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Main elements of a literary text


1. The short story genre. The theme.

2. The message.

3. Tonal system.

4. The plot and its structure.

5. System of images. The means of characterization.

1. A short story is traditionally understood as a short story narrative
in prose. Its literary classical definition presents a short story as a
relatively brief prose narrative, usually characterized by uniformity of
tone and dramatic intensity, and having as plot a single action. A
popular form of a story is one that tells events with a definite
beginning, middle and end. But others may have very little plot and may
never have moved to a completed action.

A short story usually contains one event focusing on a single aspect of
life. The number of characters is limited but they are rather revealed
and developed. The story may belong to a particular type: social,
psychological, historical, adventure, detective, science-fiction,
documentary or be the mixture of a number of the types.

Note. Why story? We deal with the short prose form of fiction, the short
story, because of two reasons:

a) in the short story the linguistic and literary devices are
expressively more loaded than in the long form of writing, the novel;

b) because of its length the short story abounds in implicit

A literary work is an artistic whole which is created by the interaction
of all its elements: the characters, setting, plot, plot structure,
language, literary techniques, etc.

The basic problem represented in the story is the theme. The theme is
the main area of interest treated in the story. It is the represented
aspect of life which the story illustrates.

As literary works commonly have human characters for their subject of
depiction the theme may be understood as an interaction of human
characters under certain circumstances (the theme of love or love for
one’s Motherland; the theme of family relations, war and peace; a clash
of cultures; discrimination of any kind, etc.)

Within a single narrative the basic theme may alternate with rival
themes and their relationship may be complex. All the themes are linked
together to represent a unity, the essential characteristic of a
literary creation.

Thus the theme of the story implies the problem which the writer
raises. His view and attitude to this problem is revealed in the way he
develops the theme of the story.

2. The most important idea that the author expresses in the process of
developing the theme is the message of the story. The theme is therefore
organically connected with the author’s message.

The message is generally expressed implicitly, i.e. indirectly, and has
a complex analytical character, being created by the interaction of
numerous implications which the different elements of the literary work

Implication is the suggestion that is not expressed directly but
understood. Implication may be conveyed by different techniques, such as

a) parallelism (parallel actions of the dream and reality),

b) contrast (e.g. the antithetical thematic planes of the vocabulary;
this implication can also be suggested by the antithesis in the title
Arrangement in Black and White),

c) recurrence of events or situations (repetition of key words in the
text important for the understanding of the message of the story),

d) artistic details which stimulate the reader’s imagination and serve
to add something new about a character, or place, or event. E.g. feet
and hands with “fingers worked to the bone” in J. Priestley’s Angel
Pavement create the image of a woman exhausted by a life full of

e) symbols. When the artistic detail is repeated several times and
associated with a broader concept than the original, it develops into a
symbol. It is a metaphoric expression of the concept it stands for.
Symbols may be traditional and personal. An example of a traditional
symbol is a rose. The rose is a traditional symbol of beauty. Personal
symbols are established by means of repetition, repeated association
with a broader concept. E.g. in Rain by S. Maugham the rain symbolizes
the powers of nature before which Mr. Davidson is powerless and all his
efforts are useless and hopeless.

The message depends on the writer’s outlook, and the reader may either
share the writer’s views or not. On account of this, L. Timofeyev
distinguishes the following types of messages:

a) messages that suggest definite solutions (ідея-відповідь),

b) messages that raise a problem (ідея-запитання),

c) messages in which the solution of the problem is not adequate
(ідея-помилка). When analyzing the message one must also take into
consideration the title of the story. The title is the first element to
catch our eye, but its meaning and function may be determined
retrospectively. The title may have the following functions:

1. It may serve as a means of conveying the author’s message.

2. It may serve as a means of cohesion – it may unite the components of
a story to form a whole.

3. The title may serve as a means of focusing the reader’s attention on
the most relevant characters and details.

On revealing the author’s message, the reader generally analyses his
own rational and emotional response to the story, he/she draws his own
conclusions. M.Khrapchenko and L.Timofeyev distinguish between the
so-called objective message and the author’s message.

The objective message is the final conclusion that the reader draws from
the analysis of his own response to the story and from the author’s
message, contained in the story. The objective message may be broader
than the author’s message, because it is based on more profound
historical experience.

3. In every literary work the writer’s feelings and emotions are
reflected in the tone, attitude and atmosphere.

Atmosphere is the general mood of a literary work. It is affected by
such elements of a literary work as the plot, setting, characters,
details, symbols and l-ge and literary means.

The author’s attitude is his view of the characters and actions. It
reflects his judgement of them. It establishes the moral standards
according to which the reader is to make his judgements about the
problems raised in the story.

