Thursday, March 28, 2013

Interpreting Fiction: Step 2

Now that we've got some perspective, let's get down to the words on the page.

Step 2: Learn what stories are made of: the anatomy of fiction

Stories are like people--made up of the same parts but resulting in endless varieties. When a person or a story is scary, it's because the parts add up that way. The difference between a person and a story being scary is that stories are created that way more or less on purpose. 
This is where my students begin to interpret. Their essays have the sole purpose of answering a critical question about a piece of literature. They begin by approaching the story with critical thinking and well-informed assumptions based on what they know about how stories work. For example, if a student were to ask why a new narrator takes over partway through Treasure Island, the elements of the anatomy of fiction (conflict and style, to begin with) would help the student do quite a bit of extrapolating on their own before beginning to dig into research.

I should clarify before going further that I'm talking about Western literature only. Not all stories from all times and places necessarily have the same elements or plot structures or purposes or foundations. You don't have to go very far to see proof of this. Try out The Thousand & One Nights for starters.You may find the stories hard to connect with or tricky to follow at first, but give them time. It's just that your brain is so used to reading and hearing certain kinds of stories, that when a new plot structure comes along, you feel unsettled because your power of prediction is useless. Without even meaning to, you've gained an understanding about certain elements of Western narrative, especially conflict and rising action and resolution, simply from prolonged exposure. That's part of why movies with a twist are so surprising. People are just as shocked by the fact that the story didn't end where they expected it to as they are by the fact that the protagonist has been dead all along.

Now that's settled, let's talk anatomy.

Did you know that in your favorite story, the protagonist (main character) went through a change, and that the reason he did was because an obstacle was in his way and he had to overcome it, or be overcome by it, in order to reach a goal? Did you ever think that without that obstacle, there'd have been no story at all? Okay, stop. Think. What was he trying to overcome? Now think of a different story. What was the main character trying to accomplish? And what stood in the way? Trust me: they're all trying to overcome something in order to get somewhere.

Without conflict, without something to overcome, there is no story. There can be words and actions and characters, but for something to qualify as a story, it's got to have conflict. If Dorothy had clicked her heels from the beginning (immediately reached the goal), there'd have been no story. There had to be a witch. There had to be a journey.

Once you've worked out what a character's goal is and what's in the way, you can dig a bit deeper into conflict. Is the protagonist's own cowardice standing in the way? Is it a flood? Is it the country's legal system? Is it an ex-wife? Or maybe it's all of those things. Those are the conflicts you'll find in a story, fiction or not. They are man versus self, man versus nature, man versus society, and man versus man.

Conflict is just one element of fiction. It's what pulls the plot (events of the story) along. I'll come back to plot, but first a few other elements you'll find in most every story. I'll go through them briefly and leave further exploration to you.

The next element is setting. Setting doesn't just mean where; it means when as well. 
Physical setting can be absolutely critical to meaning, or it can be a neutral backdrop. Why, for example, would the setting for Waiting for Godot be essentially a blank stage but for a tree? If you ignore the setting, especially in its starkness, and if you ignore the tree, especially how the tree shows the passage of time, you may be in danger of missing the entire point of the play. Whatever the physical setting, take note. It's there for a reason.

Time and cultural setting within a story (without is another blog post) can be critical as well. Take Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" for example. On first read, my students almost always feel like they missed something. Lines like, "It's just to let the air in," seem veiled and out of time. That's because they are. But when we go back and talk about time and place, what the setting symbolizes, how the pauses in conversation are full of meaning, how long the interaction lasts, how the language and attitudes belong to a particular decade, what part the weather plays, whether the author's life and works shed any light, what certain idioms and titles might indicate, suddenly the story begins to reveal itself so quickly, they trip over each other trying to share their enlightened interpretations.

Another element of fiction is character. Though character seems pretty straightforward, it's not. There are basically two types of characters: main characters and tertiaries. Tertiary is just how it sounds: in third place. They're not the protagonist. They're not the main players. They're all those witches and wizards and muggles in the background who people a story. In the main character group, you've got your protagonist(s) and their posse (main players), and the antagonist(s).

Protagonist isn't a synonym for good guy. It just means Main Character. This person will go through a change by the end of the story and is the character the narrative is centered around. In a relatively simple plot line, the main character isn't difficult to spot. But in something epic, like The Lord of the Rings, you've got a big group of characters, many very strong. You've got lots of side stories developing. Lots of people go through major changes. The world itself seems to breathe. But go back to conflict: What's the ultimate goal? What's the ultimate obstacle? Now: Who's wearing it?

Similarly, antagonist isn't a synonym for bad guy. Broadly, it refers to one or more characters in opposition to the protagonist or the protagonist's goals. Sometimes, that's an obvious villain like the Ringwraith/Dementor character. Other times, it's a more dynamic character who may have some good characteristics mixed in with the bad. Still other times, the protagonist is more the bad guy, and the antagonist the good guy! The key is to think opposition, not good and bad. The antagonist can often be revealed just like the protagonist is revealed, by looking for the conflict.

Another element of every story is the plot, or the story's main events. If you google for plot diagrams, you'll find lots of images that look like bottomless triangles or mountains with the left side all jagged. Whatever the diagram, they're all saying the same thing. I prefer the diagram here because it's more detailed, but here's a simpler one to start with. (
Before I explain, watch this short and awesome film so we have a story in common to refer to. It's fast and entertaining, I promise.)

