Links for Plot and Character will, hopefully, be up by the end of January 2017
Literary elements are the building blocks of fictional writing, of story. They are frequently confused with literary devices — and as some elements are considered devices, it only makes it more confusing.
Now literary devices are a gadget, a tool used in building something, and are used in helping to build that story. Just as you would not use a Robertson screwdriver every time you assemble something, you would not use a literary device in every story.
This means devices are not required, whereas the six major elements of fiction — character, plot, point-of-view, setting, style, and theme — are required every time.
Literary Elements Have…
Being the components of story, these building blocks must be used in every story. And each literary element has a number of devices within that element. But not every device is required.
Story – Plot – Narrative
Elements begin with story, plot, and narrative.
Story: A sequence of events
Plot: Events that happen
Narrative: How those events are told
The sequence of major events (or a character’s actions) that move the action in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation.
Plot is the sequence of events that relate to each other and build the action to its eventual climax. It starts with exposition and flows into the rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. And these will be covered in detail in an upcoming post on plot.
Do note that plot does not have to be chronological.
Narrative deals with how the events are told, the construction of those events into a plot that makes it fun to read. It may affect the sequence of events: set out in chronological order, combined with elements from outside the story, build for dramatic effect, draw attention to things or events the story lacks simply because the contrast is interesting.
…a lot of work…yeah, you already know that one, lol. What the posts on “Writing” are intended to do is explore the various mechanics of writing from plots to points-of-view to structure to character development to genres to voice to target audience to book types to character or story arcs to back stories to plot devices to themes to diction to copyright to flashforwards to flashbacks to framing the story or devices to memes to tropes to pace to perspective to settings to show versus tell to social context to continuity to storyboards to style to language to style sheets to syntax to tone to tropes and more…
It’s an evolving conversation, and sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on some aspect of writing with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.
|Credit to: Aram Zucker-Scharff’s “Story vs Narrative vs Plot“|
|Part of Writing: Narrative|
|Definition: A literary element is basic to all works of narrative fiction — a necessary feature of verbal storytelling that can be found in any written or spoken narrative. It forms the essential characteristics of all narrative, i.e., plot and character is present in every story.
Aids in the discussion and understanding of a work of literature as basic categories of critical analysis.
A.k.a., narrative element, element of literature
|Character||Definition: A figure in a literary work (personality, gender, age, etc.
For an in-depth look, explore the post, “Writing: Characters.
|Conflict||Definition: Involves a struggle between two opposing forces usually a protagonist and an antagonist around which the whole story revolves.|
|Two Types of Conflict:
|External Conflict||Definition: Marked by a characteristic involvement of an action wherein a character finds himself in struggle with outside forces that hamper his progress. The most common type of an external conflict is where a protagonist fights back against the antagonist’s tactics that impede his or her advancement.|
|William Golding’s Lord of the Flies pits Ralph against Jack.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series pits Katniss Everdeen against the dystopian society which subjugates the districts.
|Internal Conflict||Definition: Develops a unique tension in a storyline marked by a lack of action in which an internal or psychological conflict arises as soon as a character experiences two opposite emotions or desires: virtue or vice, good and evil inside himself.|
|This disagreement causes a character to suffer mental agony.
It’s interpersonal conflict (character vs character).
A.k.a., character vs self
|Shakespeare’s Hamlet destroys everyone’s life as he searches for proof about his father’s murder.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an ambitious man who sells his soul to the devil but later wonders about the deal.
|Language||Definition: The entire body of words used in a text.
Language can be formal, clinical, informal, jargon, etc.
|Diction||Definition: The words an author chooses to use contribute to the tone and mood.
You may also want to view “Literary Device: Diction“.
Definition and examples courtesy of How to Analyze Tone in Literature.
|Suggestion: Words can be divided into abstract or concrete, general or specific, or formal or informal.|
|Suggestion: Specific adjectives illustrate which tone the narrator is using. The more specific these words are, the more insightful your analysis will be.
Use more than one adjective if you think this will make your description more accurate.
“One of the most noticeable elements in the opening chapter of the novel is the narrator’s use of a wistful and yet soothing tone…”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The boat metaphor and the alliteration of the letter b also resonate in the broken syntax, evoking the ebb and flow of ocean tides. Elements which contribute to the creation of a distinctively nostalgic and yet epic tone.
|Suggestion: What details are included, omitted, or how deeply the author dwells on specific details contributes to tone.|
|A house with cheery flowers in the front yard suggests that the house is a happy home for happy occupants.
