In a movie, the setting carries a real impact and establishes a certain

atmosphere or mood. Consider what Titanic would be like without the

pressure put on the characters by the inevitably-rising waters, or Saving

Private Ryan if the setting had not emphasized destruction, chaos, and

pain. Setting is equally important in a work of fiction.


Setting fixes the time and place of a story, and can play a major role in

developing the story's character and conflict. Sometimes it supports or

defines the values and concerns of the characters. Two stories about

moral conflict could differ noticeably if one were set in Victorian times

and the other one were set in today's time. It is important to consider

the setting in developing a true sense of the character and conflict.


Setting can affect a story's atmosphere and our reaction to it. A

desolate, dark setting leads to a sense of oppression and a feeling that

events will likely turn out badly. A story set on a bright spring morning,

however, leads us to feel optimistic about the results of the conflict.

Setting, in fact, is the most common and effective device used in

creating the atmosphere of a story. An outstanding example of this is

Stephen King's novel The Shining, set in an empty resort hotel in winter.

The story's eerie atmosphere could not be achieved if it were set in, for

instance, a motel in a seacoast resort at the height of the tourist season.


There are a number of dimensions to character.

Dramatized or Described Characters

Characters can be dramatized, or they can be described. Children's

stories, and stories written for less-experienced readers typically

describe characters, so the reader knows immediately what to think of

them and how to react to them.

Here is an example of character description, as one might find in a story

written for a relatively inexperienced reader.


Trevor pulled into the curb still going too fast, and stopped with a

noisy squeal of brakes. He stepped out of his sports coupe, and

walked over to Trudi. He was short and wiry, and looked like a weasel.

His hair was smeared with a nasty-looking gel that reflected the sun

unpleasantly as he moved. As he came nearer, he smiled furtively,

and menacingly slid his hand into his jacket pocket. He was a nasty



Thoroughly dislikable, eh? A truly "bad guy." Here, by contrast, is an

example of character dramatization.


A black Porsche rounded the corner off the main road, and darted

into the alleyway with a shriek of tires. It rocked to a halt at the curb,

and the door opened. However, the driver stayed inside for at least a

minute; Trudi noticed that he was combing and smoothing his hair.

Finally, he stepped out of the car, wiped his hands on a tissue which

he tossed back into the car, gently closed and locked the door, and

turned towards Trudi, his face expressionless. Keys hanging from his

hand, he approached her. Only then, did his mouth crinkle into a

one-sided smile, which his eyes did not share. He slipped his hand

with the keys into his jacket pocket, and left it there; she wondered

if he had something he wanted to hand her.


Notice here that nowhere does this paragraph say that the driver was a

dislikable person; instead, it relies on details of what he does in order

to lead you to a certain conclusion.


Rounded or Flat Characters

Another dimension of character is depth of characterization: is a

particular character rounded or flat? A rounded character is a complex

person whom one might meet in everyday life, possessed of virtues and

vices, and is both likable and dislikable. A flat character is like a full-

size cardboard cutout of a person one might see standing in a store

display smiling fixedly at passersby, but with no life in them. Flat

characters are usually completely sympathetic (good) or completely

unsympathetic (bad).


If you have read George Orwell's Animal Farm, reflect now on the

characters. You may discover that all of them are flat. This is one of the

characteristics of fables, and Animal Farm is an allegorical fable.

If you have read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist Montag

is a rounded character. We may grow impatient at his indecision and

his edginess, but we identify with his concerns over the value system

of his society, and his increasing resolve to turn his back on everything

and follow his own personal code, even if he becomes an outcast in so



Static or Dynamic Characters

A third dimension to consider is whether characters are static or

dynamic. Static characters don't change as the story unfolds; they are

always the same. The characters in most juvenile fiction are static,

because very young and inexperienced readers find that keeping track

of the growth of a character's perceptions and awareness is so much

work that it hampers their enjoyment of the story. If you are familiar

with the Harry Potter stories, you will remember that, barring Harry

Potter himself, no one seems to change very much.


A dynamic character, on the other hand, changes during the course of

the story, either positively or negatively. Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo

and Juliet is a good example of a dynamic character. At the start of the

story, she is a naive and obedient little girl of thirteen who finds herself

propelled abruptly into the adult world of arranged marriages. By the

end of the story, she is resourceful, in command of her own actions—

even to the extent of lying about her plans—and courageous.

Admittedly, she makes some recklessly inappropriate decisions, but she

has the fortitude to make them and stick by them, something that the

Juliet of Act I would not have been able to do.