The attitude of the writer to his subject matter determines the tone of
the story. The tone is the light in which the characters and events are
depicted. The tone, therefore, is closely related to atmosphere and

In fiction tone expresses the relationship between the author (or
narrator) and the subject matter. Hence the tone may be sympathetic or
impassive, cheerful or serious, vigorous or matter-of-fact, humorous or
melancholy and so on. On the other hand, tone expresses the relationship
between the author (or narrator) and the reader. Hence the tone may be
familiar or official. There are scales of variations of tone. Thus, the
tone may be casual, familiar, impolite, deviant, offensive, it may be
sarcastic, ironical, sneering or bitter.

M. Khrapchenko noted that one should distinguish between the prevailing
tone of a literary work and emotional overtones, which may accompany
particular scenes in the story. They all form a “tonal system” which
reflects the changes of the narrator’s attitude to his subject matter.
The emotional overtones generally form a “tonal unity” which means a
consistency of attitude towards the events and characters. This
consistency of attitude is reflected in the consistent use of language
appropriate to the events and characters. So the “tonal unity” forms the
prevailing tone of the story, which plays the dominant role and
determines to a great extent the message of the literary work.

The narrator as mentioned above may establish an intimate, personal, or
formal relationship with the reader. Hence he may discourse at ease and
assume a familiar tone, or he may retain a relative distance and narrate
in an official tone. The indices of this aspect of tone are also

The official tone is set up by words and idioms that have an official
ring, e.g. “relevant” (for “important”), “up to the present time” (for
“up to now”), etc. It may be set up by carefully organized syntax and
carefully expressed ideas admitting no deviations from the standard.

The familiar tone is established by features of the spoken language, the
conversational style in particular. To these features belong colloquial
words, idioms, jargonisms, and slang. Delaying devices (e.g. sort of,
well, shall I say), colloquial parenthetic phrases (e.g. you know what I
mean) – all contribute to the establishment of a personal relationship
between the narrator and the reader, and the same time they set up a
familiar tone.

Thus, a story’s style and voice contribute to its tone. Tone refers to
the attitude that the story creates toward its subject matter. For
example, a story may convey an earnest and sincere tone toward its
characters and events, signalling to the reader that the material is to
be taken in a serious, dramatic way. On the other hand, an attitude of
humour or sarcasm may be created through subtle language and content

4. The theme can be understood from the plot – the plan of a literary
composition comprising a series of incidents (events) which are
gradually unfolded and each of the incidents comes out of the preceding
one and increases in intensity until the highest point is reached. In
other words, the plot is a series of interlinked events in which the
characters of the story participate.

Every plot is a series of meaningful events. The author selects the
events which are meaningful to the message contained in the story, and
to characterization, i.e. he/she chooses those that serve to reveal
certain features of the characters, their motives and morals. Therefore,
each event in the story is always logically related to the message, the
theme, the conflict, and is psychologically related to the development
of the characters within the story.

The events of the plot are generally localized, i.e. they are set in a
particular place and time. The place and time of the actions of a story
(or novel) form the setting. For the setting the writer selects the
relevant details which would suggest the whole scene. While setting
includes simple attributes such as climate or decor, it can also include
complex dimensions such as the historical period the story occupies or
its social context, the significant cultural issues affecting a story’s
setting. In some stories the setting is scarcely noticeable, in others –
it plays a very important role. The functions of the setting may vary.

1. The setting, especially description of nature, helps to evoke the
necessary atmosphere (or mood) which corresponds to the general
intention of the story.

2. The setting may reinforce characterization by either paralleling or
contrasting the actions.

3. The setting may be a reflection of the inner state of a character.

4. The setting may place the character in a recognizable realistic
environment. Such a setting may include geographical names and allusions
to historical events. All this creates the credibility of the plot.

5. In fiction the setting, especially domestic interiors (materials),
may serve to reveal certain features of the character.

6. When the theme and the main problem involve the conflict between man
and nature, the setting becomes in effect the chief antagonist whom the
hero must overcome.

The setting in a story may perform either one or several functions
simultaneously. It should be noted that characters, actions, conflicts
and setting work together to accomplish the author’s purpose.

The interrelation between different components of the plot is called
composition. Events recounted in the story are made up of episodes;
episodes in their turn, of smaller action details. The plot accordingly
consists of exposition, complications (plot development), climax and

In the exposition the necessary preliminaries to the action are laid
out, such as the time, the place and the subject of the action. Some
light may be cast on the circumstances that will influence the
development of the action. The setting is generally established at the
beginning of the story, in the exposition, which is the first component
of plot structure. Thus in the exposition the writer introduces the
theme, the characters and establishes the setting. This component
supplies some information on either all or some of the following
questions: Who? What? Where? When?

The second structural component which follows the exposition is
complications (story, body of the story). Complications generally
involve actions and the collision (the opposition of forces or
characters), though they might involve thoughts and feelings as well.

The third structural component is the climax. The climax is the key
event, the plot’s most dramatic and revealing moment, usually the
turning point of the story. It is often referred to as the moment of
illumination for the whole story, as it is the moment when the
relationship among the events becomes clear, when their role in the
development of characters is clarified, and when the story is seen to
have a structure.

