Some readers and critics would tell us that a story is simply and only language. What they may mean by this is that a story, whether it is told orally or written, whether it is factually verifiable or fiction, is not an object like a shovel or a table, but is something that exits only as words. Therefore, the plot is constructed of language, as are the characters and the setting, and so forth. Add a few words and the character is changed; take away a few and the plot is altered.
While these critics, no doubt, make very important points about the nature of language in our lives, about how stories manifest themselves in our minds, we need not become quite so philosophical in considering how writers use language to shape how a story is told. Instead, we can focus on such practical matters as sentence structure, word choice, imagery, symbolism, and irony. Then after we have identified various syntactic and semantic practices, we look for patterns and connections between those practices. For instance, we might notice that a writer has used the word “squat” to describe a character. Then we also notice a house is “tiny.” Later, we read a person’s temper is “short.” All of a sudden, a pattern exists that may relate in some way to the theme of the story. In another story, a conflict might be portrayed as “a conversation ranging from stinging to explosive.” Somewhere else in the story bees might be seen swarming or a car backfiring. Those places, then, might be places to look for more significant details about what the writer is telling us.
Sentence Structure. One place to begin looking at a story’s language is with the length and type of sentences. The length of sentences can affect how we react emotionally. A series of short sentences can seem like bursts of energy, shots of action, similar to quick cutting in movies. On the other hand, long sentences slow our reading down and often give the feeling of a more leisurely and thoughtful approach to the subject. As we read a story, we react to the pace of the language, and often the kinds of sentences writers employ in various places in their stories, especially where they describe people and places and where they come to the climax, are directly related to the information conveyed.
Another aspect of sentences to examine is the manner in which they are structured. Three basic kinds of sentences are called periodic, loose, and balanced. A periodic sentence begins with various phrases and is not grammatically complete until the end of the sentence. The effect of such a sentence is to postpone information to the very end, sometimes in a shocking or revelatory manner. The opening sentence of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” is a periodic sentence: “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.” A loose sentence is one that conveys its most important information early, and continues with additional descriptive but less important phrases. The following sentence from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Shopping” is a loose sentence: “From there they will move on to Young Collector, then to Act IV, then to Petite Corner, then one or another boutique and designer–Liz Claiborne, Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Carlos Falchi, and the rest.” A balanced sentence joins two ideas–sometimes contradictory, sometimes complimentary–in parallel grammatical structures. The last paragraph of Isabel Allende’s “And of Clay Are We Created,” which draws distinctions between the protagonist before and after the events of the story, includes several balanced sentences: “You are back with me, but you are not the same man. I often accompany you to the station and we watch the videos of Azucena again; you study them intently, looking for something you could have done to save her, some you did not think of in time. . . . Your cameras lie forgotten in a closet; you do not write or sing; you sit long hours before the window, staring at the mountains. . . ”
Each of these kinds of sentences can have subtle effect on readers and how they experience the story. The focus of Kate Chopin’s opening periodic sentence in “The Story of an Hour,” for instance, on “her husband’s death” is extremely important to the ending of the story, and thus to the story’s there. Similarly, Joyce Carol Oates’ list of shops is reflective of the general experience of her story: shops and shops, things and things, occupying time and space, but hiding the most important parts of our lives. And Isabel Allende’s balanced sentences perfectly reflect the conflict that Rolfe Carle is living with.
Word Choice. Readers become sensitive to the emotional texture of the language of any story they read. Many teachers and critics propose that writers intentionally choose individual words to create particular emotions in readers; others find no need to worry about what the writers’ intentions were. However we approach this question of writers’ intentions, we can all agree that writers’ word choices provoke emotions in their readers. Therefore, as we read stories we should become attuned to how particular words affect us.
We can analyze words for two kinds of meaning: denotation and connotation. Denotation is usually described as a word’s literal, dictionary meaning. Connotation is a word’s emotional meaning. For instance, the narrator in “Hills Like White Elephants” calls the two characters the “girl” and the “man.” Because of the connotations of these two words, we begin making all sorts of assumptions about the two characters and their relationship. How would the story have changed if the characters were the “woman” and the “boy”? The connotations of words communicate such ideas class status, power relationships, sexual play and desire, gender and generational issues, religious practices, and personal habits and values.
