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Short Story Literary Terms
SHORT STORY Short piece of narrative fiction. Edgar Allan Poe (see page 504), who lived and
wrote during the first half of the nineteenth century, is often credited with writing the first short
stories. He defined the short story (which he called the “prose tale”) as a narrative that can be read
in a single sitting and that creates a “single effect.”
SETTING Time and place of a story or play. Setting can function in several ways in a story. It
can provide atmosphere, as the ice-coated world does in Jim Heynen’s “What Happened During the
Ice Storm” (page 354). Setting may provide conflict in a story, as it does in Tim O’Brien’s “Where
Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” (page 731). One of the most important functions of setting is to
reveal character. In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (page 103), the narrator’s home helps show us
who she is and what her life is like.
PLOT Series of related events that make up a story or drama. Plot is “what happens” in a
story, novel, or play. A story map shows the parts of a plot.
The climax is the most intense moment in the plot, the moment at which something happens that
reveals how the conflict will turn out. In the resolution, or denouement, all the problems in the
story are resolved, and the story is brought to a close.
CHARACTER Individual in a story, poem, or play. A character always has human traits, even if
the character is an animal, as in Aesop’s fables. In myths the characters are divinities or heroes with
super-human powers, such as the hero Theseus in “Theseus” (page 772) or Sigurd in “Sigurd, the
Dragon Slayer” (page 784). Most characters are ordinary human beings, however.
A writer can reveal a character’s personality by
1. telling us directly what the character is like (generous, deceitful, timid, and so on)
2. describing how the character looks and dresses
3. letting us hear the character speak
4. letting us listen to the character’s inner thoughts and feelings
5. revealing what other people think or say about the character
6. showing the character’s actions
The first method listed above is called direct characterization: The writer tells us directly what the
character is like. The other five methods are indirect characterization. We have to put clues
together to figure out what a character is like, just as we do in real life when we are getting to know
Static and flat characters often function as subordinate characters in a story. This means that they
may play important roles in a story, but they are not the main actors in the plot.
A static character does not change much in the course of a story. A dynamic character, on the
other hand, changes in some important ways as a result of the story’s action. Flat characters have
only one or two personality traits and can be summed up in a single phrase. In contrast, round
characters are complex and have many different traits. The needs or conflicts that drive a character
are called motivation.
FLASHBACK Scene in a movie, play, short story, novel, or narrative poem that interrupts
the present action of the plot to show events that happened at an earlier time. In “Everyday
Use” (page 103), the narrator uses a flashback to a house fire to explain family conflicts. Flashbacks
are commonly used in movies.
FORESHADOWING The use of clues to hint at events that will occur later in the plot.
Foreshadowing arouses the reader’s curiosity and increases suspense. In Act I, Scene 3, of Julius
Caesar (page 899), references to violent disturbances in the heavens foreshadow the turbulence and
violence that will soon occur in the human world.
SYMBOL Person, place, thing, or event that stands both for itself and for something
beyond itself. Many symbols have become so widely recognized that they are public symbols: In
Western cultures, for example, most people recognize the heart as a symbol of love and the snake as
a symbol of evil. Writers often invent new, personal symbols. For example, in this mysterious poem,
“The Sick Rose,” what might the rose and the worm symbolize?
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
—William Blake
THEME The central idea or insight about human life revealed by a work of literature. A
theme is not the same as a work’s subject, which can usually be expressed in a word or two: old age,
ambition, love. The theme is the revelation the writer wishes us to discover about that subject. There
is no single correct way to express a theme, and sometimes a work has several themes. Many works
have ambiguous themes; that is, they have no clear single meaning but are open to a variety of
interpretations, even opposing ones. Some themes are so commonly found in the literature of all
cultures and all ages that they are called universal themes. Here are some universal themes found
in stories throughout the ages: “Heroes must undergo trials and endure losses before they can claim
their rightful kingdom.” “Arrogance and pride can bring destruction.” “When the rule of law is broken,
chaos and anarchy will result.” “Love will endure and triumph over evil.”
Although a few stories, poems, and plays have themes that are stated directly, most themes are
implied. The reader must piece together all the clues the writer has provided to arrive at a discovery
of the work’s total meaning. Two of the most important clues to consider are the way the main
character has changed and the way the conflict has been resolved.
POINT OF VIEW Vantage point from which a writer narrates, or tells, a story. The three
main points of view are omniscient, third-person-limited, and first-person.
In the omniscient (or “all-knowing”) point of view, the narrator plays no part in the story but can
tell us what all the characters are thinking and feeling as well as what is happening in other places.
For example, in “Through the Tunnel” (page 477), the storyteller can tell us what both Jerry and his
mother are thinking and feeling.
