Useful terms

ENGL 341: Modern Fiction

Here are some helpful narrative terms for reading prose fiction; you will not be tested on them, but some of them may come in handy when it comes to describing certain features of modern fiction. Correct terminology is not only about sounding informed; without it, it can be impossible to make clear, concise and precise statements, and in some cases it may even be impossible to articulate the argument at all. For example, until narrative theorists had distinguished between “story” and “discourse,” it was impossible to perform many types of literary analysis that are now considered standard practice. [Updated Septmeber 16, 2014.]


THEME: an abstract concern of a given text; e.g., some of the themes of The Metamorphosis include alienation, duty, family, etc.

SYMBOL: something that stands for something else, whose meaning is largely external to the text (i.e., it is shared within a given culture); e.g., in many Western cultures a rose is a well-recognized symbol of love, beauty, purity, the Virgin Mary, etc.

MOTIF: a repetitive element (word, phrase, object) whose meaning is internal; e.g., the cow is a motif in A Portrait of the Artist…. A motif might also be understood as the concrete (non-abstract) counterpart of a theme. Symbols and motifs are not mutually exclusive: an element in a novel can have both external cultural connotations and internal idiosyncratic implications (e.g., roses or birds can be read both as symbols and motifs in Portrait).

TROPE: a conventional or stereotyped plot device, mythic structure, literary technique; e.g., romantic comedies use the trope of “ironic misunderstanding, leading to temporary falling out between the lovers.”

ARCHETYPE: like a trope, but applied to a character. Many fairytales use the archetype of the evil stepmother; Stephen Dedalus could be said to be a version of the Faust (or Lucifer, or Rebel) archetype, though there is, of course, much more to him that is implied by this description.

MASTERPLOT: a recurrent narrative structure (set of tropes) that, for cultures and individuals, plays a role in defining and maintaining identity, values, and the understanding of life. Masterplots include the view that “hard work leads to happiness and riches” or that “marriage is the end [either goal or ending, you pick] of life” or that “virtue is rewarded and vice punished.” Important masterplots in Western culture include the “rags-to-riches” plot, the “Cinderella story”, the coming-of-age story and the tragic “rise and fall” plot. Gide’s Counterfeiters begins with Bernard explicitly noticing that his life is not progressing as the literary masterplot of transgression + discovery would have him expect.

Masterplots are so pervasive that they can shape our unconscious expectations and interpretations of a narrative: we often either overread or underread a narrative in order to make it fit a masterplot: this is how “Scientific Creationism” can manage to match geological evidence to Biblical Scripture, or how conspiracy theorists can make every fact fit their idea that the government is behind all kinds of disasters.

IRONY: as it typically occurs in fiction, irony is a discrepancy between what is said and what is intended. Irony always excludes someone from the “true” meaning. If I wear a One Direction tee-shirt ironically, the band and its real fans are implicitly excluded from a shared understanding with those who know that I am really mocking them. Some types of irony that are described below are unreliable narration and double vision. In dramatic irony, the audience knows something that the protagonist is ignorant of; a classic case is Oedipus Rex, where the audience knows Oedipus’s secret long before Oedipus finds out. Irony is frequently misidentified: rain on your wedding day is not ironic—it’s bad luck (see this re-writing of Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” here).

INTERTEXTUALITY: a text’s shaping by  and incorporation of other texts, both by direct influence or quotation (allusion) and by indirect cultural “absorption” or accident. By translating Kafka’s title Die Verwandlung to The Metamorphosis–instead of, say, The Transformation–, translators bring his story into intertextual relation with the epic but often ironic poem by Ovid. The apple lodged in Samsa’s back may be an allusion to the Bible, but whether Kafka intended it is hardly relevant: it is impossible not to read the apple as an intertext. The title of Joyce’s Ulysses is definitely an allusion to Homer’s Odyssey, as are several moments in the novel.

PARATEXT: paratexts are information that surround and influence our view of a text; obvious examples of paratexts include a book’s cover or movie poster, which are not part of the text but which definitely contribute to our reading/viewing by shaping our expectations of the text. Forewords, epilogues, introductions, etc are also paratexts. Less obvious paratexts, but equally important, include things the author says about the text during interviews; reviews and other interpretations—even the author’s name. The Prologue by “John Ray, Jr.” in Lolita mimics a paratext (it is in fact part of the text–it’s a narrative frame, a different diegetic level).