Another author may talk about the peeling paint or dirty windows, suggesting that the house is a depressing place occupied by depressed people.
|Suggestion: Choose words using a variety of literary devices, including:|
|A word beyond its literal definition, think imagery, the images or feeling the word can evoke.
Thinking about the specific connotation of words and why these were picked over others will reveal to the reader the author’s attitude toward the subject.
Words can be chosen for sound. Pleasant-sounding words suggest that the author is writing a story about pleasant things, whereas harsh sounding words suggest that the subject is also harsh or unpleasant.
|Syntax||Definition: How individual sentences are constructed. To convey tone and elicit mood from the reader, the author varies his/her sentence structure.
Definition and examples courtesy of How to Analyze Tone in Literature.
|Suggestion: What comes at the end of a sentence indicates a greater importance, so swapping the word order changes the emphasis.|
| “John brought flowers” emphasizes what John brought.
“The flowers were brought by John” emphasizes who brought the flowers.
|Suggestion: Short sentences are more intense and immediate while short sentence can be seen as flip or disrespectful.
Long sentences create a distance between the reader and the story and can suggest thoughtfulness.
|Give me that. I want it. Now.
Okay. That’s it. I’m done.
I don’t understand why you’re saying that. Do you have any idea how much that hurts?
But there’s a time and place for everything, including a longer sentence which can have a thoughtful effect, set distance between reader and story, or drive the reader mad with boredom.
|Suggestion: Many authors will break the rules of syntax on purpose in order to achieve a desired effect.|
|Use anastrophe to add weight to the adjectives and make the sentence more dramatic:
“The day, dark and dull” encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the unusual nature of the day.
|Definition: The core structure of the story and how its events are given depth and substance using narrative mode.
Events are almost always connected by a plot, but it doesn’t have to be.
Events may be:
Writing a story means weaving all of the elements of fiction together.
|Narrative Mode||Definition: Techniques used to tell the story:|
|Action||Definition: A type of imagery that creates the physical movement of the characters, the kinesthesia, the touch, physical movement, temperature, or feelings a character has.
|Bare feet sinking into wet sand, brushing across freshly cut grass, tiptoeing gingerly across the gravel
Physical movement of running along an asphalt road, jumping over bollards, swinging at someone, running a finger along her downy cheek, cupping his jaw with her hand
A brisk wind on a late fall evening as it kisses his cheek, rain pattering on one’s head, the warmth of sunlight on her face
Feeling the velvety softness of a cat, rubbing the bristle of five o’clock shadow
Feelings of happiness, anger, melancholy, fear, laughter, peacefulness
|Dialogue||Definition: A verbal exchange between two or more characters that brings a story and the characters to life on the page.
If there is only one character talking aloud, it is a monologue.
|Narrative Tense||Definition: Tense is the when in which you are writing.|
If you don’t know which when to pick, third person, past tense will (usually) be the easiest to work with, especially if you’re writing a mainstream or genre novel. First person could also work IF your main character has a strong or unusual voice.
Any viewpoint — first-, second-, or third-person and either past or present tense can work, if you’re writing literary or experimental fiction, and particularly if you’re writing a short story rather than a novel. BUT, try to have a reason for your choice: don’t go for an unusual viewpoint for the sake of it.
Literary time is:
CAUTION: Always be sure there is a logical reason for any changes in tense, so pay attention to your when tense and don’t switch without good reason, as it is very easy to screw up if you are not paying attention.
You may want to peek in at Verb: Subject-Verb Agreement Exceptions for an example.
Ali’s “Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]“; Levi; The Editor’s Blog; Wikipedia; “Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt.edu provides an excellent set of examples of variations on Exceptions. It’s mostly common sense, but sometimes I need a refresher myself!)
|Definition: The most commonly used for the characters in a story, past is based on your characters’ timeline, NOT the real world’s. If you’re writing in 1914 and refer to an event that occurred in 1896, then it’s past. Referring to 1918 would be a future event — in that story
Rule: Often seen as the “natural” storytelling tense, the author is relating something that happened in the past, not something that’s ongoing.
