This is the fourth entry in my series on “Reforming Perspectives on Literature: Becoming Discerning Readers.” Earlier entries have defined some terms, looked at reasons why we need to be reforming our perspectives, and discussed “The Four Rs” of becoming more discerning readers.
This entry will examine some of the most basic elements of fiction and briefly look at a few literary techniques. Much could be said about elements of fiction and literary techniques, but this will be only a selective glimpse. Please do not consider it an exhaustive overview; consider it instead a limited introduction.
The elements of fiction that we will examine are: Style, Dialogue, Description, Characters, and Plot. Let’s begin by discussing Style.
Style is the way in which a work is written. Some authors use a lyrical, almost poetical style and some use a terse, minimalist style. I recently read Island of the World by Michael O’Brien, which weaves horrific suffering with incredible beauty in a lyrical style. This is a wonderfully appropriate style for the book since it is written in the third person omniscient point of view from the perspective of a person who becomes a poet. Ernest Hemingway is a well-known minimalist who sometimes is credited with establishing the style in American literature. If you read his work, you may notice little description and short sentences (some only three words long). His short story Hills Like White Elephants is a good example of his minimalist style.
I find it fascinating to think that Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen were contemporaries; they were born only four years apart and lived and wrote during the same time frame. Yet their styles are almost polar opposites. Scott begins The Heart of Midlothian with an elaborately contrived double narrator device and doesn’t begin the actual story until Chapter 2. Even that chapter is prefaced by an epigraph of obscure poetry. An epigraph is a quotation, set in block, above the text that begins a chapter. Scott is the first author to regularly employ the epigraph. If you were listening to me give this presentation, I would read the first paragraph of Chapter 2 to demonstrate Scott’s style, but you’ll have to settle for reading it yourself:
In former times, England had her Tyburn, to which the devoted victims of justice were conducted in solemn procession up what is now called Oxford-Road. In Edinburgh, a large open street, or rather oblong square, surrounded by high houses, called the Grassmarket, was used for the same melancholy purpose. It was not ill chosen for such a scene, being of considerable extent, and therefore fit to accommodate a great number of spectators, such as are usually assembled by this melancholy spectacle. On the other hand, few of the houses which surround it were, even in early times, inhabited by persons of fashion; so that those likely to be offended or over deeply affected by such unpleasant exhibitions were not in the way of having their quiet disturbed by them. The houses in the Grassmarket are, generally speaking, of a mean description; yet the place is not without some features of grandeur, being overhung by the southern side of the huge rock on which the castle stands, and by the moss-grown battlements and turreted walls of that ancient fortress.
Constrast that to the first paragraph of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Scott’s paragraph drones on and on, even repeating an adjective in the phrases “melancholy purpose” and “melancholy spectacle.” All we learn about the plot of the book is that it is probably going to involve a public execution in Edinburgh.
Austen’s one-sentence paragraph is succint and packed with information. We can guess that this will be a lively tale about a young man of fortune being pursued with the purpose of matrimony. That first sentence is also a masterpiece of satire.
It’s my favorite opening line of Austen’s work and is followed by some wonderful dialogue
, which I think is Austen’s greatest strength. Mrs. Bennett is eager for her husband to meet their new neighbor because she is hoping he will marry one of her five daughters. Mr. Bennett appears less than eager to rush off and visit the young man. I wish I could read the entire exhange to you, but here’s how it concludes:
“Mr. Bennett, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
Good dialogue propels the plot and fleshes out characters. In my opinion, dialogue and description are two crucial elements in making a story come alive.
Good descriptions can be works of art. They enliven the setting and convey important information about the characters.
Marilynne Robinson writes some beautiful descriptions in Gilead. Here’s how the pastor narrator describes one of the bubbles his son is blowing: “I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst” (p. 9). The entire paragraph is a well-crafted description that not only pictures the scene, but also conveys how the narrator feels about his wife and child.
Charles Dickens is a master of description. This is one of my favorite scene descriptions from Great Expectations: “It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief” (Chapter 3).
Dickens utilizes description to great advantage in character development. The character Wemmick, for example, has a “post-office” mouth that only appears to be smiling. His post-office slot relaxes when he is at home with his “aged relative” (his father), but becomes more and more fixed as he walks from his home toward his place of employment. Without telling the reader about Wemmick’s feelings and his attitude, Dickens is showing a great deal of information about this character.
Believable characters draw us into a novel. Characters should not be too good or totally evil. They should not be stereotypes or flat one-dimensional characters who seem like paper dolls, but well-rounded characters who seem like real people; characters about whom the reader cares.
Great Expectations is also a masterpiece of plotting. A plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should involve some type of conflict. A plot is the way the story is constructed, but it isn’t necessarily the same as the chronological story.