DICTION: a text’s distinctive use of vocabulary and style; e.g., Lolita’s Humbert uses elevated diction compared with regular speech or narrators like Holden Caulfield or the invented slang of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Analysing diction permits readers to determine various characteristics of the narrator, including social positioning, reliability, state of mind, etc. Compare the lofty register (level of formality and specialization) of Hamlet’s soliloquies with his familiar, bawdy speech when he’s with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

TONE: tone refers to how a theme (or themes) are presented in a text through the use of words (specifically, through diction); e.g., the use of elevated diction can establish a tone of ironic detachment, arrogance, self-protection, self-deprecation, etc, depending on the context.

MOOD: often confused with tone, but rather different. Mood is the subjective “atmosphere” or “feeling” produced by a text. A story’s mood can be, for example, dark, depressing, meditative, etc.

SHOWING VS TELLING: narratives are said to show when the description of action, words, thoughts, etc., are not mediated by an editorializing narrator; showing is the primary mode in the drama. Narratives are said to tell when things are mediated, explained, etc, by the narrator. Strictly speaking, all narrative is telling; showing is really just a kind of telling that seems less mediated or unmediated. One of the distinctive (though not exclusive) properties of modern fiction is a tendency toward showing.

THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENT NARRATION: external, sometimes intrusive or judgmental, narrator; e.g., Middlemarch, The Lord of the Rings, The Bible, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”, The Counterfeiters (most of the time) This narrator, in theory, can read any character’s mind, though in practice only some characters are central enough to merit this.

OBJECTIVE (or DRAMATIC or BEHAVIOURIST) 3rd-PERSON NARRATION: no apparent focalization, narrator limited to external actions and dialogue, rather than internal emotional or mental states. This mode is also called zero-focalization. We find different forms of this kind of narration in Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La jalousie.

THIRD-PERSON LIMITED OMNISCIENT NARRATION: “reported monologue”; external narrator + focal character or central consciousness; e.g., A Portrait of the Artist and Henry James’s Daisy Miller. Also called Subjective 3rd-person narration.

NARRATOR: who speaks or tells; e.g., the unnamed narrator of Portrait of the Artist–the “voice” that refers to Stephen as “he.”

FOCALIZER: who perceives: focal character or central consciousness; e.g., Stephen Dedalus in Portrait.

DOUBLE VISION: a type of ironic structure, quite common in third-person omniscient or limited omniscient narration, in which the narrator knows or understands more than the focalizer. The circumference of the narrator’s sphere of knowledge is larger than that of the character’s, so there is a potential disparity between narrator and character perspectives. A good example is Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897): the focalizer is a child (Maisie) whose perceptions are verbalized in very convoluted, sophisticated language, which Maisie is too young to possibly use or understand. This term is usually used to describe the situation that can result from subjective 3rd person narration, but it also occurs in some 1st person narratives, when there is temporal distance between the narrating-I’s sphere of knowledge is larger than that of the narrated-I (see I-forms, below); this typically occurs when the narrating-I is older, wiser or more experienced than the narrated-I; for example, Great Expectations. Humbert in Lolita manipulates the reader’s sympathy by implying that he is wiser and more compassionate than he had been.

DIRECT DISCOURSE: the character’s speech or thoughts are directly reported (shown), i.e., dialogue or interior monologue.

INDIRECT DISCOURSE: the character’s speech or thoughts are indirectly reported (told) by the narrator.

FREE INDIRECT DISCOURSE (FID): a mode, common in double vision, combining elements of 1st-person and 3rd-person; also called free indirect style. Typically, FID communicates the immediacy and diction of the focalizer (his or her 1st-person experience), while preserving the syntax and verb-tense of the 3rd-person narrator. Often the vocabulary is a mix of the narrator’s and the focalizer’s: Hugh Kenner, in his reading of the phrase “uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse” (beginning of Chapter II in Portrait of the Artist), notes that “repaired” is an intrusion into the narrator’s language of a folksy term that Uncle Charles would use (Kenner calls this semantic “infection” of the narration “The Uncle Charles Principle”).

Here is a good example, underlined, from David Lodge’s Thinks… (2001): “His heart beat faster with the excitement of these thoughts. Did he dare? How much time did he have? He glanced at his watch.” The first and last sentences are in 3rd-person limited-omniscient narration, but the middle two include FID. They fall somewhere between 3rd-person limited-omniscient indirect discourse (“He wondered if he dared, and how much time he had”) and 1st-person direct discourse (“Do I dare? How much time do I have?”). As you can see, unusual punctuation (question marks and exclamation points) are often good indicators of FID, but not always. Once you see FID in a text, it becomes theoretically impossible to know exactly where FID ends and regular 3rd-person narration begins; the resulting ambiguity can be interpretively very fruitful.

