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Literary Terms

Elements of the Short Story

Plot: Many refer to this as “the action” of the story. Essentially, the plot is composed of the things that literally “happen” in a story. This could be actions committed by different characters to themselves or each other, or outside forces that commit acts upon the characters (e.g., a rain storm that occurs while a couple is camping). In many cases, (although there has been a great deal of experimentation in this respect), the plot can be further broken down into (1) the setup of the story, which might involve background exposition, (2) the story’s rising action, the actions and events which lead up to (3) the climax of the story, when the conflict is pushed to its most terse moment, (4) the falling action, in which a series of events and actions start to move toward a sense of (5) resolution.

Setting: The locations in space and time in which a story is set. The setting could be as broad as a country or city, but is complexified by when it is set in history (London in 1540, in very different from London in 1960). Setting can also be informed by political, social, cultural, or economic issues that define the physical location. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is set in the political historical context of the aftermath of World War I, and this context is as relevant as its geographical location. A setting can also be as specific as a house (or single room in a house), or a distinct natural environment.

Character: The figures in the story, both human and non-human, which experience and influence the plot of the story, and affect one another with their actions or presence.

Characterization: The way in which the different characters are presented in a text. Characterization ranges from the concrete information and/or physical descriptions through which the narrator renders the character (“a fat, perpetually tired-looking old man”; “a bright-eyed little girl, curious and cautious as a cat”), to the way in which characters commit actions or interact with one another (“Edgar darted his eyes about uncertainly before finally answering the question”; Margaret smiled with a sense of good-natured self-assurance, took a deep breath, and began the defense of her argument”).

Conflict: The driving force of the story that proposes a problem, issue, void, or injustice which begs resolution before the story’s end. Conflict has conventionally been understood through three main sub-conflicts: Human versus Human (this could be between characters or a character against their society), Human versus Nature, or Human versus Themself, although these distinctions should be kept in mind with regards to non-human characters as well.

Narrator: The figure through which the story is told. The narrator determines what information the reader is privy to as well as how elements of the story are explicated/presented. Narrative point-of-view can be further categorized by first person, second person, third period, omniscient, limited, and several other viewpoints through which a reader understands a text.

Climax: The moment in a text in which the rising action reaches its peak, and the problem, void, or main issue of the story reaches its most loaded and terse point. Following the climax, the plot often begins a sequence of falling action, although the climax of the short story may often arrive in its final scene.

Theme: The larger commentary, discussion, message or idea at play within a text. A single text may draw on several themes or a deeply consider a single theme.

Entry Points for Critical Analysis: Literary Devices

Genre: (1) The form of a text (short story, novel, poem, letter, diary entry, etc.), (2) the literary tradition to which a text belongs (modernism, postmodernism, realism, surrealism, magical realism, satire, parody, etc.)

Narrative Positioning/Point of View: The narrator’s lens and perspective through which a reader understands a text. Point of view is a major factor in a reader’s understanding of a text’s characters, plot, themes, setting, etc. For example, are we to read a story through the point of view of an “unreliable narrator,” a reader must constantly question the way the world of the story is rendered. A first-person-limited narrator is privy to limited information and is therefore biased, whereas a third person omniscient narrator often offers a more neutral lens through which a reader understands a story.

Voice: The way in which the narrator describes components of a text in positive, negative or neutral light, which in turn suggests insight as to their attitude toward the subject matter they narrate. A voice may be cynical, sarcastic, sympathetic, formal, casual, poetic, or many other qualities.

Mood: The atmosphere of the story, the quality of air that affects our perception of the plot and characters. A text’s narrator may create a mood of foreboding, a mood of light heartedness or playfulness, and this dramatically affects how we interact with a text.

Diction: The literal words that the writer chooses to narrate the story, that often create a sense of mood, voice and tone. Analysis of word-choice (diction) may involve, for example, questioning if the words used in the story are verbose and complicated indicating a more formal voice, or if they are simple, informal, and conversational, indicating a more casual tone.

Dialogue: The specific words spoken by the characters in a text.

Imagery: The words that describe the story through the senses, and often develop the mood of the story, indicate the narrator’s attitude, and contribute to the thematic aims of a text.

Figurative language: The words and phrases used to describe an element of a text in a non-literal or metaphoric way. The main subcategories of figurative language include simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification, synecdoche, metonymy, periphrasis, and oxymoron.

Motif: A literary construction whereby a concept, image, or subject recurs throughout a text as a means to develop the text’s themes.

Symbol: Most often, a concrete or physical entity in a text which represents something greater than itself, and often a more abstract concept (e.g., a wedding ring symbolizing eternal love and commitment; a doll representing childhood; a medal symbolizing bravery).

Allusion: A reference in a text to something outside the direct story, often which exists in a real-world context. Allusions can include references to historical events (e.g., the Battle of Vimy Ridge; the Great Depression), to historical figures (e.g., politicians, writers, artists) or works of art (ancient mythologies, legends, fairytales, paintings, novels, biblical passages, poems, plays, etc.).

Literary Styles, Approaches, and Techniques

Humour: The use of a stylistic elements to create a sense of comic appeal or a dynamic comedic interplay between text and reader.

Irony: A comic device that plays with contradictions, opposites, and contrasts to achieve a sense of humour or absurdity. Irony can be achieved in a multiplicity of forms, for example, via words connoting something that is in contradiction or opposition to their conventional meaning (verbal irony), or when an action/event creates unexpected results (situational irony). Dramatic irony, on the other hand, is a narrative strategy in which the reader is aware of key information that the characters themselves do not know.

Allegory: When the overall plot, events and characters of a text acts as symbols for a more complex story, often involving a political, economic or cultural message.

Parable: A text in which the storyline is designed to teach a moral or ethical lesson.

Fable: Similar to the parable, the fable uses a storyline to teach a moral or ethical lesson, but often personifies animals or inanimate objects as the main characters.

Archetype: When used in a literary context, archetype refers to a universal story, character or event that has recurred across different cultures throughout history (e.g., characters: the hero, the mother, the patriarch, the scapegoat; events: the journey, the fall from grace, the triumph of return).

Intertextuality: The reference to another writer, text, or fictional character within a separate text.

Satire: A comic device which employs irony and/or sarcasm to ridicule vice or foolishness in a humourous way.

Parody: A hyperbolic or satirical representation of a pre-existing character, event, or story which achieves comedic effects.