Fiction Terms

George Hartley’s Glossary of Fiction Terms

Allegory

A symbolic narrative in which the surface details imply a secondary meaning. Allegory often takes the form of a story in which the characters represent moral qualities. The most famous example in English is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the name of the central character, Pilgrim, epitomizes the book’s allegorical nature. Kay Boyle’s story “Astronomer’s Wife” and Christina Rossetti’s poem “Up-Hill” both contain allegorical elements.

Allusion

A reference in a literary work to a person, place, or thing in history or another work of literature.

Antagonist

A character or force against which another character struggles. Creon is Antigone’s antagonist in Sophocles’ play Antigone; Teiresias is the antagonist of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

Character

An imaginary person that inhabits a literary work. Literary characters may be major or minor, static (unchanging) or dynamic (capable of change).

Characterization

The means by which writers present and reveal character. Although techniques of characterization are complex, writers typically reveal characters through their speech, dress, manner, and actions.

Climax

The turning point of the action in the plot of a play or story. The climax represents the point of greatest tension in the work.

Complication

An intensification of the conflict in a story or play. Complication builds up, accumulates, and develops the primary or central conflict in a literary work.

Conflict

A struggle between opposing forces in a story or play, usually resolved by the end of the work. The conflict may occur within a character as well as between characters.

Convention

A customary feature of a literary work, such as the use of a chorus in Greek tragedy, the inclusion of an explicit moral in a fable, or the use of a particular rhyme scheme in a villanelle. Literary conventions are defining features of particular literary genres, such as novel, short story, ballad, sonnet, and play.

Dénouement

The resolution of the plot of a literary work.

Dialogue

The conversation of characters in a literary work. In fiction, dialogue is typically enclosed within quotation marks. In plays, characters’ speech is preceded by their names.

Diction

The selection of words in a literary work. A work’s diction forms one of its centrally important literary elements, as writers use words to convey action, reveal character, imply attitudes, identify themes, and suggest values.

Dramatic irony

Where the audience or reader is aware of something important, of which the characters in the story are not aware.

Exposition

The first stage of a fictional or dramatic plot, in which necessary background information is provided.

Falling action

In the plot of a story or play, the action following the climax of the work that moves it towards its denouement or resolution.

Fiction

An imagined story, whether in prose, poetry, or drama. Ibsen’s Nora is fictional, a “make-believe” character in a play, as are Hamlet and Othello. Characters like Robert Browning’s Duke and Duchess from his poem “My Last Duchess” are fictional as well, though they may be based on actual historical individuals. And, of course, characters in stories and novels are fictional, though they, too, may be based, in some way, on real people. The important thing to remember is that writers embellish and embroider and alter actual life when they use real life as the basis for their work. They fictionalize facts, and deviate from real-life situations as they “make things up.”

Figurative language

A form of language use in which writers and speakers convey something other than the literal meaning of their words. Examples include hyperbole or exaggeration, litotes or understatement, simile and metaphor, which employ comparison, and synecdoche and metonymy, in which a part of a thing stands for the whole.

Flashback

An interruption of a work’s chronology to describe or present an incident that occurred prior to the main time frame of a work’s action. Writers use flashbacks to complicate the sense of chronology in the plot of their works and to convey the richness of the experience of human time.

Flat Character

Someone who is characterized by one or two traits. “Flat” and “round” were terms first proposed by E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel and they are often misapplied by modern critics. Flat is especially corrupted when used as a synonym for cardboard; in Forster’s usage, flat is not a derogatory term. Rather, it describes a character who can be summed up in a sentence. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful character who is absolutely flat in that his character is determined by his obsession with the recovery of the ring, “his precious.” Every story needs some flat characters and many successful stories, for instance Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, have nothing but flat characters.

Foil

A character who contrasts and parallels the main character in a play or story. Laertes, in Hamlet, is a foil for the main character; in Othello, Emilia and Bianca are foils for Desdemona.

Foreshadowing

Where future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before they happen. Foreshadowing can take many forms and be accomplished in many ways, with varying degrees of subtlety. However, if the outcome is deliberately and explicitly revealed early in a story (such as by the use of a narrator or flashback structure), such information does not constitute foreshadow.

Freytag’s Pyramid

A way to analyze a plot that consists of five elements in an ascending and descending manner. In the exposition, the plot, characters, and complication are introduced. The complication marks the beginning of the action, something happens to begin the action, usually single event that signals the beginning of the main conflict. This leads to the rising action, or the events that lead to the climax of the plot. At the point of highest dramatic tension, or at a major turning point in the plot, the audience finds the climax. This decisive moment in the narrative is when the rising action is reversed to falling action. The falling action, then, is made up of the events that follow the climax and lead to the dénouement. The final outcome, result, or unraveling of the main dramatic complication is called the dénouement. The dénouement may involve a reversal in the protagonist’s fortunes, usually as the result of a discovery (recognition of something of great importance previously unknown) by the protagonist. (Go to Freytag’s Pyramid page.)