You may be more familiar with the character of Rose in the movie

Titanic. Like Juliet, she moves from unquestioning obedience to

forceful management of her own destiny. This maturing process is an

indicator that she is a dynamic character.

Point of View

In interpreting fiction, point of view can be thought of as "where are the camera(s) and
the microphone(s)?"

The major points of view used in fiction are:

  • Omniscient (3rd Person)
  • Limited omniscient (3rd Person)
  • Objective (3rd Person)
  • First person


3rd Person Omniscient

In omniscient point of view (which means "all-knowing"), there is

nothing the narrator cannot show the reader. The narrator's awareness

can range anywhere for information that adds to the story. The

following sample is written in the omniscient point of view.



Will jumped down from his pony. A sharp stab jolted his

ankle as he landed. Damn, he thought, all I need is to have

my leg give up and 111 be out here in that woods with that

thing, unable to fight it or get away.

The scent of horror bloomed in the consciousness of the

pony behind him. A white flash of panic exploded through

it, and Will ducked aside as it reared, cutting at the air with

its hooves before subsiding, shuddering, to all fours.

Not three metres south of them, a slug-like mass, bigger

than an elephant, heaved turgidly among the shadowy

trees. "Food! Food! Food!" ran through its awareness, as the

scent of warm blood bathed its sensors, and it began to

ooze like a flowing shadow towards Will and the pony.

In (the third person) omniscient view, the author knows all the characters, can be

sympathetic to them, and can portray their personalities directly.

Because of this, it's possible to have the highest possible degree of

control over the effect of the story on the reader; there is no

uncertainty in the example above as to why the pony rears, and it's

obvious that something nasty is about to happen.


The reader has access to much information (the camera and mike can

be anywhere and everywhere. This makes it easy to orchestrate a

complex work such as a novel, and makes foreshadowing simple.

However, in short fiction, the omniscient point of view is cumbersome.

It can overload you with information, and make the story creaky and

slow rather than focused upon a single unified effect.



3rd Person Limited Omniscient

Limited omniscient point of view is limited to one major figure,

typically the protagonist.



Will jumped down from his pony. A sharp stab jolted his

ankle as he landed. Damn, he thought, all I need is to have

my leg give up and I'll be out here in that woods with that

thing, unable to fight it or get away.

Suddenly, with a scuffle and a quavering scream the pony

reared, its nostrils flaring. Will ducked aside as it cut at the

air with its hooves before subsiding, shuddering, to all fours.

As the pony quieted, he heard an eerie sound from the thick

bush to the south. At first it sounded like someone dragging

a dead horse through the undergrowth, but the sound was

accompanied by a faint liquid pulsation as if someone was

blowing slime bubbles and popping them.


Limited omniscient has the same strengths as omniscient, but doesn't

generate the same mass of detail. Generally, limited omniscient point

of view takes you into the thoughts and experiences of only the



3rd Person Objective

The third person objective point of view is related as it might have been picked up by a

video camera focused on the events described.



Will jumped down from his pony, stumbling almost to the

ground as his left leg gave way. Muttering to himself, he

regained his balance, steadying himself with one hand on

the saddle.


With a sudden quavering scream the pony reared, its

nostrils flaring. He ducked aside as it cut at the air with its

hooves before subsiding, shuddering, to all fours.

Abruptly, Will cocked his head to his left, looking southward

towards the bushes. He stood in a strained position, as if

listening for something or someone.


The o bjective point of view is the most like a screenplay, or a stage drama.

Characters' thoughts and motivations remain a mystery unless they are

spoken aloud or acted out.


First Person

With first person point of view, the narrator tells the story as

something personally experienced, "I" speak of "my" adventures and




I jumped down from the pony. A sharp stab jolted my ankle

as I landed. Damn, I thought, all I need is to have my leg

give up and I'll be out here in that woods with that thing,

unable to fight it or get away.


With a sudden quavering scream the pony reared, its                    _

nostrils flaring. I barely had time to duck aside as it cut at the

air with its hooves before subsiding, shuddering, to all fours.

Suddenly I heard an eerie sound from the thick bush south

of me. At first it sounded like someone dragging a dead

horse through the undergrowth, but the sound was

accompanied by a faint liquid pulsation as if someone was

blowing slime bubbles and popping them.


First person makes for very effective fiction, but the use of "I" has

limitations, because the character who is telling the story can't reveal

any more information than he himself knows. No character in a story

can see inside any other character.