(Diagram from

What you've got in this graph is a story mapped out. The red line going up means the further along you get, the more tense things become. Why? Because the protagonist is getting closer to the make or break moment when the goal is either going to be reached or not: the climax. The red line going right across the bottom is just so you know to read the graph from left to right and correlate the graph to chronological time, whether or not the story incorporates flashbacks. The story in the film starts not with shells hitting the road, though that's the first scene. It really starts with the briefcase guy accepting the challenge to deliver the case. (Note: When you've got a story like the one in Memento, or something like Doctor Who with multiple timelines, you're gonna need a fancier graph.)

Now look at the words that move up the jagged mountainside. The first phrase is Inciting Incident. That means, what got the story rolling? What started it all? The apparently benevolent ruler of a country is dying and needs a transplant, otherwise someone tyrannical will take over. The heart needs delivering through dangerous circumstances. That's the inciting incident.

The other pointy parts on the image say they're plot points, but think of them as smaller conflicts being overcome as you build up to the main conflict. In other words, there are lots of little conflicts and climaxes throughout, like the attack near the cornfield, which was overcome by escape and a call for a new driver. Then there was the helicopter shooting at the new driver, overcome by the driver's fancy BMW spinning skills. There was the leaking briefcase, the driver's reluctance, the ticking clock, the gas running out, etc. One thing after another must be overcome. That builds tension.

The resolution: Where everything, for better or worse, is wrapped up and concluded.

There are two more elements to go. One is style, which refers to the way an author dresses up written language. If a story feels creepy or tugs at your heart strings or is sugary sweet, it's not just the events taking place that make it feel that way; it's the author's style.

Writers use lots of style tools and tricks to bring a story to life in a particular way and to set the mood or tone. First, they've got figurative language like metaphor, personification, and symbolism. For example, in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, the entire story is a metaphor, the tree is personified, and the sacrificial nature of the tree is symbolic. Without the use of figurative language, the story would lose most of its punch. Sure it would have been sad to see a tree being slowly used by a human over time, but add in the thoughts of the tree, the obvious metaphor, and the vague message (symbolism has a habit of being that way), and the story becomes something much more.

Another thing writers do to put you in the moment is use highly descriptive, sensory images (taste, touch, smell, etc.). This is called showing instead of telling. For example, in The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper could have just told us that the room was Christmasy and everyone was getting sleepy. Instead, she showed us:

 Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. Will lay on his back on the hearth-rug staring into the smoke wreathing up the chimney, and was suddenly very sleepy indeed. James and Mary too were trying not to yawn, and even Robin looked heavy-lidded.

Point of view is a style choice too. Remember in school when your teachers talked about first, second, and third person? That's what I'm talking about. Most stories are in first and third person. First is the one where the author is in one person's head: "I rode the elephant as far as the eastern shore, but she would not carry me further." Third is the one where there's a narrator or a storyteller voice telling the story as someone who's outside of things, observing from a distance: "He rode the elephant as far as the eastern shore. Though the beast longed to continue, she knew in her heart she could not carry him further." 

There are reasons an author might choose one point of view over the other. Like, if the author wants the story to feel really personal or confined or focused, she might choose to be in the head of the main character. That also limits what the story can do and sets the reader up to be at least a little unsure of the story because, as we know, one point of view can be inaccurate. That's why a first person narrator is sometimes called unreliable. If the author wants more freedom to look around the story's world and the freedom to be in anyone's head, which is called omniscience, they write in third person. In short, if you're in one character's head, you see only through his eyes. If you're omniscient, you can hear the voice of the elephant too.

There are lots more stylistic things, but this post is too long already, so on to message, and then we're done. Message is tricky, and that's why I've saved it till last. For starters, think about the old phrase, "the moral of the story is..." For a long time, stories, though sometimes entertaining too, were told for educational purposes. Some were meant to scare kids into submission while others were meant to pass on information deemed valuable for maneuvering through life, including family and cultural ancestry and religious beliefs. This tradition goes way back into folk tales and oral storytelling even before people were writing stuff down. However old they are, stories have always had messages, or purposes for being told, and often those messages are broad so's to apply in lots of situations. Take Little Red Riding Hood. Moral of the story: Beware of big bad wolves. The great thing about a big bad wolf? He can represent any scary thing you like.

(By Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke (ill.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Most mainstream novels you read today aren't that blatant, and some are downright vague, but they're all saying something(s). How do you dig the message out of a story? First, think of the story's main topics. There are probably several, like friendship and courage and family and fate and hope. To find messages in the story, ask yourself what it's saying about a particular topic. In James and the Giant Peach, family is a major topic. What does it say about family? For one thing, your blood relatives are sometimes hateful idiots, and your real family could be unconventional. Some story messages are harder to find than others, like in The Giving Tree, because it says different things to different people. While one person may see the commitment and love and sacrifice of the tree as a positive example of giving without receiving, another might see it as a harmful example of self-sacrifice to the point of obsession and self-harm.

Conflict, setting, character, plot, figurative language, and message are the main elements of fiction. These elements sometimes appear in drama and poetry and nonfiction as well, but those are different animals with sometimes very different parts not included here or parts that seem similar to fiction's anatomy but do different jobs. I go through all of these in class, but I won't here. Nor will I go over the elements within particular types of fiction, like what makes fantasy fantastical or horror horrifying. That's for you to find out on your own!

Next up, the last of the series where we step outside of reader response (interpreting a story from what's on the page and what's in your head) and into the world of research (interpreting a story with a little help from your friends). I promise, it's much more fascinating than it sounds.