Image

A concrete representation of a sense impression, a feeling, or an idea. Imagery refers to the pattern of related details in a work. In some works one image predominates either by recurring throughout the work or by appearing at a critical point in the plot. Often writers use multiple images throughout a work to suggest states of feeling and to convey implications of thought and action. Some modern poets, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, write poems that lack discursive explanation entirely and include only images. Among the most famous examples is Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Imagery

The pattern of related comparative aspects of language, particularly of images, in a literary work. Imagery of light and darkness pervade James Joyce’s stories “Araby,” “The Boarding House,” and “The Dead.” So, too, does religious imagery.

Irony

A contrast or discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what happens and what is expected to happen in life and in literature. In verbal irony, characters say the opposite of what they mean. In irony of circumstance or situation, the opposite of what is expected occurs. In dramatic irony, a character speaks in ignorance of a situation or event known to the audience or to the other characters.

Metaphor

A comparison between essentially unlike things without an explicitly comparative word such as like or as. An example is “My love is a red, red rose.”

Mood

The atmosphere or emotional condition created by the piece, within the setting.

Motif

A recurring object, concept, or structure in a work of literature.

Narrative

A collection of events that tells a story, which may be true or not, placed in a particular order and recounted through either telling or writing.

Narrator

The voice and implied speaker of a fictional work, to be distinguished from the actual living author. See also Point of view.

In literature and film, an unreliable narrator is a literary device in which the credibility of the narrator is seriously compromised. This unreliability can be due to psychological instability, a powerful bias, a lack of knowledge, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.

Personification

The endowment of inanimate objects or abstract concepts with animate or living qualities. An example: “The yellow leaves flaunted their color gaily in the breeze.”

Plot

The unified structure of incidents in a literary work. See Conflict, Climax, Denouement, and Flashback. [Abrams]

Point of view

The angle of vision from which a story is narrated. See Narrator. A work’s point of view can be: first person, in which the narrator is a character or an observer, respectively; objective, in which the narrator knows or appears to know no more than the reader; omniscient, in which the narrator knows everything about the characters; and limited omniscient, which allows the narrator to know some things about the characters but not everything.

Protagonist

The main character of a literary work–Hamlet and Othello in the plays named after them, Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Paul in Lawrence’s “Rocking-Horse Winner.”

Recognition

The point at which a character understands his or her situation as it really is. Sophocles’ Oedipus comes to this point near the end of Oedipus the King; Othello comes to a similar understanding of his situation in Act V of Othello.

Resolution

The sorting out or unraveling of a plot at the end of a play, novel, or story. See Plot.

Reversal

The point at which the action of the plot turns in an unexpected direction for the protagonist. Oedipus’s and Othello’s recognitions are also reversals. They learn what they did not expect to learn. See Recognition and also Irony.

Rising action

A set of conflicts and crises that constitute the part of a play’s or story’s plot leading up to the climax. See Climax, Denouement, and Plot.

Round Character

One who is complex and perhaps even contradictory. E. M. Forster (see Flat Characters) put it succinctly, “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” If a flat character can be summed up in a sentence or two, a round character would probably take an essay. For example, Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the of Ursula Le Guin’s many round characters.

Setting

The time and place of a literary work that establish its context. The stories of Sandra Cisneros are set in the American southwest in the mid to late 20th century, those of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland in the early 20th century. (Go to Setting page.)

Style

The way an author chooses words, arranges them in sentences or in lines of dialogue or verse, and develops ideas and actions with description, imagery, and other literary techniques. See Connotation, Denotation, Diction, Figurative language, Image, Imagery, Irony, Metaphor, Narrator, Point of view, Syntax, and Tone.

Subject

What a story or play is about; to be distinguished from plot and theme. Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is about the decline of a particular way of life endemic to the American south before the civil war. Its plot concerns how Faulkner describes and organizes the actions of the story’s characters. Its theme is the overall meaning Faulkner conveys.

Subplot

A subsidiary or subordinate or parallel plot in a play or story that coexists with the main plot. The story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern forms a subplot with the overall plot of Hamlet.

Symbol

An object or action in a literary work that means more than itself, that stands for something beyond itself.

Theme

The idea of a literary work abstracted from its details of language, character, and action, and cast in the form of a generalization

Tone

The implied attitude of a writer toward the subject and characters of a work. See Irony.

Tragic hero/tragic figure

A protagonist who comes to a bad end as a result of his own behavior, usually cased by a specific personality disorder or character flaw.