The Theme Statement

A theme statement aims at giving the reader a better understanding of

some large aspect of life. It is not, however, a moral or a lesson. Good

fiction avoids preachiness, and obvious statements such as "Out of

sight, out of mind."


A theme statement can be a sentence or a short paragraph. Something

like "Searching for truth," or "Death," is not a theme statement,

though these expressions can be the lens through which the theme can

be recognized and put into a statement.


To understand the theme of a work of literature, ask, "What does this

work reveal or imply?" rather than "What does this work teach?" The

theme of "The Carnival Dog, the Buyer of Diamonds," for example,

would not be, "Young people should always obey their parents," or

"Honour your father and mother." It might read something like this:


Young people and their parents often have different attitudes toward

life. This difference can lead to conflict. Ultimately, each person must

choose how they will achieve contentment, because death is just as

certain as life.


Universality of Theme

A theme statement must be a broad enough idea that it can be applied

to life in a general sense, not only to the people in the work, but to the

reader, to the student, and to all humankind.


The easiest method to arrive at a theme statement for a work of

literature is to look at the conflict in it.


Conflict is fairly straightforward in a short story, but complex in a

novel. Basically, it deals with a central figure or protagonist who is

attempting to reach a goal. This central figure meets opposition from

the antagonist, which may be a person, a group of people, the forces of

nature, or even him or herself.


The three main types of conflict are:

• Character versus nature

• Character versus character(s)

• Character versus self


Because a novel is much longer and more complex than a short story,

it contains more characters and deals with a relatively great number of

events or situations. Thus, there are likely to be several conflicts in a



Each time a conflict occurs, that incident is called a crisis; the plot is a

sequence of crises, leading to a major crisis when the protagonist either

overcomes the antagonist, or is defeated. The series of intensifying

crises is called the rising action; the final crisis is called the climax.

Usually the climax comes near the end of the story, although it may be

earlier and be followed by a sequence of diminishing crises called the

falling action. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist

leads the reader to the theme. This is especially true as the story

approaches and reaches the climax. To generate valid theme

statements, trace the rising action as the conflict intensifies and from

the events at the climax decide how the story connects to the theme

key words supplied earlier.


To describe style, it is necessary to explain the techniques the writer has

used, and describe how he or she has created a particular voice and

given the work a particular tone. For example, a person might explain

the style of the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty as follows:


The writer's use of rhythmic language and end rhyme gives the piece

a cheerful, playful tone. The simple words and short line lengths

create a childlike voice that is interestingly at odds with the literal

events - the main character's tragic death by falling off the wall.


Style, then, is the result of the author's choice of diction, figurative

language, and sentence structure. In other words, style can be any

distinctive way an author uses words. Look for things like diction

(sound/formal vs. informal vs. slang language), sentence structure

(short vs. long sentences vs. intentional fragments), regular vs. irregular

rhythm, and figures of speech (i.e. figurative language like metaphors and


One of the hallmarks of a mature writer is control of style. The most

proficient writers can write in a variety of styles, just as a skilled piano

player can play a Mozart piano concerto in the manner of the late eighteenth

century, then play a Fats Waller jazz piece, and do both effectively. Style for

a pianist involves a great deal more than simply hitting the right notes; likewise,

style for a writer is more than simply arranging words into statements.

Style should be consistent throughout a piece; inconsistencies indicate

lack of control or at least lack of awareness of style.

Diction and Style

Diction deals with the literal meaning of words (their denotation),

their emotional loading and figurative meaning (or connotation), and the sound of the words

(rough or smooth). Most immature writers settle for getting the literal

meaning right and don't worry about the rest. However, it's interesting

to look at two passages that mean approximately the same thing.


I hate it when I have to walk through a crowd of teen punks at a bus

stop. They look me up and down. Their eyes are empty. Their faces

are blank. They don't move out of the way for me. I feel that they

want to hurt me.


I strongly dislike the necessity of walking through gatherings of

alienated youth at bus shelters. They slide their expressionless eyes

over me without reaction, keeping their faces neutral as though I was

nonexistent. They decline to recognize my need to walk on the

sidewalk. It appears certain that they desire to cause me bodily harm.


Which of these passages has more impact?


If you identified the first passage, you are correct. It contains many one-

syllable words which have negative connotations and hard consonant

sounds (e.g., hate, punks, empty, blank, hurt). In addition, all the

sentences are short and almost curt. By contrast, the second passage uses many

multi-syllable words. This makes it flow smoothly, and so it seems mellower

in its impact than the first passage. None of the words in the second passage

have strong negative connotations. Further, its sentences are relatively long. The

general effect is one of smoothness and neutrality; it is hard to believe

that the second speaker is as distressed as the first.

