Friday, December 10, 2010


Here are some terms that apply to works of fiction such as novels, novellas and short stories. Also, please see my much more detailed and comprehensive list of Fiction Definitions at

PREMISE: Who and what the story is about. You should be able to state the premise of your story in a sentence or two: Who does what, and why? More concrete than "theme."

THEME: the central idea or meaning of a story; what the work is about. When you express the theme in your own words, it should be worded in a complete sentence and universally expressed.

CHARACTER: an imagined person in a literary work. Some famous characters in fiction: Romeo, Juliet, Jay Gatsby, in The Great Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Flat character: a one-dimensional figure, with a simple personality. Flat characters, also known as “cardboard characters,” show none of the human depth, complexity, and contrariness of a round character or of most real people. You can round out a flat character in your story and make him more interesting and compelling by giving him hopes, fears and motivations.

Round character: a full, multidimensional character whose personality reveals some of the richness and complexity we are used to seeing in real people, rather than the transparent obviousness of a flat character. We often see a significant change take place in a round character during the story.

Protagonist: The protagonist or hero or main character is the central character in the story who engages our interest or sympathy. Usually the “good guy.”

Antagonist: the character who opposes the protagonist. The “bad guy.”

Examples: In Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden in the narrator, McMurphy is the protagonist, and Nurse Ratched is the antagonist.

Character Arc –the status of the main character as it unfolds throughout the story, the storyline or series of episodes. Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes. Some examples include:

• In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman’s character begins as a misogynistic chauvinist but when he is forced to play the part of a woman, he also experiences a change in how he views women and becomes a different character by the end.

• In Empire of the Sun, Jim begins as a carefree young boy. After the Japanese take over Shanghai and he is separated from his family, he is forced to suffer trauma because of the war.

• In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle degenerates from a somewhat disturbed, highly disorganized Vietnam veteran into an extremely highly-organized, full-blown psychotic.

Motivation is the external forces (setting, circumstances) and internal forces (personality, temperament, morality, intelligence) that compel a character to act as he or she does in a story.

PLOT: The events that unfold in a story; the action and direction of a story; the story line. The events can be presented in a variety of orders:

Chronological: the story is told in the order in which things happen. It begins with what happens first, then second, and so on, until the last incident is related.

In medias res: Latin for “in the midst of things.” We enter the story on the verge of some important moment.

Flashback: the returning to an earlier moment in literary time, usually through a character’s reminiscing. A device that allows the writer to present events that happened before the time of the current narration or the current events in the fiction. Flashback techniques include memories, dreams, stories of the past told by characters, or even author intrusions. (That is, the author might simply say, “But back in Jake’s youth….”) Flashback is useful for exposition, to fill in the reader about a character or place, or about the background to a conflict, but be careful not to overdo it.

Exposition: the opening portion that sets the scene, introduces the main characters, tells us (briefly) what happened before the story opened, and provides any other background information that we need in order to understand and care about the events to follow. Today's bestselling authors spend much less time setting the scene and providing background information; they tend to jump to a the first conflict (main) quite quickly.

Rising action: the series of events that lead to the climax of the story, usually the conflicts or struggles of the protagonist. During rising action, the basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach his goal.

Conflict: a complication that moves to a climax. Conflict is the opposition presented to the main character of a story by another character, by events or situations, by fate, or by some act of the main character’s own personality or nature. More loosely defined for contemporary fiction, it is the problem or tension that must somehow be addressed (if not perfectly resolved) by the end of the story. A plot needs plenty of conflict in order to be interesting. Conflict is what drives a story forward.

Suspense: the pleasurable anxiety we feel that heightens our attention to the story. Anxiety about what will happen next in a story. In Poe’s short story, The Pit and the Pendulum, the main character is strapped to a board in a dark cell while a pendulum in the form of a steel blade swings over him. With each swing, the pendulum descends closer to his body. The reader is kept in suspense about how the character will free himself.

Foreshadowing: The indication of events to come later in the story. The introduction of specific words, images, or events into a story to suggest or anticipate later events that are central to the action and its resolution. The presentation of hints and clues about later events in the story. Often used to “tease” the reader and heighten her interest.

Climax: The point of greatest tension in a story. The turning point in the action; the point at which the outcome is to be decided. The climax is the turning point, which marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist’s affairs. In a plot line, the climax occurs after the rising action and before the falling action.

Falling action: The sequence of events that follow the climax and end in the resolution. During the falling action, or resolution, which is the moment of reversal after the climax, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt. Summary: The falling action is that part of the story where the main part (the climax) has finished and you’re heading to the conclusion.

Examples of falling action: In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, the falling action occurs after the climax of Professor Snape's apparent hex upon Harry during the Quidditch match: Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn about the Sorcerer's Stone; Voldemort attacks Harry in the Forbidden Forest; and Harry faces Professor Quirrell and Voldemort.