Imagery. Writers use imagery throughout their stories to convey what a scene or character looks like. In looking closely at imagery in stories, on one level we are simply examining the connotations and denotations of the description. Is the character standing, for instance, on a “slope,” “hillside,” or “rise”? Is a character “thin,” “skinny,” “waifish,” “emaciated”? These kinds of images are called literal imagery.
Another kind of imagery is called figurative imagery. This kind of imagery is comprised of figures of speech, the most notable are similes and metaphors. Others include oxymoron, personification, apostrophe, paradox, to name some basic figures of speech that all readers soon or later become familiar with. Similes and metaphors describe a person, object, or idea by comparing it to another person, object, or idea. Most writers use similes and metaphors more or less routinely in their stories. For instance, one character in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” describes a couple unflatteringly with the metaphor “museum specimens of Old New York.” In an early section of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor writes, ”’Aren’t you ashamed?’ hissed the grandmother.” Then later in the story, “She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. This misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him. . . .” Seeing how O’Connor twice portrays the grandmother as a snake, we will probably find clues toward understanding the story in these images.
Symbolism. Symbols can be understood as extensions of images. Images, especially figurative images, attach meaning to an object by drawing attention to certain qualities it has. One layer of meaning is clear if a writer describes a character as fluttering in the wind. The images make us see the character walking, perhaps, like a bird flies or a flag waves. But if the writer said the character stood on the hill, a flag in the wind, we would see the fluttering image, but we would also understand something else about the character because a flag is a symbol for a nation. Has the character become a symbol, representing a particular nation or nation’s value system? A symbol, therefore, is a word that is not drawing comparisons but is actually standing in for the things it refers to. Political and religious symbols are fairly easy to notice. Natural symbols–like water, fire, sun, moon–often occur in stories, as do images that seem universal in their meaning. Such symbols include a road for a life’s path, a day for a life (as in Mahfouz’s “Half a Day”), various animals, colors, and the like.
Sometimes writers create their own symbols. In the course of writing a story, writers may find that the usual array of symbols is not appropriate for the their particular story. Instead, they find the story requires its own artifact, act, character. One very famous symbolic act is at the end of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The house has come to symbolize the family and the house falls and splits apart. Poe’s contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, goes so far as to title his story “The Birthmark” after such a symbol. In contemporary writing, Sandra Cisneros gives a girl’s Barby doll as symbolic flaw is “Barbie-Q.”
Irony. Irony is a method the author or narrator uses to point out a contradiction between appearance and reality. This contradiction may simply exit between what is said and what is meant. Or it may exit between what the readers of a story know and what the characters in the story know. Or it may exit between what the readers expect to happen in a story and what actually does happen. Because irony is such a varied and versatile rhetorical and structural device, it is also useful to remember it when we think about point-of-view (narrators may be ironic, or unaware of an ironic situation) and tone (the narrator may have an ironic tone toward the characters, conflict, or setting).
Although some people think of the modern age as an ironic one, as a literary device, irony has a long history and is an important part of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Thomas Hardy’s novels, among many, many other works. As one might expect, a literary device with such a long history is practiced in many forms, and each has a name to differintiate it from other kinds: Cosmic irony, Socratic irony, structural irony, etc.
The various kinds of irony are interesting and important, but three are most important: verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Verbal irony, the most basic and perhaps the most prevalent, involves the contradiction between what is said and what is meant, and often is used with comic intent. At work, if something goes wrong, like that photocopying machine is broken, a person uses verbal irony, when obviously frustrated, he or she says, “I love this place!” The narrator of the story or characters in a story may use verbal irony. In the story “The Man Who as Almost A Man,” Richard Wright includes the following passage:
All the crowd was laughing now. they stood on tiptoe and poked heads over one another’s shoulders.
