Plot is the ordered sequence of events in the narrative of a short story, novel, drama, or narrative poem. (The word “plot” is probably derived from a word in medieval English that meant “ground-plan.”) The three major elements of plot are exposition, conflict, and climax. Most plots are ordered chronologically, but some stories make use of flashbacks, recalling past events.
Setting is the time and place in which a story takes place. A detailed and convincing setting is a key element to a successful story. Believable characters and events rely on an accurate setting. A successful setting is more than just a “photographic” reproduction of places, costumes, houses, etc. A crucial component of setting is the atmosphere of the story, the prevailing emotional mood, based on the events of the plot, and the times in which they take place.
The Exposition (exposition = setting + situation)
When readers begin a story, they look for the answers to four questions: Who are the people? Where are they? When is the story taking place? What is the basic situation, or starting point, of the story? The answers to these questions make up the exposition. It is the writer’s task to supply this information as quickly and naturally as possible. The exposition, however, does not necessarily come in one block at the beginning. Sometimes clues are given through the dialogue, sometimes through the use of a single sentence here and there, or even a single adjective or clause. In many nineteenth-century short stories, the writer often seemed to pause at the beginning and say, “Now, reader, here are the things you need to know before getting into this story.” In contemporary writing, the author usually tries to provide exposition so quickly and casually that the reader is not conscious of it.
Stories, novels, and other types of literature are built around a conflict, a struggle between two or more opposing forces. An exciting conflict interests or “grabs” readers and inspires them to read on to find out if, and how, the conflict will be resolved. There are three general types of conflict in literature, those between people, those between a person and nature, or a set of circumstances, and finally, an inner conflict between two or more instincts, emotions, or values in one person. There is usually more than one conflict in a story, but there is always one major conflict to which the others contribute.
Foreshadowing is any information that hints at future developments while, the story is in progress.
Whatever the nature of the major conflict in a story, the two opposing forces inevitable progress to a point where one must win and the other must lose. This point is the climax. It is the moment when the conflict must turn toward a solution. Since the outcome, or resolution, of the conflict is uncertain, the climax is often the highest point of interest. A good author will provide two or more plausible outcomes, leaving the reader guessing as to what will happen.
Or resolution is the concluding section to a story. This section explains the resolution and explores its effects on the characters. (The term “dénouement” comes from French, meaning “to unravel”.)
A Surprise Ending
In a surprise ending, the reader does not expect the resolution that comes; in fact, the author may have deliberately sidetracked the reader. In stories with successful surprise endings, however, we can still look back and see that the ending is logical and plausible.
A symbol in literature is any object, event, or character that stands for something beyond itself. There are conventional symbols such as flags and company logos. Then, there are unconventional ones, most used by writers, that are based on the context of a story. Characters, for example can be symbolic, like those in Jesus’ parables. One usually represents God, while others represent sinners. Small events can also be symbolic – a motorcycle ride representing a last moment of freedom, etc.
Irony is a pointed contrast between appearance and reality. Irony, like humour, involves incongruity. Both techniques evoke surprise by reversing or radically changing our expectations. Humour treats only amusing deviations from the norm, whereas irony can be both humorous or grimly serious.
There are three basic types of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic. In verbal irony, someone says one thing, but means something quite different, like when Mark Antony labels Brutus “an honourable man.”
Situational irony is when events turn out differently than expected, like when Mr. Nuttel in “The Open Window” goes to the country to rest his nerves and has a horrible fright.
In dramatic irony, the audience of a play can see an underlying truth which the characters are blind to. An example is seeing Julius Caesar walk to his death in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
Irony has several roles in literature. It reminds us that we cannot always control events, or that we are weak in some way. It’s a great way to mock social institutions – such mockery is called satire.
A statement or situation that appears self-contradictory.
A brief reference to another creative work (writing, poetry, art) or to a historical figure or event. The writer assumes the readers will be familiar with it.