Denouement: (French for “untying of the knot”) The series of events that follow the plot’s climax. It is the resolution of the story, its conclusion or outcome. In a murder mystery, the denouement may outline the clues that led to the capture of a murderer. In a romance, the hero and heroine finally resolve all the conflicts that were keeping them apart and experience their “happily ever after” moment.

Resolution: Same as denouement: The part of the story’s plot line in which the problem of the story is resolved or worked out. This occurs after the falling action and is typically where the story ends.

Subplot: Secondary or minor plot in a story, usually related to the main plot.

POINT OF VIEW:  The vantage point from which a story is told. Point of view refers to who is telling the story and how it is told. What we know and how we feel about the events in a story are shaped by the perceptions of the point of view character(s). We, the readers, are aware of the point of view character’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.

In the first-person point of view, the narrator is a participant in the story. A story told by a narrator who is not one of the story’s participants is called third-person point of view.

NARRATOR: the teller of a story (not the author, but the invented speaker of the story).

Third-person narrator - uses “he,” “she,” or “they” to tell the story and does not participate in the action.

The first-person narrator - uses “I” and “we” and can be a major or minor participant in the action. With a first-person narrator, the “I” presents the point of view of only one character’s consciousness. The reader is restricted to the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of that single character.

A second-person narrator, “you,” is possible but rarely used because of the awkwardness in thrusting the reader into the story, as in “You are minding your own business on a park bench when a drunk steps out of the bushes and demands your lunch bag.”

Omniscient narrator - takes us inside the characters. Omniscient narrator is all-knowing.

Editorial omniscience: the narrator not only recounts actions and thoughts, but also judges.

Neutral omniscience allows characters’ actions and thoughts to speak for themselves.

Selective omniscient or limited omniscient: the narrator takes us inside one or two characters. The selective omniscient narrator is much more confined than the omniscient narrator. With selective or limited omniscience, the author often restricts the narrator to the single perspective of either a major or a minor character. The way that people, places, and events appear to that character is the way that they appear to the reader.

Stream-of-consciousness: when limited omniscience attempts to record mental activity ranging from consciousness to the unconscious, from clear perceptions to confused longings.

Objective narration - the narrator is outside the characters. Objective point of view employs a narrator who does NOT see into the mind of any character. From this detached and impersonal perspective, the narrator reports action and dialogue without telling us directly what characters feel and think. This point of view places a heavy emphasis on dialogue, actions, and details to reveal character.

An unreliable narrator is a fictional character whose interpretation of events is different from the author's. One type of unreliable narrator is the naive narrator (the innocent eye) who lacks the sophistication to interpret accurately what he/she sees. The reader understands more than the narrator does.

SETTING: the total environment for the action of a fictional work. Setting includes the time period (such as the 1890s), the place (such as downtown Warsaw), the historical milieu (such as during the Crimean War), as well as the social, political, and perhaps even spiritual realities. It’s the locale, time, and social circumstances of a story.

Examples of setting:
An Eastern U.S. town in winter, about 1950, in an upper-class private girls’ school.
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is set in Newfoundland in the early 1990s.

Tone: the prevailing attitude (for instance, ironic, compassionate, objective) as perceived by the reader; the author’s feelings toward the central character or the main events. The tone is the prevailing mood or atmosphere in a literary work – joyful, sad, brooding, angry, playful, and so on. A writer can be formal, informal, playful, ironic, and especially, optimistic or pessimistic.

Style: the way in which an author uses words that give his or her work a distinctive manner of expression. It is the combined qualities that distinguish one writer’s work from another’s. For example, Hemingway’s use of short words and simple construction make his style markedly different from that of his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mark Twain has a very distinctive, relaxed, regional style in his novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Style is the manner of expression of a particular writer, produced by choice of words, grammatical structures, use of literary devices, and all the possible parts of language use. Some general styles might include scientific, ornate, plain, emotive. Most writers have their own particular styles.

Cliché: Overused expression. Examples: raining cats and dogs, snug as a bug in a rug, chills running up and down my spine, warm as toast, short and sweet. Writers should avoid using clichés whenever possible.

Irony: a contrast of some sort; reveals a reality different from what appears to be true.

Verbal irony: the irony is between what is said and what is meant (“You're a great guy,” meant bitterly).

Dramatic irony: the contrast is between what the audience knows (a murderer waits in the bedroom) and what a character says (the victim enters the bedroom, innocently saying, “I think I'll have a long sleep”).

Situational irony: when an incongruity exists between what is expected to happen and what actually happens (Macbeth usurps the throne, thinking he will then be happy, but the action leads him to misery).

Symbol: a person, object, action, or situation, that, charged with meaning, suggests another thing (for example, a dark forest may suggest confusion, or perhaps evil), though usually with less specificity and more ambiguity than allegory. In a literary work or film, a symbol is a person, place, thing or idea that represents something else. Writers often use a snake as a symbol for evil, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Commonly used symbols include the eagle (strength), a flag (patriotism), and the sea (life).

Epiphany: a moment of insight, discovery, or revelation by which a character’s life or view of life is greatly altered.

fiction terms, fiction definitions, literary terms, literary definitions. See also

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