studying prose fiction texts handout

Studying Prose Fiction Texts
There are various forms that prose fiction texts can take; the main ones are short story, novel and
Although studying each form is different and there are some specific characteristics for each form
to consider, there are also many things they and the study of them have in common.
Common Features
 When studying any prose text, regardless of its length, you will need a clear understanding
of the plot (what happens in the story) and how the plot is structured, particularly if the
structure is in some way unusual.
 You need to have an understanding of narrative viewpoint; who is telling the story is very
important –you need to consider why the author has chosen this particular perspective on
events and how this affects the reader’s response.
 You need to have an understanding of characters and character development; think about
how the various characters are presented, how they relate to one another and how they
change over the course of the story.
 Finally you need to have a clear understanding of the writer’s language and style; the writer
has chosen his/her language carefully and you must have an understanding of the
connotation and effect of these choices.
Structure and Plot
Our experience of stories (reading them, writing them, watching them) tells us that stories need to
have a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not strictly true, but most stories do follow this kind
of structure: an opening; a middle section where characters, situations and ideas are developed;
and an ending that draws the story to some kind of conclusion.
Stories can open in a variety of ways; what is important is that the attention of the reader is
captured immediately so that they want to read on. Some types of opening are:
 straight into the narrative
 setting the scene and giving background information
 suggesting/implying situations/atmospheres (similar to the two above but more subtle)
The ending of a story is a very important element in its overall shape. It is often the ending that
provides resolution to the plot; however there are alternatives to this. Some endings are open,
where the reader is left to imagine what the ending means. Some endings use a ‘sting in the tail’,
where the writer surprises the reader with something, either as a trick or as a means of forcing the
reader to see something important about the story as a whole.
Narrative Line
All texts recount events in a particular way; depending on how they choose to order and present
events various effects can be achieved by the writer; such as suspense, climax, resolution, openending etc.
Often the narrative structure of the plot is straightforwardly chronological. However, sometimes the
writer will manipulate the structure to create particular effects – for example using flashbacks, or
starting at the ‘end’ then going back to the ‘beginning’ until the ‘end’ is reached once more,
alternating between past and present, and so on.
Always consider the following points when you are studying the narrative line or structure of a
 what are the key events? (list them)
 what is the order in which these events are revealed?
 what is the time structure used by the writer?
 is anything omitted or emphasized by the writer?
Often a story will have a moment in the plot upon which the whole structure of the narrative turns
and effects the outcome. This ‘trigger’ can be quite a trivial experience or incident but it signifies a
moment of revelation to the central character.
Narrative Viewpoint
Writers mostly write in either the first or the third person narrative; there are different possibilities in
Writing in the first person, the writer takes on the role of a character (or characters) and tells the
story from their point of view, as if they were ‘on the inside’. This allows the reader to feel very
involved with the character/s adopted by the writer. However, this can also be a limitation, as
events and characters are related through another’s eyes, which can influence the reader’s
response; also, the reader cannot see things the narrator/s cannot see, and events not witnessed
by the narrator/s can only be understood through other characters, for example through
conversation. The reader also cannot tell if the account that the narrator/s provide is truthful and
unbiased – they may be deluded, or deceived themselves, or deliberately misleading the reader.
Third person narrative allows the writer to adopt an omniscient, all-seeing, all-knowing position in
relation to characters and events. The writer is able to give the thoughts of several characters, and
relate events that take place in different places or at different times or at the same time. More than
one perspective can be offered on events and characters. Sometimes, the writer will tell the story
in a very detached, dispassionate manner; but usually they will make their own opinions and
feelings clear through language and tone. Even in third person it is possible for events to be filtered
through the perceptions of one particular character; in this case it is important to consider whether
the writer’s views match this character’s or not.
When you read fiction you tend to create your own mental image of the characters, but it is
important to remember that these images are the creation of the writer and have no existence
outside the text. Many writers create and use characters to serve particular functions in the
narrative, for example to highlight a theme, help us understand another character, and so on. For
this reason you should always look carefully at the various characters presented in a story, how
they are shown and what role they play.
Characters can be revealed in a number of ways:
 through description; the writer often provides an introductory ‘pen portrait’ then adds to this
as the story unfolds, there may be key passages where change or development of a
character occurs
 through dialogue; when characters talk they reveal details about themselves and about
those they are discussing
 through action and reaction; what characters do in different situations is very revealing,
whether they are initiating an event or reacting to one
 through thoughts and feelings; a character’s inner thoughts and emotions will reveal
aspects of their nature
 through imagery and symbolism; characters may be described using simile and metaphor,
or may be associated with a particular semantic field (a colour, a feature of nature, and so
Language and Style
The style (the choices which a writer makes in the language they use and the way they use it) in
which writers present their stories is a key element in the overall effect created in the reader’s
mind. Texts can be written in a very plain, straightforward manner with little in the way of imagery
and figurative language, or they may use a great number of ‘tricks’ to help the reader in their
understanding of the story. Choice of words is also crucial in all cases.
Style is not just concerned with language and imagery though; you also need to think about
narrative viewpoint and structure.
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