It has the advantage of reading easily and smoothly: if you want readers not to notice your style and to get absorbed in the story, past tense is a good way to go — especially with third person narrative.
When writing about history and historical works, use the past tense.
|“Police officers, as a rule, don’t need an excuse to go to the pub, but one of the many non-excuses they have is the traditional end-of-probation booze-up when members of the shift get the brand new full constables completely hammered. To that end, Lesley and me were dragged across the Strand to the Roosevelt Toad and plied with alcohol until we were horizontal. That was the theory, anyway.”
Examples courtesy of Brian Wasko’s “Using the Literary Present.
|Definition: In fiction, the events of the book occur in the present, not the past.
More commonly used for first-person POV, present tense is often seen as a more literary choice, although it can also be used for commercial / genre fiction.
For the reader, it can make the story seem more immediate, but it also risks feeling slightly “off”.
Tricky to pull off in a third-person novel.
A.k.a, literary present tense
|“She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine, rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door.” – Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Harry soon realizes that the man he had seen at the train station will become his nemesis.
Sometimes you have to jump around in time when talking about a story in order to make sense.
The sentence is essentially in the present tense (realizes), but the past perfect (had seen) and future (will become) are needed to make the sentence clear. It would be confusing to write, but better than the below:
Harry soon realizes that the man he sees at the train station becomes his nemesis.
Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1927, in which the title character struggles to understand her place in society.
It’s also important to differentiate between historical information about the book and the events in the book itself. Use past tense for the former.
Examples courtesy of Brian Wasko’s “Using the Literary Present.
|Historical Present Tense|
|Definition: A speaker using present tense but actually talking about the past.
A.k.a., dramatic present, narrative present, historic present
|“It is a bright summer day in 1947. My father, a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit, is trying to decide which of his eight children he will take with him to the county fair. My mother, of course, will not go. She is knocked out from getting most of us ready: I hold my neck stiff against the pressure of her knuckles as she hastily completes the braiding and the beribboning of my hair. . .” – Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose: “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self”
“I’m nine years old, in bed, in the dark. The detail in the room is perfectly clear. I am lying on my back. I have a greeny-gold quilted eiderdown covering me. I have just calculated that I will be 50 years old in 1997.” – Jenny Diski, “Diary”
|Definition: A speaker using future tense in speaking about the future.
Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow, and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.
|Carlos Fuente’s Aura
“By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it will have already rung three times. As usual, he will have been listening to loud music on his stereo. He will turn the stereo down and will stand up to answer the door. An old man will be standing on the steps. The man will begin to speak slowly, asking for directions.”
Definition and examples courtesy of Purdue OWL
|Tone (of Voice)||Definition: The way feelings are expressed and:
|Rule: Tone has two sides and therefore two different voices in any story:
Rule: To create tone, writer considers the DIDLS…+:
Paying attention to these details makes it easier to see how the author/POV created this specific tone, the mood it’s intended to provoke, and how tone and mood link to the story’s themes. This attention is also called close reading.
|The mother in Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl is harsh and judgmental, exposing an urgent and weathered concern for the daughter’s development as she becomes a woman.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, she has taken an extremely positive, inspiring, and uplifting tone towards the idea of love and devotion.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” creates a gloomy feeling through his tone with the use of the word “sigh”.
|The Difference Between Tone and Mood|
|Tone and mood seem similar as they both deal with feeling.
However, tone is the author or POV character providing information about the story and how that author or POV feels about the story topic.
Mood is how the author makes the READER feel about the story. The reader’s response to how the author has written the story, the tone.
|For example, a scene describing the first encounter between two old friends after many years will probably use a tone of intimacy to convey the close bond between them. The mood will likely be nostalgic to trigger readers’ emotional response and make them feel connected to the characters’ experience.|
|Finding the Correct Tone|
|Rule: The desired tone can be found by asking yourself:
|Get to Know Different Kinds of Tones|
|Any of the human emotions are possible as tones in a single literary work, changing from scene to scene, passage to passage, etc.; it keeps the reader interested and creates a sense of rhythm in the author’s work.|
|If the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway were written with different tones:
|Tone’s Impact on Readers|
|Tone influences the mood, themes, and messages the work conveys AND the reader.|
|A reader may generally like novels set during the American Civil War, but have very different opinions about them based on their tone:
Consider the differing tones — the solemn and nostalgic versus the dull — in the closing line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
If you find a book or passage boring, think whether this is due to the lack of a specific tone.
