One way to make sense of a story / narrative is to focus on what are called the “elements
of fiction.” These “elements” are fundamental parts of all storytelling, and they include: plot and structure,
character, setting, point of view, style and language, and theme. While we may discuss these elements separately, please keep
in mind that they are always acting simultaneously in a story. It is difficult, for example, to discuss theme without considering
character, plot, point of view, and setting. When you understand how these elements work together, you will have a better
understanding of the story and you be able to respond to it on a deeper level.
Plot and Structure
Point of View
Language and Style
Theme has to do with
what you see as the story’s point, message, function, or implied view of life and conduct. The “theme” is
always a generalization gathered from the collective effect of all elements of a story. Keep in mind that there is always
a tendency to oversimplify when we come up with a theme in that we reduce a complicated story to a mere “moral”
or “message.” Remember that there are always multiple themes that often reinforce and even contradict each other.
Never reduce reading to a “let’s find the theme in this story” kind of game because it assumes that there
is a “right” theme to find. Instead, enjoy the pleasure of making compelling connections and the responsibility
that comes from questioning and critiquing an author’s attitude, belief system, values, and ideological affiliation.
Plot and Structure—
structure have to do with the arrangement, sequence, and organization of events that make up a story. Many narratives are
based on a conflict or struggle between opposing forces. The narrative begins with an explanation of the situation and characters
(the “exposition”) followed by a series of complicating factors (“complicating or rising action”).
There is a turning point, crisis, or climax, following by falling action or result. The story ends with a “resolution”
where the plot’s complications are sorted out and resolved. However, not all stories follow this pattern. Many stories
are not chronological. We start in the future, only to look in the past. There is often simultaneous action, no climax, or
In any case, you should ...
• Always look for patterns, design, and causality. Is there a downward
trajectory or decline (i.e. life is fine until some event destroys it?) or is there an upward trajectory (i.e. do characters
work their way out of their problems?). What actions lead to what results?
Is there a climax or turning point in the story? What led to this point? Who are the major players? Describe the conflict(s).
• What is the effect, purpose, or function of a non-chronological structure?
• Does the structure indicate different points of view? a skewed point of view?
• Does the structure have metaphorical value? That is, does the sequence of events
indicate something beyond itself? (i.e. the story of Noah’s Ark is less a story about one family than a comment on the
history of the world: the unrepentant (those who don’t get on the ark) will be destroyed).
• Are there indications of events to come? That is, does the author foreshadow the future?
The fundamental question here is not just, “What happened” but “What
is significant about the way events happened?” Form is content.
We all know what
“character” refers to, and we all know that we should be preoccupied with who these characters are and how they
act. As Robert DiYanni writes, “we should approach fictional characters with the same concerns with which we approach
people. We need to be alert for how we are to take them, for what we are to make of them, and we need to see how they may
reflect our own experience. We need to observe their actions, to listen to what they say and how they say it, to notice how
they relate to other characters and how other characters respond to them, especially to what they say about each other. To
make inferences about characters, we look for connections, for links and clues to their function and significance in the story.
In analyzing a character or character’s relationships, we relate one act, one speech, one physical detail to another
until we understand the character.”
In sum, to understand character, you need to look closely at ....
• narrative summary about characters
• the metaphorical value of surface details of dress and physical appearance (and when it changes)
• what characters say and how they say it
what characters say about themselves—what they think and feel
how characters respond to what happens to them
• how the characters interact
with other characters (i.e. who or what opposes them?)
• the change, if
any, that takes place in a character. Account for the change.
The location and time
of a story is what we call “setting.” Setting is vital because the physical details of time and place often have
metaphorical value. That is, the setting is associated with values, ideals, attitudes, and beliefs. Setting reflects character
and embodies theme. (i.e. in Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now, the journey up river is a journey
to the most primitive and dark side of humanity. The journey is literal and metaphorical.). Setting can also convey the emotional
or psychological state of characters. For example, the collapse of Roderick Usher’s house coincides with the final stages
of his insanity, as well as the annihilation of his posterity. Put another way, setting can be the external manifestation
of inner realities.
Keep in mind...
• How does the setting orient or provide context? Point of View— Point of view
refers to how the story is told. Who is telling the story? Why are they telling it? A story can be told by a distant third
person, a mere observer who may or may not have privileged access to characters’ thoughts and feelings. We call this
kind of a narrator an “omniscient” or “limited omniscient” narrator, depending on how much they know
about the characters. There are also first-person narrators who tell their own stories in their own voices.
• Who and what is associated with what time and place?
What is metaphorical about the time and place of the events?
• Are places
and times opposed or contrasted with each other? If so, what values, beliefs, and attitudes are associated with each location
Questions to ask...
• Consider how point of view affects your response to the characters.
How would the story change if another character told the story?
• A first-person
narrator is not always trustworthy or reliable. How do we determine the narrator’s reliability? How does the desire,
values, beliefs, and attitudes of the first-person narrator shape what he or she relates. Again, how would the story change
if another character told the story?
• Do we have multiple perspectives
or multiple narrators? How do these narrators shape the way we see the events in the story?
• What is gained or lost by switching the narration from first to third person?
Language and Style—
a writer chooses words, arranges them in sentences and longer units of discourse, and exploits their significance determines
his or her style. Style is a kind of verbal identity of a writer that reflects the way a writer sees the world. For example,
Faulkner’s convoluted, complicated, long, and often formal prose conveys something about the way Faulkner sees the South
that he writes about. Hemingway, on the other hand, with his minimal, fragmented, often interrupted and staccato style reveals
something about his typical preoccupation as well, World War I and its devastating effect on relationships. Again, “form
is content.” How something is said is just as important as what is said.
• The big question here is... how does an author’s style reveal
or convey the way an author sees his or her world?
• How does an author’s
style reinforce or contradict the story itself?
style also includes images, the concrete representation of a sense impression, feeling, or idea. Images may invoke our sight,
hearing, sense of smell and taste, and tactile perceptions. Imagery refers to a pattern of related details. When images form
patterns of related details that convey an idea or feeling beyond what the images literally describe, we call them metaphorical
or symbolic. The details suggest one thing in terms of another. For example, images of light often convey knowledge and life,
while images of darkness sometimes suggest ignorance or death.
Allusion is also
important in that a writer may convey a larger meaning by alluding to (that is, “subtly referring to”) another
story, character (fictional or real), place, event, or object. This is a subtle and economical way to suggest larger significance
and meaning. For example, Allie Fox’s naming of his ice-machine as “Fat Boy” in the novel The Mosquito
Coast. is a key allusion or reference to the first atomic bomb. By this single allusion, Theroux is able to foreshadow
events, link Allie’s invention with other destructive inventions, make us question the value of some technological advances,
and even ask us to question the value of technology itself and those who employ that technology in the name of “peace”
and “civilization.”If we recognize the allusion, then meaning and significance are enriched and developed without
having the author spell everything out for us.
•Keep in mind that imagery and allusions (as well as plot, structure, character,
setting) can function ironically. That is, there is a contrast or discrepancy between one thing and another, especially between
what is said and what is meant or between what happens and what is expected to happen. (i.e. images of life and fertility
surrounding a character who is dying. Again, your task is to figure out the significance of the irony. Why be ironic? What’s