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Short Stories Essay, Research Paper

Short stories are made up mainly of plot, setting and character. It is essential that one predominates- if the story deals with action, then the plot must be emphasised, and the characters remain simple figures within it. If the story deals with setting, then character and action must both have significance, but only in relation to the setting. If the story deals with character, then the characters must be emphasised and the plot focus on their most striking features and experiences. The portrayal of these experiences, if effective, can be applied to the reader?s own life experiences, helping them to understand them and their cause, therefor exploring ideas and views of human experience.

Literature, of course, makes explicit its relationship with narrative as a mode of analysis. And in the broad field of communications the structure of linear narrative drives theories of both interpersonal communication and media studies (Fisher 1985; Lucaites & Condit, 1985). That is to say that the interpretation of both media content and the way we relate to others is understood in terms of narrative construct. For instance, in their landmark book on the pragmatics of communication Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson (1967) discuss how each member of a communication situation constructs the event’s story and how these constructions may differ from person to person. Fiske and Hartley (1978), in another anchor text on understanding television, also discuss how television is contextualized as a cultural storyteller.

The characteristics of narrative have informed the content of the dominant media of this culture for some time. After a brief initial period during which the limits of the technology were being tested, film rapidly became a story telling medium. The same was true of much of early radio. Television, of course, has taken the narrative form to new heights (some might say depths) with soap operas, situation comedies, and dramas. Even program formats not immediately perceived as narratives demonstrate our cultural need to contextualize reality in this manner. Both talk shows and news shows are popular according to how interesting they are able to make the stories they tell. Before these electric media were our primary source of entertainment, traditional print was our constant narrative companion. Linear narrative form structures most of the important institutions in this culture, from politics and religion to education and commerce. These are all examples of narrative in its highly linear structure. Linearity and sequentiality, characteristics associated with print force, or request, an audience to attend in a particular way. Non-linear possibilities cracks open the relationship between user and text. Culturally familiar narrative at this point is linear. All narrative, however, does not unfold in this way. Recent trends show narrative taking on a distinctly non-linear shape.

A narrative is an ordered sequence of events. There are (at least) two different ways of ordering the events of a narrative, as we saw above–by strict chronology (”story”) and by the way the events unfold as they are told (”plot”). A narrative may seem to be like real life, for several reasons–because of the attempt to tell a story that seems as if it might have happened, which we call realism, and because, however unreal or surreal a story might be, we live and dream in stories, so they remind us of ourselves in any case.

But narratives are not, essentially, like real life. Narratives are highly edited and rigidly unified, defined, ordered, controlled, and selected. Some of this editing and unifying takes place as a result of the various conventions that apply between the story and the audience. Our appetite for narratives varies considerably, but most people prefer narratives in which only (apparently) essential details are given. Stringing out every action, every thought, every real or potential motivation or consequence is not possible, and not, strictly speaking, a narrative; most of that stuff is edited out, as we recognise when Sancho Panza tells Don Quixote a story, in Cervantes’ comic masterpiece, which is itself a profound exploration of the role of storytelling in our lives. Everything in a narrative (seems to/ought to) belong there. The most obvious ordering and defining of the narrative occurs in the three-part structure of beginnings, middles, and endings. (As noted by Aristotle.)

This is obviously one of the ways in which our lives conform with narrative structure–and vice versa. We are born (and narratives begin), we live our lives (and narratives unfold) and we die (and narratives come to an end). The differences are significant, of course. Narratives are structured so that sequence of chronological events which are determined by the laws of nature and of the world (albeit the fictional world) created in the story plays against the sequence of events as it unfolds in the plot, as told or performed. The order of things in the plot is the order of things we as readers or audience get to see and experience things. To put it another way, our lives are only a story, with one thing happening after another. A narrative is a story and a plot, with events arranged and re-arranged according to some design. If our lives were a plot, they would have to be narrated by some one or some thing.

In standard compositional terms, the beginning, middle, and end of a narrative are often referred to as exposition, development, and conclusion. These terms are clearly ones that relate to the level of plot rather than story. Exposition is the presenting of information necessary for the story to unfold, perhaps something about who the characters are, or what has already happened to get us where we are, or some other introductory bit of business. It is a critical structuring device, not only to get the plot moving, but, at a deeper level, to draw a distinction between what is in the narrative and what is not. The beginning of a narrative is a liminal or threshold space where we enter the story, making a transition between all that is not the narrative and all that is. All that is not the narrative, then, includes both our own daily lives and that part of the fictional world which was created for the narrative but which is not part of the story–which might include scenes from a characters childhood, or what she had for breakfast that morning, or any of an infinite number of details the narrator leaves out. There are of course as many different strategies for opening a narrative, as there are narratives. The celebrated opening of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, quoted above, calls our attention in a particularly gripping way to the opening of the story, and to events just prior to the opening. Various conventions surround different media–books have title pages and maybe a table of contents and an epigraph, movies have credits, plays dim lights and open curtains, the Beowulf poet yells “Hwaet!” and so on.