Examples courtesy of How to Analyze Tone in Literature“.
|Author’s Tone of Voice||Definition: The writing style of an author that is a combination of the author’s attitude + personality.|
The author’s voice (what makes your writing sound like you) never changes no matter what you’re writing; the author’s attitude changes to suit the genre, create the reader’s mood, suit the target audience.
Consider the difference between writing a personal email versus an email to apply for a job, whether you’re mad at someone or happy with them.
As the writer, consider ahead of time how you want to come across: as a know-it-all or knowledgeable.
|Thinking of examples of how you can convey the same message with different kinds of tones will make you understand how authors also choose one tone over many others for a specific reason. Consider the many ways you can ask a friend why she didn’t reply to your calls:
|Details||Definition: Facts that are included or those that are omitted.|
|These details don’t have a strong sensory appeal, but their inclusion or not indicates what the author is providing to support his/her attitude (tone).
It’s the speaker’s perspective that shapes what details are given and which are not.
|A character’s name (or lack of one) helps to establish tone for the character. Is he young or old? Is he educated or not? What level of education? What’s his profession? How intelligent is he?
The connotations of word choice will make a difference in the details.
|Point-of-View||Definition: In fiction, tone is the attitude of the fictional narrator toward story events and the story’s other characters, and is commonly referred to as point-of-view.
Readers “observe the story” through the character’s POV, who is telling the story.
Which point-of-view you choose will affect that narrator’s manner of speaking, word choice, dialect, syntax (as language), and more. Those choices will convey emotion, manipulate the five senses, affect the mood of the story, and reveal the relationship between characters as well as their voices, personalities, and dispositions of these other characters.
These same choices will influence how the reader understands the story.
For greater detail, see the post, “Writing Tip: Point-of-View“.
A.k.a., viewpoint, narrator, narrative voice, narrator’s tone of voice
This is not the same as Active versus Passive Voice.
|Perspective||Definition: Used in all points-of-view to show how the characters view and process what’s happening within the story. It helps define the narrator’s attitude and personality, and how he feels about certain experiences or other characters.
For greater detail about perspective, see the post, “Writing: Point-of-View“.
|Mood||Definition: The emotions and atmosphere the reader feels while reading the story, whether it be eerie, depressing, factual, joyous, etc.|
|Mood is entwined with tone, which is all about the choices the author‘s voice makes to convey how s/he feels about the subject.
Mood is achieved using:
|Dialogue as Mood|
|Definition: Create a reality and enhance the mood of any particular scene, using dialogue between characters.|
| If your characters are in a loud, crowded nightclub, a setting vibrant, pulsing with life, the dialogue will not be the same if those same characters were having tea with their aged aunt.
“‘Look at me,” said Miss Havisham. ‘You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?’
I regret to state that I was not afraid of telling the enormous lie comprehended in the answer No.
‘Do you know what I touch here?’ she asked, laying her hands, one upon the other, on her left side.
‘What do I touch?’
She uttered the word with an eager look, and with strong emphasis, and with a weird smile that had a kind of boast in it.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
The dialogue continues the dark and Gothic setting of Havisham’s house when Pip finally encounters the eccentric herself with her theatrical, self-indulgent despair.
|Diction as Mood|
|Definition: The choice of words convey feelings as well as events, places, and characters in a story.|
|“And being no stranger to the art of war, I have him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea-fights…”
Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels creates feelings of disgust in readers for the destructive consequences of war, by using words that are unmelodious, harsh, and jarring.
“You’re a big help!” she said with a smile.
“You’re a big help!” she said as she rolled her eyes.
|Literary Devices Set the Mood|
|Motifs as words and phrases can enhance the scene’s or story’s mood:
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth with its fair is foul, and foul is fair that brings to mind the concept of good versus evil, the imagery of red blood and water that cannot wash away the stain that is repeated, and the central literary device in which Lady Macbeth rubs her hands but can’t get them clean.
The sled in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane
The scars borne by Anita Blake and Jean-Claude in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series
The black worn in so many special ops or vampire stories that indicate characters who are bad ass or require stealth
You may want to explore the depth and range of literary devices in the post, “Literary Device“.
|Setting the Mood|
|Consider an abandoned cabin in the woods and a busy city street.