A very good example of why identifying and assessing free indirect discourse matters is Katherine Mansfield’s 1923 story “The Garden Party,” in which the focal character Laura’s naivety bubbles up into the language of a more detached, evidently less naive narrator. It’s worth reading for other reasons too.

MULTIPERSPECTIVISM: the use of several focalizers (e.g., The Counterfeiters, Leaf Storm) or narrators (e.g., The Sound and the Fury).

FIRST PERSON NARRATION: direct discourse, focalizer and narrator are theoretically one and the same (except when passage of time or lessons learned make the “narrating-I” wiser than or otherwise different from the focalizing-I”). Usually singular (“I”) but sometimes plural (“we”), as in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” With 1st-person, there is always the potential for unreliability.

I-FORMS: in first person narration, “I” can mean many things. First, there is the narrating-I, the one who tells the story; then there is the narrated-I, usually a past version of the narrating-I. For example, in Lolita, the narrating-I is the older, perhaps wiser Humbert that from jail tells the story of the younger Humbert—the narrated-I—who raped and abducted Dolores Haze. This distinction isn’t always clear because the narrating-I is not only recounting but also changing and learning as he recounts—in other words, the narrating itself is a “story.” In some other cases, there is a narrating-I but no narrated-I; that is, the first-person narrator is not also a character in the narrative.

INTERIOR MONOLOGUE: usually though not necessarily a first-person form, in which the narration is a direct-discourse transcription of the character’s mental stream of consciousness. Examples: Joyce’s Ulysses (esp. the final episode), Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Tim Parks’ Europa. On our syllabus, the closest example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Leaf Storm.


  • Flesh-and-blood author: the real person who wrote the book; e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, the man who wrote Lolita
  • Implied author: see below
  • Narrator: the teller of the narrative; e.g., Humbert Humbert in Lolita
  • Narratee(s): the narrator’s audience; e.g., the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” or the “gentle reader” in Lolita
  • Implied reader: an idealized reader perfectly attuned to the implied author’s meanings
  • Flesh-and-blood reader: those real people actually reading the book–you and me.

IMPLIED AUTHOR: This is a difficult concept: the implied author is a hypothetical consciousness that “intended” everything in the text.  The implied author of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is neither the unnamed narrator nor Edgar Allan Poe, the actual author. It is a version (or performance) of Poe that can sincerely and completely indict the narrator’s lies and madness, whereas the real Poe was a complex person who probably lied sometimes and was actually a bit mad himself. The implied author is a “virtual consciousness,” responsible for the unspoken but observable norms, ideologies, codes, hidden meanings, ironies, etc in a text.

The implied author “intends” all the effects of the text, while the real author can write things without intending every nuance or implication. For instance, I could write a story about “a pride of lions” (a pride is a group of lions) without intending to reference the Deadly Sin also called pride; but the implied author of my story does intend this pun and all of the meanings that can come from it.

If you find this idea too slippery (and many critics do), you could simply think of “implied author” as a synonym for “text.” In other words, when you say that evidence in the text of “The Tell-Tale Heart” warns us not to accept the narrator’s account, you might also say that the evidence is the contribution of the implied author.

UNRELIABILITY: a form of irony where the narrator is excluded from the knowledge but especially the moral complicity shared between the author (or, strictly speaking, the implied author) and the reader (or, strictly speaking, the implied reader). A narrator is unreliable when his or her norms, evaluations, assumptions and understandings are demonstrably at odds with those of the implied author; a narrator who claims ignorance, or even one who deliberately lies, is not necessarily unreliable (he or she is fallible). Almost all unreliable narrators are first-person narrators, but there are second-person unreliable narrators (Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” or, perhaps, Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”) and 3rd person unreliable narrators (Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain”). Famous ones are Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the narrator of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal and Chief Bromden in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When Humbert in Lolita notes that his plan to drug and rape Dolores raises “all sorts of purely ethical doubts and fears” (105), we may think he’s less bad than we previously believed; but then he gives us a list of those doubts and fears, which include anxiety that he “had taken no steps toward becoming [her] legal guardian” (105). This is not an ethical doubt: this is a logistical problem! What Humbert says testifies against him.

The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is obviously unreliable; so is Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which shows that unreliable doesn’t necessarily mean bad. (Huck is unreliable in that he is more naive about the world than the reader presumably is. He is unreliable because he thinks and tells us, due to his upbringing, that it is wrong to protect the runaway slave Jim; but the text clearly tells us not to believe Huck’s assessment, that his instinct to protect Jim is good even though Huck himself thinks he has chosen to damn himself by protecting his friend.) We know these narrators are unreliable because each text offers, between the lines, clear evidence to undermine what the narrator says. In other cases, unreliability is more ambiguous; in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in fact, one of the major critical debates is whether the narrator (the Governess) is reliable (the ghosts are real) or not (the ghosts of projections of a mind unable to describe or evaluate reality).

