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Glossary - Elements of Fiction:


Protagonist – The protagonist is the “main character,” the character we usually mention first when we talk about what the story is about. It is not necessary that the protagonist is “the good guy.”

Characterization – the methods a writer uses to develop characters, to let us know what they are like. Characterization can be direct or indirect.

Direct characterization – the narrator makes a statement telling the reader about the character

Indirect Characterization – the reader infers character based on:

  • The character’s appearance

  • The character’s words and actions

  • The character’s reputation (what other’s say and do about/around the character.)

  • The character’s thoughts and feelings

Characters can be static or dynamic:

Static characters do not change significantly in terms of their beliefs, personality, perspective or maturity level over the course of the story.

Dynamic characters undergo a major change in personality, beliefs, perspective or maturity as a result of the events in a story.

Characters can also be flat (stereotypes) or round (three-dimensional or developed):

Flat characters have only a couple defining character traits and they act based on only those traits. They tend to be stereotypes – all good or all bad or at least very predictable based on their known character traits.

Round or well-developed characters are more like real people. They have complex motives, feelings and relationships. They have multiple personality traits and beliefs that affect their actions and reactions in different situations, so they are not as predictable as flat characters.

Do not confuse static / flat or round/dynamic. A dynamic character can fail to undergo change. A flat character could possibly change (although this is less likely).

Foil – foils are useful characters. They are essentially the opposite of another character, which serves to highlight character traits. Examples:

A very comical character who never takes anything seriously will make a very serious character look even more serious by contrast than an average character with a typical sense of humor would.

A very old character will make a young character look even younger.

A character with uncommonly bad luck will look even more unlucky next to a character with uncommonly good luck.)

Plot & Conflict

Plot is simply the “what happens” of your story. It is the “story line.”

Plot can be divided into some useful points: Exposition, Initial incident, Rising action, Falling action, and Denouement (resolution).

Exposition is the part of the story in which we learn about the characters, the setting and other important background information, but no significant action has happened yet. When you pick up a novel and it takes some time to really “get into” it, it’s usually because the exposition doesn’t catch your interest as easily as the action and conflict in the story. Writers must balance so that there is enough exposition that the reader understands what’s going on and cares about the characters, but there is not so much exposition that the reader gets bored and quits reading before the story even gets going.

The initial incident is the first event/action that starts the plot moving. It is one moment in time, or one action/scene. Not a whole series of events or actions. In a series of events or actions, it is the first one (that’s what “initial” means).

The rising action is a series of events that build the conflict and tension in the story. Once the initial incident gets the ball rolling, everything is rising action until you get to the climax. Most often, the rising action is the largest part of a story, but not always.

The climax is the turning point of the conflict. I repeat: turning point. It is not necessarily the “most exciting” part, although that’s possible. Similar to the initial incident, it is one moment, one action, not a series of events or actions. Determining the climax requires understanding the conflict.


Most stories contain multiple conflicts (or one plot and many “sub-plots). This can be confusing when a teacher asks “what is the conflict?” Even with multiple conflicts, there should be one big central conflict or problem. If you had to say what the story was about in one sentence, you would most likely boil it down to the main conflict. The sub-plots are the interesting problems on the side that confuse and complicate the retelling of your story, but make your novel more fun to read. For now I’ll continue to describe “conflict” assuming we mean “main conflict.”

The conflict can be described as:

Protagonist VS Antagonist

The protagonist, as mentioned in the character section, is basically the main character.

The antagonist is “the force that acts in opposition to the protagonist.” The antagonist can be, but does not have to be, another character. It just has to be an obstacle, hurdle, problem (human or otherwise) or process (this is what I mean by “force”) that engages the protagonist.

Similar to stress in real life, the antagonist doesn’t even have to be “bad.” So, like getting your dream job or acing your final exams can cause stress in real life, even though they are good things, antagonists can be growing up, falling in love, winning a championship game etc. in a story.

Using the formula “protagonist VS antagonist” conflict is defined most often in these basic formulas (with some variations and exceptions).

Man vs. Man – the antagonist is another person. This is the basic “good guy VS bad guy” formula. Of course the fact that good and bad aren’t so easily defined with round characters creates a million variations, and the protagonist doesn’t have to be a good guy and so on...

Man vs. Society – the antagonist is a situation or expectation in society is causing problems for the protagonist (poverty is a popular situation for this type of conflict).

