Formal Assignment

Assignment #1

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Assignment #2

As we established in our lecture this week, short stories must contain each of the Elements of fiction to function fully and smoothly. It might surprise you to know, however, that writers have experimented with form over the last few years, sometimes leaving out one, even two fiction elements in stories. In many cases, these experimental stories were not well-received, as they confused audiences, but sometimes the experiment paid off with stories succeeding despite missing elements.

Regardless, it is generally accepted that a story will sputter and die if more than two fiction elements are missing, much like an 8-cylinder car will continue to run if you pull off one or two spark plug wires—it will sputter and backfire a time or two but still get you where you need to be. So, which one element of the seven we discussed this week do you feel is absolutely essential to make a short story “work?” Which element, in other words, should always be present in a short story”

The 7 Elements: Building Blocks of Fiction

1. Plot: many people confuse plot with “story” or “theme” when, in fact, plot is simply the sequence of events in a story. Stories can be mapped out clearly with a plot diagram (a sort of outline). The plot diagram looks like an inverted check mark with the long side on the left-hand side. The action of a story begins at the bottom of the left-hand line with initial conflict (IC). IC is the problem that a main character must resolve. The resolution of IC happens at the climax (C) and the climax happens at the peak of the diagram (where the two lines meet). So, you have and angled ascent up the first line from IC (problem) to C (resolution). It is an ascent because along the way up the character with the problem hits points of rising action (RA) that make successful resolution of IC more and more doubtful. Each piece of rising action, therefore, should further complicate the matter. Following C we have falling action (FA) as we travel down the right-hand (and shorter) side of the triangle. FA is everything that shakes out after the climax.

Let’s illustrate a story using an example of the plot diagram. We have a man (Harry, about forty, married with two children) who works at what has been a dead-end job in a corporation for twenty years when suddenly he has the opportunity for a promotion to his dream job. Harry must get this job because he feels like a professional failure and he believes his wife and children don’t respect him or his position in life. We now have IC: Harry must get this job. The C, then, immediately becomes clear—whether or not he gets the job. Now let’s give him some RA:

First RA = Harry discovers his best friend is also applying for the job

Second RA = Best friend spreads damaging rumor about Harry

Third RA = Harry sees ex-best friend and the boss riding home together on the train

(There can be more or less than three instances of RA but these will serve our purposes).

For each of these problems, Harry must navigate through or around them so that he is still in the job hunt. Whether he gets the job or not will depend on theme but let’s have our Harry not getting the job. Examples of falling action might then include (a) marriage falling apart and (b) his descent into alcoholism. Whatever the length of the falling action, it ends in the Conclusion, indicating the closing of action following the climax.

2. Character: characters are the people in a story who make something “happen” or produce an effect. Writers have experimented with using animal characters and even inanimate objects as characters (in fantasy and theatre of the absurd writing) but humans typically serve as characters in short stories. The concept of character is simple but vastly important. There are varying types of character (ranging from full to flat) based on their importance within the story.

3. Scene and Setting:

Setting refers to the place and time of the story—the overall big picture landscape and the era. In Mark Twain’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the setting is the American South during the wane of our slavery era.

Scene, on the other hand, refers to the many and varied moments of action within a story. If we return to Huck, powerful scenes include his initial flight down the Mississippi River and the poignant scene in which Huck pledges his loyalty to his friend, Jim, and resolves not to turn him in to slave hunters. Scenes are snapshots in time within the big picture of overall story.

4. Point of View (POV): POV refers to the way a story is told. There are three types of POV (first-, second-, and third-) but only two are typically used by authors.

First-Person POV occurs when an author decides to use pronouns like ‘I’, ‘we’, and ‘our’ to tell a story. Narrative short stories are composed in first-person POV. The advantage of first-person is that it implies an intimacy between author and audience, introducing a “sharing” quality that many readers appreciate. In first-person stories, the narrator is a character within the story.

Third-Person POV involves an author telling a story from an objective distance. Imagine the author hovering above the story and guiding readers through it. Different levels of omniscience (author awareness) exist with respect to third-person POV, from limited omniscience with authors having full knowledge of only one or two main characters in a story to full omniscience with authors having interior knowledge of all characters.

5. Style and Voice:

Style refers to the various techniques available to authors, from choices regarding punctuation and syntax, to sentence pacing and dialogue development. Style refers to the many “tools” available to authors as they craft their work.

Voice is the big picture—the overall result of the many stylistic choices. Voice is the overall “sound” a writer produces in his work.

6. Theme: theme can be summarized as story “meaning.” While plot concerns what physically happens in a story, theme refers to the overall story’s message, meaning, or author intent. Theme is sometimes difficult to define concretely because authors sometimes introduce layers of meaning (more than one theme) into stories. Through theme we explore meaning beyond the surface activity of a story.

7. Symbolism is the practice of giving higher meaning to people, places, and things. In our example story from the plot section, for example, Harry can be seen as symbolic of all people struggling to find meaning in empty worldly pursuits.

We can also lump metaphors and similes under the umbrella definition of symbolism, although they work a little differently. Similes are used to compare two things using the words “like” or “as.” An example of a simile would be referring to a character as “gentle as a Quaker.” A metaphor can also be used to compare things but the comparison is more implied than direct because the words “like” or “as” may not be used. An example might be “all the world’s a stage,” to borrow from Shakespeare.

The last concept we’ll consider under the heading of symbolism will be that of allusion. Allusion is referring to recognizable characters, events, or objects to represent people, events, and/or objects in stories. There are historical allusions, biblical allusions, and allusions from myth, popular culture, lore, and from any other direction where the reference would be recognizable to many readers. For example, if a story character referred to his boss as “Hitler” we would get a very definite picture of the kind of person the boss might be.

You must post an initial response to the prompt question above and respond to at least two of your peers. Each of your posts must range between 100-200 words. I look forward to sharing in your responses!

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