Figurative Language and Style

Common figures of speech can be used in prose writing and poetry.

These words add impact and make the piece seem vivid, because they

appeal to the reader's imagination. Here is a passage without figurative

language, adapted from "The Painted Door" by Sinclair Ross:


She moved briskly, performing each little task with careful and

exaggerated absorption, thinking carefully about it, using it to keep

from thinking about the surrounding snow and silence. Above the

quiet, steady sound of her paintbrush against the bedroom door, the

clock sound became noticeable. Suddenly her movements became

precise and deliberate ... and she felt that she was not alone and that

someone was watching her. It was the silence again, which seemed

to be threatening, and always there.


Here is the same passage, with figurative language added in italics:


She moved briskly, performing each little task with careful and

exaggerated absorption, binding her thoughts to it, making a screen

between herself and the surrounding snow and silence. Above the quiet,

steady swishing of her brush against the bedroom door, the clock

began to tick. Suddenly her movements became precise, deliberate ...

as if someone had entered the room and were watching her. It was the

silence again, aggressive, hovering.


Look closely at the figurative language that was used to heighten the

impact of the story.

1. binding her thoughts to it is a metaphor showing how she used

work to keep her mind occupied, to keep out unwelcome


2. making a screen between herself and the surrounding snow and

silence is another metaphor, showing how the character uses

work to create a wall between her and both the silence inside

and the dangerous weather outside.

3. swishing is onomatopoeia, it imitates the sound of a loaded

paint brush spreading colour onto wood.

4. as if someone had entered the room and were watching her is a

simile that makes the reader more vividly conscious of how

uneasy the character feels.

5. ... the silence again, aggressive, hovering is an example of

personification in which the reader easily shares the

protagonist's fear of the invisible silence that is always with



Sentence Structure and Style

Sentence structure, like diction, has an impact on the reader's

experience of a piece of writing, and consequently is an important part

of style. Long, flowing sentences, containing many phrases and

subordinate clauses, produce a mellow, flowing mood. If these are used

in a description of fast, urgent action, such as an account of witnessing

a plane crash, the reader is distanced from the action. By contrast, short

sentences produce a feeling of urgency, immediacy, and increased



Reading Activity

Reread the last two full paragraphs of "The Story of an Hour (The

Dream of an Hour)" in Horizons: Exploring Poetry, Prose, and Non-fiction

- page 10. The author uses six sentences in twelve lines to show you

Mrs. Mallard's inner reverie about her husband's death. The passage is

optimistic, almost upbeat, and the reader experiences Mrs. Mallard's

increasing relaxation from the pressures of her marriage. The sentence

structure complements and enhances the content.


Now reread the rest of the story. The mood changes almost

immediately. The author uses twenty-six sentences in twenty-six lines

to lead up to Brently Mallard's return and Mrs. Mallard's climactic

discovery that she was not widowed. The reader is taken through

Mrs. Mallard's increasing excitement at her new-found freedom,

through her dashed hopes at the return of her husband, to her sudden

death when she realizes what she has lost. The many starts and stops

resembles the tension car passengers feel in stop-and-go traffic

with a driver who is continually braking and accelerating.

Tone, Mood, and Voice

Tone is the emotional colouring of a piece of writing. It reflects the

author's attitude, and the feelings that he or she puts into the writing.

It can, for instance, be angry, demanding, or humorous. The author

controls the tone by choosing diction, sentence structure, and

figurative language that will heighten the desired effect on the reader.


Mood, by contrast, is the emotional feeling that the reader gets from

the writing. Usually the mood is clearly related to the tone, for the tone

of the author creates the mood of the reader. Mood, is also affected by

figurative language, sentence structure, and diction.


Voice is the role that the writer takes on while writing. A personal

voice is an expression of a writer's own thoughts and personality. For

example, a personal narrative about an event from the author's

childhood might be written as though the author were telling the story

in person. A persona is a voice created by the writer to help the reader

accept the ideas in the writing. For instance, a murder mystery might

be told from the point of view of a detective. The reader knows the

writer is not actually a detective, but the use of words and images from

the world of criminal investigation helps make the story come alive.

Or, an essay can be written in the voice of an expert, using impersonal

language and a tone of authority. In poetry, the voice may sound very

personal, but can actually be a persona the writer has created. There is

often no way for the reader to tell.