Man vs. Self – the antagonist is inside the protagonist, so it’s also called an “internal conflict” – perhaps the protagonist has a character flaw that s/he needs to overcome, perhaps the problem is self-doubt, self-loathing, or lack of motivation, perhaps the person needs to come to terms with growing up or growing old etc.

Man vs. Nature – the antagonist is a natural event – a storm, a natural disaster, the wilderness, a bear

Man vs. Supernatural – the antagonist is fate or destiny, the gods etc.

Man vs. Technology – the antagonist could be a computer or other machine – often shows up in old sci-fi stuff

Once you’ve identified the central conflict, you can go back to determining where the climax in your plot occurs.

The “turning point” or climax is the action that tips the scales finally in the favor of one outcome or the other. It is the point in the story where something occurs to finally begin the solving of all of the complications that built up in the rising action.

Falling action is all of the events that wind down and untangle the complications that built up during the rising action.

The denouement (resolution) is the part where the loose ends are wrapped up and the reader finds out how everything turned out after the conflict is finished

The simplest genre to look at plot with is a detective story.

Exposition: you meet the detective and find out where the story is taking place

Initial incident: you find out a crime has been committed (find a dead body, hear a shot, the phone rings or someone knocks on the door to get the detectives help etc. – but only one action)

Rising action: the detective decides to take the case, he goes here there and wherever searching for clue after clue, and gets some false and some good leads

Climax: AHA! The detective gets the break – the final clue, and now you know “who done it” (the one moment of realization, the unveiling of the final clue etc.)

Falling action: the detective goes out and hunts down the bad guy, he might be breaking the news to others or doing other things on the way, there may be a race to the finish or a final shoot out (which might be more exciting than the turning point)

Denouement: this is the “happily ever after” bit, where we find out the detective retired, or went back to his office, or ends up with the girl or whatever happens afterwards

Or a fairy tale.

Exposition: we meet the beautiful girl and find out where she lives, and about her “evil stepmother” or some equivalent

Initial incident: the princess is invited to the ball (or runs into the prince, or the stepmother decides to do away with her – whatever happens first)

Rising action: the prince and princess fall in love, the stepmother figure is jealous, there’s some sort of fight or contest over who gets the prince

Climax: the princess proves she’s the right girl (when she pulls out her glass slipper, or gets “true love’s first kiss”)

Falling action: the prince does away with the stepmother and stepsisters; they break the happy news to the relieved kingdom etc. (pretty short in fairy tales)

Denouement (resolution): they live happily ever after - the end

A Plot Map is simply a visual organization of events based on the plot elements explained above:

Falling action

Rising action Climax


Resolution / Denouement

Initial Incident


Setting is simply the time and place that a story occurs. It seems simple, but it has a rather big impact on the story. Imagine how the time and place you live affects your life. Imagine:

  • not having winter or having winter all of the time

  • living in a rain forest or a desert

  • not having computers or cars

  • having arranged marriages

  • having someone else choose your job

  • not having antibiotics

  • living with five extra people in your house

  • living with five people total in an area the size of your city

  • …and so on…

How would it affect your lifestyle, your choices, your relationships, your attitude?


Theme is bigger than the topic of a work – not like the theme of a party or of prom. Theme begins with the topic (love, family, relationships, freedom, generosity, death, humanity etc.) and expands to make a statement or give an opinion on the topic.

Using “love” as a common topic, the readers must consider all of the elements of the story to determine the idea about love the story is meant to make: Love is more important than holding grudges. Love lasts forever no matter what you go through. Love is easier to get over than people might think. Love can ruin a person’s life. Love can fix a person’s life. Love is the point of a person’s life. Love shows up in many forms of relationships. Love is hard to find unless you stop looking for it. Blah Blah Blah.

All of the parts of a story work together to create the theme. Occasionally the author will state the theme directly, but often the theme is left open to interpretation.

When you make a statement of theme make sure it’s:

  • a statement (complete sentences)

  • a generalization (not about the story, about life in general Example: The theme is not “Cinderella’s goodness and the love of the Prince were stronger than the spite and bitterness of the stepmother.” The theme could be: “Love and goodness are stronger than spite and bitterness.”

  • Supported by the story (its events, characters, symbols, point of view, setting, plot and conflict etc.)


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