“Well, boy, looks like yuh, done bought a dead mule! Hahaha!”
“Ain that ershame.”
The last comment, spoken annomously by a member of the crowd, was not spoken to sympathize with Dave, but to laugh at him.
Dramatic irony occurs when there is a contradiction between what a character believes or says is true and what the readers know is true. Much of the story “The Man Who Was Almost A Man” is based on this type of irony. When Dave thinks to himself, “Ahm ol ernough to hava gun. Ahm seventeen,” we readers suspect, even in the first paragraph, where these words occur, that Dave is not old enough or responsible enough to have a gun. Even the very end of the story includes irony, as Dave believes there is a place where he can be a man, but the readers may suspect there are other reasons for Dave’s difficulty in becoming a man.
Situational Irony is a contradiction between what the characters and also the readers expect to happen in a story, or believe is true, and what actually does happen or is shown to be true. Often this type of irony is used in stories with surprise endings. The reader of “The Lottery,” like the central character, Tess, do not expect the events of the day to turn out as they do. Similarly, Edith Wharton employs situational irony in “Roman Fever.” Throughout the story, we assume many things about the relationship between these two women, as Mrs, Slade assumes many things. Not until the final irony of the story do we see how wrong we have all been.
Below is an early paragraph from Katherine Ann Porter’s “The Grave.” Porter is a writer noted for her graceful style and use of symbolic references. In reading any writer’s work, though, we can discover new levels of meaning by noticing the patterns of diction, imagery, and sentence structure place in their stories
They peered into the pits all shaped alike with such purposeful accuracy, and looking at each other with pleased adventurous eyes, they said in solemn tones (1): “These were graves!” trying by words to shape a special, suitable emotion in their minds, but they felt nothing except an agreeable thrill of wonder: they were seeing a new sight, doing something they had not done before. In them both there was also a small disappointment at the entire commonplaceness of the actual spectacle (2). Even if it had once contained a coffin for years upon years, when the coffin was gone a grave was just a hole in the ground (3). Miranda leaped into the pit that had held her grandfather’s bones. Scratching around aimlessly and pleasurably as any young animal, she scooped up a lump of earth and weighted it in her palm (4). It had a pleasantly sweet, corrupt smell, being mixed with cedar needles and small leaves (5), and as the crumbs fell apart, she saw a silver dove no larger than a hazel nut. With spread wings and a neat fan-shaped tail (6). The breast had a deep round hollow in it. Turning it up to the fierce sunlight (7), she saw that the inside of the hollow was cut in little whorls (8). She scrambled out, over the pile of loose earth that had fallen back into one end of the grave, calling to Paul that she had found something, he must guess what . . . His head appeared smiling over the rim of another grave. He waved a closed hand at her. “I’ve got something too” (9). They ran to compare treasures, making palms (10). Paul had found a thin wide gold ring carved with intricate flowers and leaves (11). Miranda was smitten at sight of the ring and wished to have it (12). Paul seemed more impressed by the dove. They made a trade, with some little bickering. After he had got the dove in his hand, Paul said, “Don’t you know what this is? This is a screw head for a coffin! (13) . . . I’ll bet nobody else in the world has one like this!”
(1) Notice the “poetry” of Porter’s style, the repetition of the p and s sounds. Connotation of “pits.”
(2) The very long first sentence, taking in so much of the scene and “adventure” in one sentence. Connotation of “spectacle.”
(3) Is this observation true: “when the coffin is gone a grave is just a hole in the ground.
(4) Image of “scratching” and “animal.” Connotation of “lump.”
(5) What is significance of “pleasurably” and “pleasantly.” Connotation of “corrupt.”
(6) Why did Porter use a fragmentary sentence?
(7) Connotation of “fierce.”
(8) Image of dove, wings, hollow, whorls. Symbolism of dove.
(9) Notice the sequence of fairly short sentences.
(10) Connotation of “treasures.”
(11) Image of ring. Symbolism of ring.
(12) Connotation of “smitten.”
(13) Periodic sentence ending with “coffin.”