The development proceeds as the narrative gets underway, and the characters learn and do things, and have things done to them. Here “the plot thickens,” perhaps with various sorts of queries, intrigue, and suspense, the piling up of one enigma or dilemma after another. The development portion of the narrative is generally characterised by a kind of alternation of delays or digressions, which impede our arriving at the conclusion, and scenes of progression, which advance towards the conclusion. This alternation (if we may call it that) often works on our sense of expectation and anticipation, sometimes satisfying us, sometimes not. Often, as Aristotle indicated, the development will include one or more scenes of recognition (anagnorisis), which is when a character recognises (is made to recognise) the truth, and also one or more scenes of reversal (peripeteia), which is when a character changes state from one thing to its opposite, as for example from prosperous to impoverished. For Aristotle, the finest tragedies were those composed so that the events lead inexorably to a scene in which the central character experiences both a major recognition and a major reversal at one and the same moment: as when Oedipus learns the truth about his life.

The conclusion ties it all up. The end is what the whole story has been leading towards. Here is the solution of the mystery in mystery stories, and the resolution of various enigmas and dilemmas that have characterised the development portion of the narrative. The structuring power of the ending is immense, since it bestows the final meaning on the events, and is what everything in the narrative has (apparently) led up to. That is how we conveniently, and traditionally, think of narrative structure.

Narrative conventions tend to cluster around certain types of narratives within certain cultures, so that what is normal and expected in one narrative may be abnormal and unexpected in another. In Greek tragedy actors wore masks which carried symbolic import. In Elizabethan theatre men played women’s roles, since women were not permitted (or expected) to appear on stage. Also in Elizabethan theatre, characters would deliver soliloquies to the audience revealing the state of their thinking, and also deliver asides to the audience, which the audience understands, are not heard by the other characters.

Many conventions accumulate in particular genres. In westerns the “white hat = good guy” formula, or the cavalry charge to save the day at the end, were conventions readily understood and accepted by audiences. In detective fiction the convention of the private investigator, a person working alone rather than within an institution like the police, became standard. These formulae, which include the larger “boy meets girl…” kind of thing, are often so common we fail to recognise them as conventions, which is usually how it is “supposed” to be.

A particularly important narrative convention concerns the supposed truth of a story. We know that many (most?) stories are really not true in the sense that they really happened that way, but we expect to be led on by the convention, and by what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.” There are various modes by which this convention is manifest, including the general tendencies towards the “realist” or the “fantastic.” One of Shakespeare’s sonnets opens: “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.” One could almost say the same thing for the relationship between reader or audience and the narrative.

The term “narrative” is so broad it can get confusing (and, in any case, we often, quite properly, refer to “story” and “plot” without drawing on the distinctions made above, yet we all know what we are talking about…). The conventions of the Elizabethan theatre are, of course, dramatic conventions as well as narrative conventions. It is important to recognise, however, the fundamental differences in form between stories that are performed on stage and those that are narrated in a book of prose fiction. (Let us leave aside the narratives of film and other media, to say nothing those that play around in our heads….) We have made the distinction between story and plot to draw our attention to plot as the ordering (re-ordering) of events. Othello begins after (albeit just after) Othello has married Desdemona. Parts of the play, notably Othello’s long reminiscences of their courtship in 1.3, but also much of Iago’s opening dialogue, refer to events that have previously happened. The story of Othello, of course, would begin (”at the beginning,” wherever that is) and proceed to the end. The plot, however, re-orders the events to suit the dramatic action.

But nobody tells, nobody narrates, the story of Othello. It is performed for us on stage by actors playing the characters. We learn things in a drama by many things, including what characters look like, what they do, how they do things, and principally by what they say, how they say things, and what others say about those things, and how they say them. In a prose narrative, of course, we learn because a narrator tells us these things. Big difference.

We (as humans) have a (natural, human) tendency to provide order to things. Our minds and our visual (sensual) apparatus appear to be shaped (to have evolved) to make sense of things by eliminating what appears to be unnecessary and by making assumptions about how things fit together–hence stories. One of the primary ways we make sense of a story is by making sense of the narrator, that is, by assuming that the narrator is a relatively sane and sound individual person (often, conventionally, male, though this is by no means always the case), who knows what he or she is talking about, that is, who has special powers that enable him (her) to know and report things like what characters are thinking or planning, what they do when they are alone, and other things that ordinarily we do not know unless we are told by someone who does. We know that people lie, and we know that many stories are “made up,” but we do not usually expect the narrator to lie deliberately to us–unless it is part of the joke.

In making these assumptions about the narrator, we tend to share what narrators themselves (in their role as authors) often believe as well. These are among the narrative conventions we discussed above. But we may miss much in a story if we blindly (or, inattentively) read along without noting that the telling of the story is a part of the story (I am using the word story here in the common, generic sense, like narrative, but also like plot, and like, well, story…).

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