“The river, reflecting the clear blue of the sky, glistened and sparkled as it flowed noiselessly on.”
Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers creates a calm and peaceful mood with idyllic scenery.
The depressing Wuthering Heights:
“There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near all had been extinguished long ago: and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible…”
The calm and peaceful Thrushcross Grange:
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights creates two contrasting moods through two contrasting settings: Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The contrast also enhances the character development of unsophisticated and refined, respectively.
O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years” creates a mood of mystery and secrecy in its setting.
Examples courtesy of Literary Devices.net.
|Theme Can Be Mood|
|In particular, the use of imagery.|
|Create Suspense||Definition: The intense feeling that an audience goes through while waiting for the outcome of certain events, leaving the reader holding their breath and wanting more information — and a necessary condition for suspenseful drama is a lack of important information.|
|The amount of intensity in a suspenseful moment is why it is hard to put a book down. Without suspense, a reader would lose interest quickly in any story because there is nothing that is making the reader ask, “What’s going to happen next?”
In writing, there has to be a series of events that leads to a climax that captivates the audience and makes them tense and anxious to know what is going to happen.
Create that suspense by:
Do NOT, however, trick the reader with a character or clue that was never alluded to before.
Suspense is also a genre.
You hope to find out what happened when the movie, TV show, book is about to end, but are left hanging
Your reader must want to root for this character
Reader Knows More:
Slow down a scene using sensory details to show, not tell
A Great Villain:
|Pace||Definition: Determines how fast or how slow the story moves. A writer can raise a reader’s heart rate, send her flipping pages madly to find out what happens next, soothe his soul, or bore ’em to tears.|
|Mood and emotion are critical in the dialogue, setting, and action.
Pace should vary within the story — give your reader a chance to catch her breath!
Speed it up through fast action with no time between “hits”, little dialogue, few thoughts, and not a lot of description.
Slow it down with lots of detail in describing the scenes, using longer sentences, incorporating longer chapters, throwing in another subplot or fifty-five (just kidding!) will give your reader a chance to catch up.
|Consider the different paces of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love versus Stephen King’s The Shining versus Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Nicolà series.|
|Plot||Definition: The sequence of major events that move the action in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation.
There is a great deal of information on plots, and it has its own post, “Writing: Plot and Its Devices“.
|Story Arc||Definition: Refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story.
Also see the post on “Plot” for greater detail on story arcs.
A.k.a., arc, narrative arc
|Plot Device||Definition: Any technique in a narrative that is well-crafted or that emerges naturally from the setting or characters of the story and is used to move the plot forward.
Also see the post on “Plot” for greater detail on plot devices.
CAUTION: A contrived or arbitrary plot device may annoy or confuse the reader, causing a loss of the suspension of disbelief.
A.k.a., plot mechanism
|Setting||Definition: An environment or surrounding establishing where (physical place) and when (historical time) and under what circumstances (social environment) the story is taking place.|
|You’re likely to have a general setting for the main thrust of the story with lots of specific and individual scenes or events, all of which contribute to action and mood.
Settings are part of the context of story’s action and mood, and they should help highlight the theme:
There are two main types of settings:
|Backdrop Setting||Definition: One that could happen in any setting and is not important for the story.|
|A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series
Tanya Huff’s Gale Women series can take place anywhere
|Integral Setting||Definition: The place and time influences theme, character, and action of a story.
This setting controls the characters by confining them to a particular environment.
|Peter’s behavior in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tail of Peter Rabbit“, is an example of setting influence.
E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
Tanya Huff’s Confederation requires a space setting with its spaceship, a junky looking one that emphasizes the “independence” of the fed-up Torin Kerr and space salvager Craig Ryder.
|Story Continuity||Definition: Particularly necessary in fiction, the author must ensure consistency of the characteristics of people, plot, objects, and places seen by the reader over the period of the story — and follow previously set author rules.
It’s reasonable that any of these things switch up, but there must be a reason for it.
|In one scene, a character adores chocolate, and in another scene, she hates it.
A character is John in one scene, and Jon in another.
Magic works like this, until it suddenly works a different way.
The kingdom is ruled by an elderly woman who suddenly turns into a young teen.
Helen’s hair is red in one scene and blonde in the next.
|Style||Definition: Style applies to anything written and is how a writer uses language to tell a story:|
There are 4 types of style, which distinguish one author from one another:
A.k.a., the story’s voice
This is not the same as narrative technique; see Literary Device instead.
