unlike a novel, which has room for several themes, a short story usually has room to focus on only one theme. Of course, if the object of a piece of fiction is primarily to entertain, then theme may be of only minor importance. However, most works of fiction aim to do more than entertain. They try to shed light on some of the more basic questions of human existence. When you read any work of fiction, be it a short story or novel, ask yourself what the intention(s) of the author was when he or she sat down to write it. They must have had a reason. What did they want to tell you? If you can answer that, then you can find the theme – as you interpret it.
Films and fiction
Most teenagers are avid film buffs and not only see quite a few films, they are usually quite knowledgeable about the subject as well. Have you ever considered the fact that a good film works on the same principles as a good piece of fiction? Both tell a story in which causality is a key factor (one thing leads to another). The same basic structure which we discussed earlier is also at work. A conflict is introduced, there is rising tension, the action reaches a climax and the story ends with some sort of resolution. In films too, if characters are not believable, then the audience does not become engaged in their fate and the film risks being a flop.
A good film can also generate enthusiastic discussions about the theme(s) or the underlying ideas which the story-makers wished to communicate to the audience. Of course, a film can also indulge in visual effects, music, fast paced action, several subplots and so on. Nonetheless, the basic elements of storytelling must be there in order for the film to succeed. Think about this next time you see a film and try to look at it as a piece of fiction. It may also be useful when you are working with fiction to look at it as though it were a film.
So, whether you sit down in a comfortable armchair with a good light over your shoulder, cuddle under the blankets in bed, read a piece of fiction in a crowded bus, or even go to the movies, enjoy yourself when you step into the wonderful world of fiction.