The denouement is the fourth structural component of the plot. The
denouement is the unwinding of the actions; it includes the event, or
events, immediately following the climax and bringing the actions to an
end. It is the point at which the fate of the main character is
clarified. The denouement suggests to the reader certain conclusions.

A story may have no denouement. By leaving it out, the author achieves a
certain effect – he invites the reader to reflect on all the
circumstances that accompanied the character of the story and to imagine
the outcome of all the events himself.

The closing of the story is the ending. When it takes an unexpected turn
it is called an unexpected or surprise ending.

Novels may have two more components of plot structure: the prologue and
the epilogue. The prologue contains facts from beyond the past of the
story, the epilogue contains additional facts about the future of the
characters if it is not made clear enough in the denouement.

5. An image is a subjective reflection of reality. It is affected by the
author’s power of imagination. While reading fiction the images arouse
the reader’s response. Any change of a word affects the reader’s
response, as words may evoke sense impressions.


He was a stout man. “His features were sunk into
fatness …

His neck was buried
in rolls of fat. He sat in

The chair … his
great belly thrust forward …”

(S. Maugham. Red)

The images created by figures of speech in S. Maugham’s description call
up a visual picture of a concrete fat man and evoke in the reader
definite feelings, including those of antipathy and even aversion.
Whereas “He was a stout man” does not arouse negative feelings.

It must be noted that the images of a literary work form a system, which
comprises a hierarchy of images, beginning with micro-images (formed by
a word or a combination of words, the so-called artistic details) and
ending with synthetic images (formed by the whole literary work).

In literature attention is centered on man, his character and behaviour.
That explains why the character-image is generally considered to be the
main element of a literary work; the images of things and landscape are
subordinated to the character-image. Thus, landscape-images are
generally introduced to describe the setting, to create a definite mood
or atmosphere. Yet even a landscape-image, as well as an animal-image,
may become the central character of the story. E.g., Nature is the main
antagonist of the major character in The Old Man and the Sea by
E.Hemingway; or again animal-characters are the central characters in
The Jungle Book by R.Kipling.

In most stories one character is clearly central and dominates the story
from the beginning up to the end. Such a character is generally called
the main, central, or major character, or the protagonist. The
antagonist is the personage opposing the protagonist or hero.

Characters may be simple (flat) or complex (well-rounded) depending on
their level of development and the extent to which they change. Simple
characters are constructed round a single trait. Complex characters
undergo change and growth, reveal various sides of their personalities.
Hamlet is a complex character, as he is brave and hesitant, sensitive
and unyielding.

The main character is most relevant in a literary work, since it is
through his fate that the message is conveyed. The minor characters are
subordinate, they are generally introduced to reveal some aspects of the
main character.

The characters may be described from different aspects: physical,
emotional, moral, spiritual, social. The process by which the author
presents and develops a fictional character is known as
characterization. There are two main types of characterization: direct
and indirect.

Direct method of characterization means that the character is evaluated
by the writer himself or by another character in the story. The author
uses indirect method of characterization when he/she depicts the
character through his/her actions, manners, behaviour, speech, and the
attitude to other characters.

Speech characteristics include:

1. Style markers, such as

a) markers of official style (“I presume”, “I beg your pardon”, etc.);

b) markers of informal conversational style: contracted forms,
colloquialisms, elliptical sentences, tag constructions (as “you know”),
initiating signals (as “Well”, “Oh”), hesitation pauses, false starts –
all of which are normally occur in spontaneous colloquial speech. In
fictional conversation they may acquire a certain function as may
indicate some features of the speaker’s character, his state of mind and
his attitude to others;

2. Markers of emotional state of the character: emphatic inversion, the
use of emotionally coloured words, the use of breaks-in-the-narrative
that stand for silence (e.g. “and I asked her if she’d rather I … didn’t
get married”, “and there I stayed in the middle of the road …staring” –
the pause lays emphasis on the words that follow the pause). They
indicate nervous state, irresoluteness, deep emotions or doubt.

3. Attitudinal markers: words denoting attitudes (as “despise”, “hate”,
“adore” etc.), intensifiers ( as “very”, “absolutely” etc.);

4. Markers of the character’s educational level: bookish words, rough
words, slang, vulgarisms, deviations from the standard;

5. Markers of regional and dialectal speech which define the speaker as
to his origin, nationality and social standing: foreign words, local
words, graphons.

Graphon is violation of the graphical shape of the word. It contains
information about the speaker’s origin, social and educational
background, physical and emotional condition. E.g. when the famous
Sinclair Lewis’s character Mr.Babbit uses “pee-rading” (parading),
“Eytalians” (Italians), “peepul” (people), the reader obtains not only
the vivid image and the social, cultural, educational characteristics of
the personage, but also the author’s sarcastic attitude to him.

6. Markers of the character’s occupation: terms, jargonisms:

7. Markers of the speaker’s individual speech peculiarities (idiolect)
which serve as a means of individualization.


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