And you should note that style goes through cycles of fashion.
|Barbara Kingsolver‘s style is poetic, blending realism with lyricism and interspersed with humor.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series is intense and richly detailed dramatic fiction.
Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl is richly detailed, flowing, and barely controlled.
Raymond Carver‘s early work is described as sparing and minimalist.
Ernest Hemingway direct and simple style.
Virginia Woolf‘s stream of consciousness style.
|Descriptive Style||Definition: The author focuses on describing an event, a character or a place in detail.|
|Sometimes, descriptive writing style is poetic in nature in, where the author specifies an event, an object or a thing rather than merely giving information about an event that has happened.
Usually the description incorporates sensory details.
|Anything by Patricia McKillip whose descriptions are poetic jewels.
E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake“
William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury
|Expository or Argumentative Style||Definition: A subject-oriented style with the writer’s focus on telling the readers about a specific subject or topic, and in the end, the author leaves out his own opinion about that topic.|
|Textbooks, how-to-manuals, technical documents, and recipes.|
|Narrative Style||Definition: Tells a story with the author creating different characters and telling you what happens to them.
Used in most fiction.
|Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn|
|Persuasive Style||Definition: Aims to persuade and convince the readers through the writer giving reasons and justification to make the readers believe his/her point-of-view.|
|Martin Luther King’s “A Letter from Birmingham Jail“
Jonathan Kozo’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools
|Theme||Definition: The central idea, issue, topic, or point of a story, essay, or narrative. In fiction, theme is what the author is saying about life and how people behave, an idea that is examined.|
|Do not confuse theme with subject. Theme is the opinion expressed about the subject; subject is the topic that is the foundation for a story.
To be a proper story, it must have major ideas (the theme) for the character and reader to experience, think through, and learn from. It may have many major and minor themes, all throughout the story.
There may well be deeper reasons that the story has been written and shared. The author may wish you to draw a conclusion about the issue raised.
Theme answers the question, “What did you learn from this?”
Now combine theme with plot and structure and you have the foundation of the story.
There are two categories of theme:
|The main theme in the play Romeo and Juliet was love with smaller themes of sacrifice, tragedy, struggle, hardship, devotion, and so on.
Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” without understanding that the institution of nineteenth-century marriage robbed Mrs. Mallard of her freedom and identity.
Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” asks several questions: That mothers can try too hard? That oppression leads to oppression? That a parent’s repeated dire predictions have a way of becoming truth?
Donald Barthelme’s City Life: “In the Tolstoy Museum” makes us confront the limitations of traditional processes of establishing meaning and coherence.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World asks if we should live a seemingly better life, at the price of giving up parts of ones humanity.
|Theme Can Be Expressed Through:|
|In fiction, theme comes from the characters, action, and setting that make up the story with the author using general underlying truths for the reader to identify with and be pulled in.
|Reinforce Your Theme By:|
|Repeating patterns and symbols
Using allusions throughout the story
Using details and particulars that may have a greater meaning
|Questions to Ask Yourself|
|Are the ideas limited to members of the group represented by the characters (age, class, race, nationality, dominant culture)?
Are these ideas applicable to general conditions of life?
What values are embodied in the idea?
|Theme Aids in Controlling|
|Your theme is your focus point to ensure you aren’t getting sidetracked into other issues. Although, theme can change as you write, as the story evolves in a direction you hand’t anticipated. Sometimes the theme only appears after you’ve been writing.|
|Thematic Concept||Definition: What readers think the work is about, usually an abstract concept, like love or solitude.|
|A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel.|
|Conflict between the individual and society
Coming of age
Humans in conflict with technology
The dangers of unchecked ambition
Various scenes in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are about loneliness.
|Imagery||Definition: Uses language that reveals what the author or character thinks and feels about what’s happening and is used to create meaning in a story, that appeals to our senses — smell, sight, taste, touch, kinesthetic, or hearing — and the mental and/or emotional disposition of the writer or the narrator to create vivid images in the mind of the reader.|
|You may want to read more about it in “Figure of Speech: Imagery” where you may also find more on “Figure of Speech: Onomatopoeia: and “Figure of Speech: Personification” or “Metaphor“.|
|Be serious, funny, witty, wry, dramatic, solemn, critical, grave, terrifying, sweet, etc.