In the third-person-limited point of view, the narrator, who plays no part in the story, zooms in
on the thoughts and feelings of one character. In “Catch the Moon” by Judith Ortiz Cofer (page 282),
we know Luis’s thoughts and feelings but the emotions of his father and of Naomi are revealed only
through their words and Luis’s observations.
In the first-person point of view, the narrator (using the first-person pronoun I) is a character in
the story. When we read a story told in the first person, we hear and see only what the narrator
hears and sees. We must ask ourselves if the narrator is credible, or reliable. An unreliable
narrator does not always know what is happening in the story, or he or she might be lying or telling
us only part of the story. For example, in “By the Waters of Babylon” (see page 175), we cannot rely
on the narrator to tell us the mystery of the Place of the Gods because he does not know it.
IRONY Contrast or discrepancy between expectation and reality. In verbal irony a speaker
says one thing but means the opposite. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony uses verbal irony
during his funeral oration for Caesar. When he insists that “Brutus is an honorable man,” he means
precisely the opposite.
In situational irony what actually happens is the opposite of what is expected or appropriate. In
Tim O’Brien’s story “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” (page 731), we feel a strong sense of
irony when Paul Berlin is overcome with laughter upon being told of the death of his fellow soldier,
Billy Boy Watkins.
Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or the audience knows something important that a
character does not know. In “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (page 198), when Marilyn
mischievously asks what her punishment will be, she expects simply to be fined; we know that her
fate will be much graver.
INCONGRUITY A lack of fitness or appropriateness. When someone goes to a formal dinner
party dressed in a bathing suit, the situation is incongruous. Incongruity is often used to create
situational irony in literature.
FIGURE OF SPEECH Word or phrase that describes one thing in terms of another and
that is not meant to be understood on a literal level. Figures of speech, or figurative
language, always involve some sort of imaginative comparison between seemingly unlike
things. The most common are the simile (“My heart is like a singing bird”), the metaphor
(“Life’s but a walking shadow”), and personification (“Death has reared himself a throne”).
Language that appeals to the senses. Imagery is used in all types of writing but is
especially important in poetry. Most images are visual—that is, they create in the reader’s mind pictures
that appeal to the sense of sight. Imagery may also appeal to the senses of sound, smell, touch, and
taste, as in the following lines about winter. (Saw in line 2 is a wise saying; crabs in line 5 are crab
apples; and to keel is to cool by stirring.)
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl-Tu whit,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
—William Shakespeare
from Love’s Labor’s Lost
Figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things without
using a connective word such as like, as, than, or resembles. Some metaphors, such as Gerard
Manley Hopkins’s comparison “I am soft sift / In an hourglass,” are direct. (If he had written, “I am like
soft sift…,” he would have been using a simile.) Other metaphors are implied, such as the one in Walt
Whitman’s lines “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, / The ship has weather’d every rack, the
prize we sought is won.” The images imply a comparison between a captain commanding his ship and a
president leading his country (in this case, the president was Lincoln).
An extended metaphor is developed over several lines or throughout an entire poem. In the poem
“Fireworks” (page 630), Amy Lowell uses an extended metaphor when, over many lines of poetry, she
compares strong feelings to fireworks.
A mixed metaphor is the inconsistent combination of two or more metaphors. Mixed metaphors are
usually unintentional and often humorous: “It’s no use closing the barn door after the milk has been
Figure of speech that makes a comparison between two seemingly unlike things by
using a connective word such as like, as, than, or resembles. Here is a simile that creates a
dramatic visual image; like any good figure of speech, Hardy’s simile is original and vivid:
The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
—Thomas Hardy from “The Roman Road”
PERSONIFICATION Type of metaphor in which a nonhuman thing or quality is talked about as
if it were human. In the example below, trees are personified as women throwing off their robes.
The trees are undressing, and fling in many
On the gray road, the roof, the window sill—
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces.
—Thomas Hardy
from “Last Week in October”
MOOD A story’s atmosphere or the feeling it evokes. Mood is often created by the story’s
setting. A story set on a dreary moor where cold water seeps into the hero’s boots will probably
convey a mood of suspense and uneasiness. A story set in a garden full of sunlight and the chirps of
birds will probably create a mood of peace. Edgar Allan Poe’s bizarre setting of “The Masque of the
Red Death” (page 495) creates a dizzying atmosphere of horror.
TONE The attitude a writer takes toward a subject, a character, or the reader. Tone is
conveyed through the writer’s choice of words and details. For example, Tim O’Brien’s story “Where
Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” (page 731) is ironic in tone. John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” (page
587) has a nostalgic tone for a life that is now past.