By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)
Welcome to the first of Toasted Cheese’s new “Writer’s Glossary” series.
This article defines elements of fiction construction (characters and story elements). These are some of the most common storytelling elements, ones that writers and readers use when speaking about the story. If you don’t know what an editor meant when she said “the narrative didn’t work for me” or “I enjoyed the relationship between the nemesis and the antagonist,” this article might be the resource you’ve been hoping to find. Of course this glossary is not all-inclusive but it should give you a good foundation for you to perform further research.
The second Writer’s Glossary is scheduled for October 2009 and will be about the business of writing and publishing.
Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).
People in the Story
Narrator: the voice within the work telling the story.
- Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
- Holden Caulfield, The Catcher In the Rye
- Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
- Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Unreliable narrator: a narrator whose credibility is compromised.
- Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
- Dr. James Sheppard, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Protagonist: the main character.
- Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
- Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
- Celie, The Color Purple
- Hero: a protagonist who faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges.
- Harry Potter, the Harry Potter series
- Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
- False protagonist: a character who seems to be the protagonist until he is disposed of and a new protagonist takes over.
- Bernard Marx, Brave New World (new protagonists: Helmholtz Watson, John)
- Mary Crane, Psycho (new protagonist: Norman Bates)
Antagonist: a main character (or group) working against the protagonist.
- Mister, The Color Purple
- Randall Flag, The Stand
- Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
- Villain: a main character who works in opposition to a hero.
- Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series
- Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
- Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
- Nemesis: A character who creates trouble for the protagonist but is not necessarily opposed to his goals.
- Fagin, Oliver Twist
- Gollum, The Hobbit, The Two Towers and Return of the King
- Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series.
Foil: a character whose contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, underscores aspects of the other character’s personality. The characteristics they share are often superficial, such as appearance or a shared history.
- In Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet in that both men experience the loss of their fathers via murder (Polonius by Hamlet and King Hamlet by Claudius, respectively) but while Hamlet has spent the play deciding what to do to avenge his father, Laertes acts immediately by challenging Hamlet to a duel, underscoring Hamlet’s indecision.
Archetype: a generalization about individuals as created and reflected by the whole of a culture.
- Father/Mother Figure (Sirius Black/Molly Weasley, The Harry Potter series)
- Trickster (Peeves the Poltergeist, The Harry Potter series)
- Mentor (Remus Lupin, The Harry Potter series)
Stereotype: a generalization about a group of people, which varies among cultures often based on prejudice. Common stereotypes tend to be applied to ethnic, racial or economic groups or classes.
Stock character: more narrowly defined than archetypes, stock characters can act as shorthand for an author to introduce a character about whom the reader already has an expectation or knowledge.
- The hooker with the heart of gold, the ugly duckling or the “redshirt” (i.e. an expendable character who appears only to be eliminated, referring to the red shirts worn by undeveloped Star Trek characters who appeared as part of the crew for away missions during which they would be killed).
Elements of the Story
Narrative: the telling of the events of the story by the narrator; the way in which the narrator communicates the story to the reader
Prose: a free form writing style which uses full sentences and paragraphs, reflective of everyday language.
Voice: the unique way in which a writer uses elements like syntax (word order), character development, plot structure, etc.
Plot: The main sequence of events. (See also.)
- Subplot:a secondary storyline, usually involving secondary characters
- Plot hole: a gap in the logic established by the story
- Plot device: an element introduced in order to move the story forward. Examples include deus ex machina or a MacGuffin.
- Deus ex machina: literally “God from the machine” – an unexpected event which serves to alter action in the story or solve conflict
- MacGuffin: an object that is not as important as the motivation of the characters to acquire it. Examples include the Maltese Falcon or the “papers of transit” in the film Casablanca.
Act: a unit of the overall story. There are usually three acts: the first act establishes character, place and scenario, the second introduces and perpetuates conflict and the third includes the climax and dénouement (ending). Acts tend to take up ¼, ½ and ¼ of the story respectively.
