Prose: novel and short story

Studying Fictional Prose

Along with drama, the novel and short story is a popular choice of genre for Part 3 of the course.  For most students novels are their path into literature and remain their preferred genre for independent reading.   Therefore, depending on your class and their experience of reading, this can be a rich source of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm ready to be tapped into for the study of three or four texts in depth.  

However, while fictional prose is often the genre students feel most comfortable with reading, it does not necessarily follow that they find it easier to analyse and critically interpret such texts.  In many ways fictional prose works against such an approach as authors seek to immerse us in a world where we are asked to believe in the characters and events as if they are real - we lose ourselves in novels and stories and are perhaps less conscious of the craft behind what we're reading.   With poetry, for example, the form and craft are much more overt and it can be argued that the relative concision of most poetry and plays, compared to novels, lends itself to more focused analysis of an author's choices.  

All this needs to be at at the forefront of our minds when we study fictional prose and we need to be 'on our toes' to ensure we stay focused on the craft of the author.  When we discuss or write about narrative prose, it is very easy to slip into narrative ourselves and start retelling a story and treating characters as if they are real people.

That said, despite "the death of the novel" being declared every so often, fictional prose would still seem to be thriving and the sheer variety of great texts from authors on the PLA that are accessible, rich and challenging for IB students means that teachers are spoilt for choice when it comes to designing an engaging course for 17/18 year olds (arguably more so than with the other three genres). 

As with the study of any text, it is important students put themselves into the shoes of the authors of novels and short stories in order to appreciate the choices made within the conventions of the genre.   Therefore, students should be given opportunities to think and write as writers of fictional prose.  

A good starting point is to consider the difference between telling a story - something we all do all of the time - and constructing a plot, a central part of a writer's craft.  E. M. Forster put it thus:  

Story and plot

"Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.

"The king died and then the queen died" is a story.

"The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot.

The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Or again: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king."

This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say "and then?" If it is in a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel."

Constructing a Narrative

Follow up with this group activity.  Show the class a picture that suggests a story - it can be any image but ideally one that suggests a conflict and that something interesting is happening/is about to happen/has just happened.  The one below is just a suggestion.  

In their groups ask them to invent a story about the picture, focusing on what happened in what order  - "a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence" as E. M. Forster defined it.  This could be a series of statements starting "And then - "  

After about 5 minutes, ask each group to share their story.  Try to keep them focused just on what happened in what order although some will start filling in details about how and why these things happened.  Rein them in on this at this stage but it is worth pointing out that they have already started to develop their plot, the "sense of causality."

Once each group has shared their story, return them to E. M. Forster's definition and also give them the following Margaret Atwood quotation:

[stories] are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.[1]

Next, ask them to do exactly this in their groups - add the How and the Why to their stories.  

Following this, students individually turn their group story into the opening paragraphs of a narrative, making decisions about HOW they want to tell this story.  Make it clear you are asking them to do what writers do: make CHOICES and CRAFT the raw material of a story idea into a narrative. 

Get students to share their narratives and discuss the choices made.  Use this discussion to start students thinking about the choices available to fictional prose writers and to make some notes that will start their study of novels/short stories off with this explicit awareness at the forefront of their minds.  The following are areas and questions that you might want to cover:

Genre: did the story suggest a certain genre?  Did different people choose different genres? What conventions of the genre were used? Did you mix or challenge genre conventions? 

Structure and the handling of time: where did you choose to begin and why?  You may want to introduce some literary terms and theory here. Did anyone use analepsis (flashback) or prolepsis (flashforward) in their narrative? In their analysis of folk tales, Russian formalists identified two aspects of a text:

  • The Fabula - the story as it might exist in real time, unmediated by an author.
  • The Sjuzet - the story as arranged and organised by an author. 

Students should note that it is the latter they have just been doing and it is this and the way it relates to the fabula that we are most interested in as we study texts.  

Narrative voice and perspective: who is telling the story,? From whose point of view do we see things?  How does this shape the reader's response?  

Prose style:  what choices did you make in terms of word choice, syntax, use of dialogue, description, imagery etc? 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Atwood actually uses the term 'plot' here not 'story' but her point is essentially the same as E. M. Forster's - they are just using different terms, which is why 'narrative' might be preferable to avoid such confusion. 
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