A character swimming in a pond of warm water, like being in a warm bath is suggesting that the pond is inviting, relaxing, and soothing.
A character swimming in a pond of warm water, like simmering in a pot may want to suggest discomfort or a sense of foreboding.
Repeat a scouring wind to evoke a sense of the emptiness of life
Repeat a buzzing sound to echo your character’s inability to fulfill her obligations
Repeat something organic like a sense of fatigue:
|Motif||Definition: Created through the repetition [for its larger symbolic meaning] of a palpable motif of imagery, structural components, stylistic devices, spoken or written phrases, action such as sound or physical movement, and/or other narrative elements.
Contributes to mood as well.
| Each of the chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses has a moralistic motif.
The flute in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a recurrent sound motif that conveys rural and idyllic notions.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby uses a green light.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth uses a variety of elements to create many motifs including imagery (blood and water is continually repeated); the phrase fair is foul, and foul is fair (mixes the concepts of good and evil); and, sound and physical movement (washing the hands).
|Thematic Statement||Definition: What the work says about the subject in question.|
|The statement is usually a sentence highlighting the argument of the piece of literature and often comments on the way the human condition affects or is affected by the abstract concept of the theme.|
|“The irrationality of human decision-making in times of both war and peace, and the search for the meaning of life in the face of this irrationality.”
The theme of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is stated directly in the title — war and peace.
|Thematic Devices||Definition: A technique that brings depth to a story by showing the reader and pulling him/her into it.|
A.k.a., thematic technique
|Conceit||Definition: A fanciful expression, usually in the form of an extended metaphor or surprising analogy between seemingly dissimilar objects.|
|Irony||Explore it in depth in “Figure of Speech: Irony“|
|Repetition in Narrative||Definition: Repetitive designation is the repeated references to some character or object that appears insignificant when first mentioned, but which reappears later to intrude suddenly on the narrative.|
|Leitwortstil||Definition: Purposefully repeats words that usually express a motif or theme important to the story to compel the reader to grasp its meaning within the story.
A.k.a., key word style
|Formal Patterning||Definition: Organizes events, actions, and gestures and gives shape to a story. It allows your reader the pleasure of anticipating the plot structure as s/he reads, using tropes.
|Tales from the Thousand and One Nights: “The Tale of the Hunchback”|
|Thematic Patterning||Definition: Inserts repetition in a story — vocabulary, repeated gestures, accumulation of descriptive phrases around selected objects — drawing the reader’s attention, using literary devices, thematic concepts, and motifs among various scenes and frames of a story.|
|You might see that you have naturally added two or three pieces to a thematic pattern, but could add a few more for effect. Look for these opportunities to strengthen your theme.
Patterning may be arranged so as to emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea which disparate events and disparate frames have in common.
|Some common thematic ideas include good versus evil, freedom, love, friendship, war, fear…:
Various scenes in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are about loneliness.
|Suspension of Disbelief||Definition: The reader temporarily accepts the story elements as believable, regardless of how implausible they may be in real life.|
|Suspension of disbelief only works to a point. It is important that the story maintains its own form of believability and doesn’t push the limits too far.
Factors to consider, include:
One important area of belief is in human actions and emotion. People must act, react, and interact in ways which are believable. In cases where such interactions do require suspension of disbelief, the normal rules of consistency apply. Readers are very unforgiving if they think a character is behaving in an unbelievable fashion.
It is a literary element commonly used in fantasy, paranormal, action, science fiction, comedy, horror genres.
A.k.a., willing suspension of disbelief
|There are many things about the Star Trek universe which are basically impossible in the real world, but because Star Trek makes an effort to work consistently within its own universe, the stories become believable — as long as you’re willing to accept that the galaxy is mostly populated by humanoids, then there is nothing within the series that will break the believability.
Magic acts or circus sideshow acts don’t expected to actually believe that a woman is cut in half or transforms into a gorilla in order to enjoy the performance.
Resources for Literary Elements
Elements of Literature is excellent with short succinct definitions.
Our English Class has some handy lists for words that indicate mood or tone.
David Pinault’s Story-telling Techniques in The Arabian Nights (1992).
Richard Nordquist’s post, “101 Common Book Themes“, is a long list of examples of subjects and motifs that appear in popular literature.