The Formal Elements of Fiction
Active reading involves reading a text and analyzing its features to determine its potential meanings. A common approach to analyzing short fiction is to focus on five basic elements: plot , character , setting ,conflict , and theme .
The plot of a work of fiction is the series of events and character actions that relate to the central conflict. A character is a person, or perhaps an animal, who participates in the action of the story. The settingof a piece of fiction is the time and place in which the events happen, including the landscape, scenery, buildings, seasons, or weather. The conflict is a struggle between two people or things in a short story. The main character is usually on one side of the central conflict. The theme is the central idea or issue conveyed by the story. These five basic elements combine to form what might be called the overallnarrative of story. In the next section, we will discuss the narrative arc of fiction in more detail.
Below are the formal elements of fiction and questions that will help you to read texts actively.
Questions for Active Reading:
- How does the text present the passing of time?
- Does it present time in a chronological way?
- Or does it present the event in a non-chronological way?
- What verb tenses are used? (i.e. past, present, future)
- How are the characters described?
- Do the characters talk in unique or peculiar ways?
- Are the names of the characters important or meaningful?
- What kind of conflicts emerge between the characters?
- When and where does the story seem to take place?
- Is there anything important or meaningful in regards to the time of day or time of year the story seems to take place?
- Is there any significance to the atmospheric, environmental, or weather events that take place?
- What problem or issue serves as the story’s focus?
- Is the conflict an explicit one between the story’s characters?
- Or is there a larger question or concern that is implied through the story’s narration?
- What is the relationship between the title of the story and the text?
- What main issue or idea does the story address? (1)
The narrative arc — or dramatic structure — of a story may be divided into several phases of development. One traditional method of the analysis of fiction involves identifying five major stages of the development of the plot. The five major stages are known as the exposition (or introduction), the rising action (sometimes referred to as complicating action), the climax (or turning point), the falling action , and the denouement (or resolution).
The exposition of a story introduces characters’ backstory and key information about the setting. With this foundation laid, the dramatic tension then builds, thus creating the rising action of the story through a series of related events that complicate and exacerbate the major conflicts of the story. The turning point of the story occurs at the climax that typically changes the main character’s fate or reveals how the conflict will move toward resolution, either favorably or perhaps tragically. The falling action works to unravel the tension at the core of the major conflict or conflicts in the story and between the characters, although it may include one last twist that impacts the resolution of events. Denouement is derived from the Old French word desnouer (“to untie”); the term suggests that the knot of conflict generating the tension in the story at last is loosened. Of course, not every aspect of the conflict may be resolved or may be resolved to the satisfaction of the reader. Indeed, in some stories, the author may intend that the reader should be left to weigh the validity or even the morality of further outcomes.
While these five stages of dramatic structure are very helpful in analyzing fiction, they can be applied too strictly making a story seem like one linear series of events in straight chronological order. Some of the most engaging and well-crafted works of fiction break or interrupt the linear structure of events, perhaps through the manipulation of time (as in the use of flashback or flash forward ) or through the inclusion of an extended interior monologue (a digression into the interior thoughts, memories, and/or feelings of a particular character). Therefore, readers should be careful not to simplify the plot of a story into an ordered, numerical list of events.
The terms protagonist (main character, or hero/heroine) and antagonist (anti-hero/ine) can be helpful in highlighting the roles of the major characters in a story. The story also may unfold through a particularpoint-of-view , or even through alternating points-of-view. The two most utilized narrative perspectives to consider are first-person point-of-view where the protagonist narrates the story from the voice of “I,” and third-person point-of-view , or omniscient point-of-view, where the narrative refers to each character as “he,” “she,” or “it” thus offering a more distanced perspective on events.
Readers may be persuaded, or not, of a narrative’s credibility through point-of-view(s) and/or the presentation of the persona of the narrator (if there is one). A persona is the role that one assumes or displays in public; in literature, it is the presented face or speaking voice of a character. Credibility is the quality of being believed, convincing, or trustworthy. When the credibility of a text is called into question, perhaps as a result of conflicting accounts of events, or detected bias in a point-of-view, the text is said to have an unreliable narrator . Sometimes authors choose to intentionally create an unreliable narrator either to raise suspense, obscure their own position on a subject, or as a means of critiquing a particular cultural or social perspective.
Additionally, to analyze a short story more closely, as in poetry, students may also pay attention to the use of figurative language . Figurative language, such as the use of imagery and symbol can be especially significant in fiction. What brings value to one’s analysis is the critical thought that prioritizes which of these many formal elements is most significant to communicating the meaning of the story and connects how these formal elements work together to form the unique whole of a given fictional work. (1)