METAFICTION: fiction that is “about” its own fictionality; metafictions are as much about the process of making or reading fiction as they are with reflecting the “real” world; e.g., Gide’s Counterfeiters, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, the movies Adaptation and Stranger than Fiction.

DIEGETIC LEVEL: a way to distinguish between the world of the narrator outside the story (extradiegetic level), the world of the story (diegetic or intradiegetic level), and stories embedded within the diegetic level (metadiegetic level). In Lolita, the frame narrator (John Ray, Jr) explains that he edited a manuscript by Humbert Humbert, and this manuscript is the main story; thus Ray’s narration is one diegetic level “above” that of Humbert. In some narratives the number of levels can multiply to create some pretty complex structures (e.g., The 1,001 Nights, Cloud Atlas, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…).


PLOT: a sequence of interrelated events, usually a beginning, middle and end with an element of causality; sequence + consequence. Conventional plots have a well-known arc or structure.

KERNEL: an event that contribute to the shape of the plot; i.e., it is part of the causal network. You could also say that kernels create bifurcations in the plot.

CATALYST: an event that does not contribute to the shape of the plot; i.e., it is part of the sequence of events, but has no consequence. Catalysts do serve (or can serve) a purpose: they may serve aesthetic, symbolic, realistic or even dramatic purposes.

STORY (or HISTOIRE or FABULA): narrative content, or what events occur: the events that (presumably) happen in the fictional world; the story is always something inferred by the reader. Story is the “real” order of events (it is the raw material for the narrative) as they occur at the diegetic level of the characters; theoretically, these events are “real” instead of linguistic constructs. Note that the story is never directly accessible—it is always something we reconstruct based on the discourse.

DISCOURSE (or RÉCIT or SYUZHET): narrative presentation, or how the story is told. Discourse is the order in which events are presented; e.g., in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,

ANACHRONY, OR TIME-SHIFT: temporal disparity between discourse and story; anachrony is broadly divided into analepsis (flashback) and prolepsis (flash-forward), but more complex interactions are possible (e.g., analepses containing prolepses, etc). In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the story begins in 1930 and ends in 1959, but the events are presented in a highly non-chronological order, beginning in 1936, then back to 1930, then forward to 1943.

STORY TIME: time as measured in the story. In Portrait of the Artist, the story time is about 18 years.

DISCOURSE TIME: words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, etc. This is, of course, not really a temporal dimension, but a spatial one; still, these spatial units do take more or less time to read, so there is some sense to the designation. In Portrait of the Artist, the discourse time is about 250 pages, or about 6 or 10 hours of reading, depending on your reading speed and level of interest.

TEMPO: the various relations between story time and discourse time, including these 5 canonical tempos:

  • Scene: story time and discourse time are more or less equivalent, event is dramatized; more common in film or drama than in novels or stories; e.g., scenes in which dialogue (as opposed to narration) predominates
  • Ellipsis: all story time, no discourse time, event is omitted; e.g., several years pass silently between the opening episode and the first schoolyard scene in Portrait of the Artist
  • Summary (in film, time-lapse): much story time, little discourse time, event is mentioned;e.g., the synopsis of Stephen’s devout phase at the beginning of Chapter IV.
  • Stretch (in film, slow-motion): much discourse time, little story time, event is prolonged; e.g., an especially explicit example is in Lolita (Humbert even notes the discrepancy between two seconds of “real” time and the time it takes to read of his description)–see Part II, Chapter 29 (page 269): “Her head looked smaller (only two seconds had passed really, but let me give them as much wooden duration as life can stand), and her pale-freckled cheeks were hollowed….” Other excellent examples are the stabbing scene in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent  (2-3 seconds stretched over 1.5 pages) or the car accident in Jon Mcgregor’s If nobody speaks of remarkable things (2-3 seconds stretched unbearably over many, many pages).
  • Pause (or achrony): no story time, all discourse time, event is suspended in favour of description; e.g. whenever the narrator in Gide’s Counterfeiters suspends to plot in order to describe the appearance of a new character.

TEMPORAL STRUCTURE: the structure resulting from divergences between story and discourse; story and discourse can diverge in terms of the order in which events are reported (anachrony) or in terms of tempo.

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