Tag Archives: literary criticism

The Elements of Story

Every once in a while someone will publish or share a definitive “List of Plots,” which makes the construction of fiction seem like a paint-by-numbers affair. I would like to open up a discussion on story-telling that sees the making of narratives as a complex process which is not only a combination of elements, but a creative act that can be aware of formal structures without being claustrophobically constrained to a list of prescriptive rules.

An easy way of seeing what a fiction is built of is by investigating how “genre” is attached to fictional works. I see genre being attached to these five aspects of a story:

* Genres which describe a setting
* Genres which describe a plot
* Genres which describe a character-role (this is the funky one)
* Genres which describe a style
* Genres which describe a type of sense-making

Setting is perhaps the easiest way to classify works of fiction. Signifiers such as “Fantasy” or “Urban Fantasy” or “Science Fiction” describe a certain range of elements which form the background of a fiction. These elements are attached to a sense of the time of the story. A Fantasy book tends to take place in a time prior to ours, and a Science Fiction tends to take place in a time more advanced than ours. When a writer is establishing this background it is usually called “world building.” What they are building are the rules of the world, the behavior patterns of the characters and consequences for actions. In works that are aspiring to be epic, the plot of the book (or series) usually has something to do with changing these rules. A more “novelistic” writer (and there’s probably a better word to use) will usually focus on how a character comes to terms with these rules, how these rules shape them, and how these rules contradict their character. When a writer wants to “make a new genre” they might end up simply mixing elements from different settings, and the fact that the rules of these settings are interchangeable is very useful to keep in mind, as it opens up to the writer a wealth of possibility, in their work.

Plot is not usually used to describe genre anymore, but there are certain generally accepted patterns that shape the reading experience, and that we use to classify what happens in the book. For example, a tragedy has a certain arc, and a comedy has another. When a writer is constructing (or inventing) the plot, it is often recommended that they place their characters in difficulties and then allow their characters to get out of these difficulties. I want to tweak that advice a bit by redescribing what a plot is. The plot is the “channel” of events that carries the attention of the reader along to the end of the story. In order to maintain a reader’s attention, we need to engage their interest and their excitement (their intellect and their passions). The way to maintain this engagement is not just through conflict, but essentially by modulating (changing) the intensity of the happening. This intensity is felt by the reader because they are attached to the outcome——they are attached to the outcome through the character. While we can talk about character and plot as though they are two different things, I personally believe you can’t have one with out the other, so that I define

Character as the “vessel” that the reader’s attention is situated in, during the twists and turns of the channel of plot. Characters can be classified in a general sense by certain traits and certain behaviors and certain relations to other characters. In simple literature (simple is not meant to be derogatory) we have heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys, pro- and an-tagonists. They are the ones we “tag-along” with :), and we love them and hate them depending on our own values. Needless to say, character is what we take personally about the story, and while a writer can construct the most fabulous settings and the most ingenious reversals of plot, in is in the reader’s experience of the character that I believe is found the power to effect how the reader sees the world. This (like everything else I’m saying) is entirely debatable—and not meant to be a negative judgment, but an assertion of what is valuable in stories.

Style is the bastard of all literary advice. It has sooooooo much to do with personal taste, and at the same time everyone thinks they know what’s best. I think if you look at the history of literature you will see the oscillation between terse styles and more lyrical or ornate styles—but I’d like to reframe the conception of style to make it more variable and open for experimentation. Instead of “style” let’s call it “voice.” In every single fictional narrative there are at least two voices: the narrator’s voice and the character’s voice. The narrator’s voice can be (carefully, tentatively) thought of as the “objective” voice: the lens through which the action and the setting are conveyed. The character voice is more “subjective”—which means to say expressive and evocative. When people get annoyed with style, I think it has to do with them feeling it is in the way of their experience of the text, and what they value in reading the text. Writers do not necessarily need to aim for concision and clarity of style above everything else, but rather be aware of when they are frustrating the reader’s connection to the happening of the story. When done artfully, the expressive voice can describe states of thinking and feeling that are not necessarily, or rather not directly conveyable by direct prose. Your milage may vary, but don’t stop experimenting with your language just because it’s considered “bad form” to do anything but the bare minimum. Style is another aspect of story-making that is infinitely variable—though the thing about experiementation is that we find a whole lot of shit that simply doesn’t work.

Sense-making is also highly subjective, and hotly contested. Too much intentional meaning will turn the story into a fable with a neat little moral at the end. Allegory, too, is a genre that is defined by the way that a story is making sense. And when we ask “what does this story mean?” we usually want the writer to give us enough to go on to reach our own conclusions. I will cut short this last paragraph by saying: A text’s significance is as important for the author to mold as its other aspects—it is as open to refinement and complication as its style, character, plot, and setting. A certain amount of authorial energy needs to be expended on crafting a meaning that is as surprising and subtle as the story’s other aspects—because meaning isn’t some quality inherent in the text, it is the text’s ablility to be used to make sense of other things.

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Critical Readership

In response to “What are some techniques to help me read critically?”

Read sitting up, not leaning back.

Read with a pen in hand, and point its tip toward the page, as if it's a knife, ready to cut.

Read with your mouth; read aloud sentences that might have rhythmic qualities.

Read Nietzsche or another philosopher who requires two or three passes over a passage, to fully grokk.

Read angry, filled with bile and disappointment.

Read as if the house is on fire. Read as if this text is a link to your mysterious past.