Charles Martin, for example, uses flashbacks to go between the present and the past as the narrative gradually unfolds. Part of the fun of reading his work is figuring out what is going on. Why does Reese (the main character in When Crickets Cry) want to avoid people by sneaking into town? How does he know what the scar on the little girl’s chest means? And what does that scar mean?
Plot is probably a concept with which most readers are already familiar, so I’ll simply share a few fun quotes about it.
Gene Edward Veith Jr. has a great explanation of plot in his Reading Between the Lines:
A story, of course, needs a plot; something has to happen. A plot is not just random action. First of all, a plot will almost always involve some sort of conflict. Every story will hinge upon a struggle, a problem, or a battle of contending forces or ideas. I used to put off my children’s requests for a bedtime story by saying, “Once upon a time, there was a little boy and little girl who lived in a castle in the deep woods. And they lived happily ever after.” My children, astute literary critics at an early age, rightly complained, “That’s not a story! Tell us a story.” When I would bring a monster into the castle, or a wicked stepmother, or sibling rivalry, or some sort of difficulty that the characters would have to overcome, then we would have a story” (p. 64).
One of my favorite British authors from the Victorian era is Anthony Trollope. I often refer to him as my hero because he worked full time for the British postal service, but woke early and wrote at least 200 words before beginning work each day. One time while caught in dreadful seas while sailing on the Mediterranean, he became ill. Still he wrote in his manuscript in the salon, left to be sick in his state room, and returned to the salon to write more in his manuscript. Since I rise early and accomplish my best work before 8:00 am, I feel an affinity with Trollope’s mornings; but I am pretty sure I would be lying on my bed in my state room feeling sorry for myself if I were on a similar voyage.
In Barchester Towers (my favorite of his Barchester Chronicles), Trollope takes some authorial liberties by making some comments about the plot. Near the beginning of his third to last chapter, he writes at some length about the author’s task to construct a pleasing plot in a prescribed number of pages. He says, “Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgelling my brains to find them?” (p. 481). He begins his last chapter (appropriately, if not too creatively, entitled “Conclusion”): “The end of a novel, like the end of a children’s dinner-party, must be made up of sweetmeats and sugar-plums” (p. 495).
Having examined some basic elements of fiction, let’s briefly look at some literary techniques. One of the best things for helping me appreciate well-written prose was the method of learning in my first creative writing class. My instructor said, “We’re going to study poetry first because I think learning about poetry will make you a better writer of prose.”
I was a bit skeptical when he said that, but now I definitely believe that was a great way to learn. Looking in poetry for techniques such as assonance and consonance, connotation and denotation, and a host of others, helped me recognize and appreciate the way prose authors utilize such techniques.
There are dozens of techniques that could be discussed, but this post will examine only some of the more interesting and unusual.
Readers are probably familiar with alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds, as in the repeated “f” sounds in this bit of dialogue by Lynn Austen:
“I’m certain you’ll agree that this is a magnificent foyer,” Bettina said in a phony, fawning voice” (Until We Reach Home, p. 256).
While alliteration is confined to initial sounds and can be either repeated vowel or consonant sounds, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds that can appear anywhere in the words. Note the repeated long “i” sound in this line:
In icy skies an eagle flies (“As Eagles Fly” by Glenda Mathes).
Consonance is similar to assonance, but it is repetition of consonant sounds anywhere in the words. Look, for example, at the instances of the “s” sound in these famous words from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Another poem by Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” serves as a great illustration of the difference between connotation and denotation. Denotation is a word’s dictionary meaning, while connatation is when a word is used in a way beyond its dictionary meaning. Look at these lines:
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
The obvious meaning is that the two neighbors meet to walk on either side of a physical wall. The less obvious meaning is that there is an emotional barrier between the two.
Two rather unusual terms are metonymy and synecdoche. Metonymy means substituting a closely related term for an object or idea. And example is from Genesis 3:19a, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” The “sweat of your face” represents Adam’s toil or labor. He (and every man since) will have to work hard to put bread on the table.
Synecdoche is similar, but subtly different. Synecdoche is substituting a part for the whole. I love this example from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas
The “pair of ragged claws” is only part of the crab that is represented by the imagery.
We’ll bring this lengthy post to an end with a couple of fun techniques. A pun is a play on words involving two similarly sounding words with different meanings. A great examples is the title of a play by Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest. The plot hinges on the situation comedy revolving around the importance two young women ascribe to the name Ernest and the importance of being honest and open.
Charles Dickens and Great Expectations provide a great example for our final literary technique: personification, which is attributing human characteristics to animals, things, or ideas. Here’s how Dickens described the opening of a day: “…the day came creeping on, halting and whimpering and shivering, and wrapped in patches of cloud and rags of mist, like a beggar (p. 354).
Tomorrow we’ll look at avenues for further exploration about “Becoming Discerning Readers.”
Thanks for reading!