The chief elements of prose fiction are plot, character, dialogue, setting, style and the novelist’s view of life.
- Broadly speaking, plot involves the structuring or sequencing of events and actions in a novel. The story forms the basis of the plot but it is of a higher order than the mere story. According to E.M. Forster, the story is a narrative of incidents arranged in a sequence whereas plot is a narrative of events with emphasis on causality.
- Plots can be of two types : loose and organic. In a loose plot, the events have little connection with one another. Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Pares”, all relate a series of interesting adventures that befall an individual. But these novels lack a ‘total design’ and the only connecting link between the incidents is the protagonist. These novels are episodic in structure and become examples of loose and incoherent types of plot. An organic plot, on the other hand, has a definite plot pattern where the incidents are closely linked together. It is compact and forms part of a total design.
- Plots could be simple or compound. A simple plot is composed of a single story. In a compound plot, two or more stories could be strung together into a single organic whole. Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” relates two stories that run parallel to one another. Dickens’ “Bleak House” consists of three stories woven together very skillfully. In compound plot, one story may serve as a foil to the other, producing great effect.
- There are three popular methods of plot revelation : 1) the epic or the direct method where the novelist narrates the story from outside as in Hardy’s “Return of the Native” or Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. 2) the autobiographical method where the writer identifies with one of the characters and produces an imaginary autobiography as in Dickens’ “David Copperfield”, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” etc. 3) the documentary method where the action is unfolded in the form of letters as in the epistolary novels of Richardson, Smollett. Diaries and other documents could also be used for narration in this method. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. An intimate tone may be achieved by the use of the autobiographical or documentary mode. The direct method gives the greatest scope and freedom of movement to the narrator.
- A narrative that follows a chronological order has a traditional linear plot comprising the exposition, complication, climax or turning point and the resolution. The exposition or presentation of the initial situation is disturbed by a complication or conflict which produces suspense and eventually leads to a climax, crisis, or turning point. The climax is followed by a resolution of a complication, with which the text usually ends. Techniques such as flashback and foreshadowing introduce information concerning the past and the future into the narrative.
- Modern experimental novels deliberately break with the linear narrative structures, and mix various levels of action and time. Different settings merge with internal sequences of action in a non-chronological manner in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” to produce an extremely complex plot structure.
- Characters are persons in a novel endowed with moral and dispositional qualities, expressed in their speech and actions, who move through its pages like living beings and live in the memory of readers.
- Forster in “Aspects of the Novel” speaks of flat and round characters. A flat character is built around a single idea or quality and is presented without much individualising detail. Flat characters are similar to the old “types” and are two dimensional. They are static and do not display much development in the course of the narrative. The flat characters are “typified” characters who often represent general traits of a group of persons or abstract ideas. A round character, on the other hand, is a multifaceted and unpredictablefigure. He is complex in temperament and motivation and is represented with subtle particularity. All narratives have round characters with more complex and differential traits and flat characters that serve merely as functionaries and are left relatively flat. Jane Austen working on “two or three inches of ivory” gives us perfect studies in character. For instance, in “Pride and Prejudice”, she has created round characters in Darcy and Elizabeth and in the less individualised Mrs.Bennetand Mr.Collins, flat characters.
- Both typified and individualized characters can be presented using the telling and the showing modes. In the telling or director explanatory/analytical method, the author intervenes authoritatively to describehis characters, analyse their thoughts, feelings, passions, motives and evaluate them. This technique places the author/omniscient narrator in the foreground, inserting him as a judgmental mediator between the action and the reader. The author appears in the capacity of expositor and critic.
- In the showing or indirect or dramatic mode of characterisation, the characters reveal themselves through speech and action and also by the comments and judgment of other characters. The author presents the characters talking and acting without interfering commentary. He may show not only external speech and action, but also a character’s inner thoughts, feelings, and responsiveness to events by taking recourse to the stream of consciousness narration. In this rather ‘objective’ method, interpretation and evaluation are left solely to the judgment of the reader. Thackeray and George Eliot have been known to prefer the telling method, whereas Tolstoy, Hemingway and others tend to use the dramatic mode. A novel that is a compound of narrative and dialogue involves a combination of the analytical and the dramatic. According to modern critical thought, the ‘telling’ method is considered a violation of artistry and it is recommended that the author must efface himself in order to write objectively, impersonally or dramatically.
- The power of perception and imagination that goes into the creation of characters Thackeray calls ‘the occult’. This magic element marks a distinction between creative genius and talent. The exercise of creative genius creates “characters found’ and that of talent ‘characters made’. A combination of knowledge of human nature and creative power and imagination produces characters who are life-like and convincing and linger forever in the minds of readers.
- Though the plot is given more importance than character in certain types like detective fiction, plot and character depend on one another in a balanced mannerin general. Hence the dictum, “action issues from character and character from action”.
POINT OF VIEW
- The term point of view or narrative perspective characterizes the way in which a text presents persons, events and settings. Omniscient point of view, first person point of view and figural narrative situation are the most common narrative perspectives adopted by writers.
- Texts with an omniscient point of view present the action through an exterior, unspecified narrator. The acting figures or characters are referred to in the third person, and the action is presented from an all-knowing God-like perspective. The term ‘third person narrative’ is also used for this narrative situation. Since there is no narrating persona within the narrative, changes in setting, time and action can be done, and information beyond the range and knowledge of the acting figures can be provided with ease. An omniscient narrator can go back in time, look into the future and possess exact information about the different characters in a novel. Early novelists preferred this mode of narration to others. Eg.)Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”.
- First person narration presents the action as seen through a participating figure. The first person narrator is a person involved in the action, who refers to himself in the first person. The point of view of either the protagonist or a minor figure may be adopted for the same. Such a narration aims at an authentic portrayal of the subjective experiences and feelings of the protagonist. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”, Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” use the protagonist as the first person narrator. When the first person narrator is a minor character and events are seen through his eyes, the protagonist of the novel remains less transparent. This technique mystifies the protagonist and makes him enigmatic and mysterious. Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” is narrated by a minor character Ishmael who in the course of the narrative describes the actions of the protagonist Captain Ahab.
- In the limited point of view narration or the figural narrative situation, the third person narration is bound to the perspective of a figure who is also part of the action. Direct speech and mental reflections may be employed to reveal the action through the perspective of the protagonist. The plot is revealed through the actions of the characters, and the reader judges the action without the intervention of a commentator. For instance, James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is narrated from the limited point of view, where the action is rendered through the figural perspective of its protagonist Stephen Daedalus.
- A novel that shifts its emphasis from external aspects of plot to the inner world of a character uses the stream of consciousness technique. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, this technique turns its focus from social to psychic phenomena. The narrator disappears, leaving the thoughts and psychic reactions of a participating figure as the sole mediators of the action. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are considered the pioneers in the use of this technique. Joyce’s “Ulysses” strings together the mental associations of the character Molly Bloom. Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway” presents events not only through the thoughts of the protagonist Clarissa Dalloway but depicts her protagonist through the psyches of different personae. William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” interestingly renders the impressions and events through the perspective of a mentally handicapped character named Benjy.