Pace: the rate of flow for the action.
Theme: an idea or message conveyed in the work, usually conveyed in an abstract way. Themes may be simple or complex and there may be several minor themes in addition to a main theme in a long work.
Atmosphere: the mood of the story
Symbolism: something in your story used to evoke something else. Symbolism may be cultural/universal or contextual/authorial.
Tone: the feel of the work.
- serious, humorous, sarcastic, playful, etc.
Cliché: a saying or expression that is so common it lacks substantial meaning.
- cuts like a knife
- thick as pea soup
Dialogue/dialog: words spoken by characters; written conversations.
Dialect: speech patterns, determined by factors like region or social class, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.
Flashback: shifts the action of the story to a previous point in time and then back to current action.
Foreshadowing: hinting at an event which will come later in the story.
Frame: “surrounds” the main story as a narrative technique that provides context for the story within.
- Wuthering Heights
- Heart of Darkness
- The Turn of the Screw
Metaphor/simile: connects seemingly unrelated objects (simile uses “like” or “as” to accomplish this). Specific metaphor types include:
- allegory: an extended metaphor that illustrates an important attribute of the subject
- catachresis: mixed metaphor, one that connects two disparate identifications (ex: While looking for the needle in the haystack, make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater)
- parable: extended metaphor that teaches a moral lesson
Persona: usually refers to a unifying force throughout a book, linking different situations and narratives and guiding the reader through the work, sometimes subtly suggesting conclusions or opinions the reader should have about characters or situations, in the opinion of the author. The persona is not the same as the narrator.
- Authors who have used regularly personas include James Joyce (Ulysses) , William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Charles Dickens.
Exposition: Opening narrative used to orient readers in the story.
Rising action: Narrative leading up to the climax.
Crisis: a turning point; a moment of decision; there may be several crises in long works of fiction or drama.
- Celie standing up to and leaving Mister, The Color Purple
- Janie shoots Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Climax: The height of action, the ultimate crisis or turning point where several elements combine to create “fireworks” (even though the climax may be a quiet moment with little action).
- The fight over Daisy, between Tom and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
- Holden gives his red hunting hat to Phoebe, The Catcher In The Rye
Falling action: Narrative following the climax, leading to the dénouement.
Dénouement: the resolution of the plot (sometimes called “catastrophe” in tragedy).
Catharsis: purification, cleansing or purging, often symbolic in literature.
- Brutus’s death in Julius Caesar
- Gatsby’s body floating in the pool, The Great Gatsby
POV: Point of view. Point of view is either first person (“I” or “we”), second person (narrative voice addresses the reader as “you”) or third person (calls characters by name). Third-person POV may be limited (action shown through one character) or omniscient (action may be shown through any character’s experiences).
- First person POV: Rebecca; The Great Gatsby
- Second Person POV: Bright Lights, Big City
- Third person limited POV: Harry Potter series
- Third person omniscient POV: The Lord of the Rings
Narrative mode: encompasses POV and includes elements like stream of consciousness or the reliability of the narrator
Sequel/prequel: The events of a sequel fall after the events in a previous work. The events of a prequel come before the events of the previous work.
- The Silence of the Lambs (sequel to Red Dragon).
- The Magician’s Nephew (prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, both part of The Chronicles of Narnia).
Info dump: A chunk of information, usually exposition, not integrated into the story, usually superfluous to the action
AYKB: “As you know, Bob…” Implausible dialogue often used to explain something to the reader that the characters already know; an “info dump” disguised as dialogue. Here are some examples from Dracula:
“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 1
When all was ready, Van Helsing said, “Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would for all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have filled us with horror. The career of this so unhappy dear lady is but just begun. Those children whose blood she sucked are not as yet so much the worse, but if she lives on, Un-Dead, more and more they lose their blood and by her power over them they come to her, and so she draw their blood with that so wicked mouth. But if she die in truth, then all cease. The tiny wounds of the throats disappear, and they go back to their play unknowing ever of what has been. But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 16