How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Category: Reading Fiction

Posts focusing on how to appreciate great fiction.

Distinguishing Tone in Fiction: Tragedy, Pathos, Comedy, Irony

What emotions do different fictional tales evoke? Readers must distinguish tone in fiction to appreciate the total effect of a writer’s art.

“Tone” in fiction guides our emotional responses. Is the story funny, sad, tragic, or ironic, or all these? Let’s take a look at the gamut of Tone in Fiction, with examples and clues to distinguishing tone and irony

 

How to Read Fiction Step 6: Distinguishing Tone

When teaching Tone and Irony in fiction, I often began by asking the class to imagine a scenario:

Suppose that I, the instructor, walk into the classroom where all the students are assembled. I stride purposefully toward my desk, but before I can get there, I hit a wet spot on the floor. I slide, falter, and fall– boom!– right onto my derriere. Papers go flying, my handbag spills, books scatter. A classroom tragedy!

Or is it? Maybe it’s not tragic at all, but actually kind of funny? Or even truly slapstick, knee-slapping funny? Or perhaps it’s a great example of irony, since only yesterday I had told students to watch out for wet floors. Or perhaps it’s a satisfying end to some long drama, a karmic come-down for a supercilious professor who enjoys berating her students day after day. (Note: that situation would be a total fiction, of course!)

If someone were telling this story aloud, it would be fairly easy to interpret which of these reactions the teller expects us to have. We could discern it from the speaker’s tone of voice, gestures, and body language. But If this story were being related within a fiction, how can we decipher how the author means readers to experience or interpret this event?

The bare sequence of the events as described doesn’t tell us how to react. What does? For one thing, the kind of language used to describe this event would help shape tone for readers. Is my pain and indignity being described, or is the description comically exaggerated?

In addition, readers also might need to consider more context while interpreting tone. For instance, if I hit my head going down, become comatose, and miss my daughter’s wedding, it might be tragic. If the student I most dislike comes to my aid, and I learn to regard him fondly, readers might experience pathos. If I slip and slide all over the room, waving wild arms before crashing, then get up and just start the class as if nothing happened, just rolling my eyes a little, it might be comic.

Is this situation funny or sad, tragic or ironic, or all? The writer’s tone can tell us.

When reading any good fiction, readers must interpret verbal and contextual cues to figure out just what kind of a story this really is. Those qualities of fiction that evoke particular attitudes and emotional responses in readers work together to produce Tone in fiction. If readers can’t interpret the tone of a scene, or worse, the overall tone of an actual work, they will misunderstand the story that the author is telling.

Keep reading to learn more about how readers can recognize the cues given by an author to establish the Tone of the fiction for readers. I especially want to talk about recognizing comedy and irony, since many students find those especially difficult to recognize in older works where verbal conventions were different.

How to Read Fiction Series

Step 1: Style

Step 2: Theme

Step 3: Plot

Step 4 Part 1: Characterization Techniques

Step 4 Part 2: More Characterization Techniques

Step 5: Narrators

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All About Narrators: Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

Tere Marichal, storyteller from Puerto Rico, telling the Afro-Caribbean folktale of Anansi at Biblioteca Juvenil de Mayag during a Multicultural Childrens Book Day.

How to Read Fiction Step  5: Narrators and Point of View 

Wading into a new fiction, it’s natural to size up the characters and get a bead on the story line. Who’s the central character? What is her problem or goal? Then off we go, following the storyline up and down until we find out how it all comes out in the end.

But before launching out into the plotline, there’s one big question we need to ask first, and keep asking all the way through: who is telling this story, anyway?

Is it someone who is in the story with a limited view of events, or someone outside looking omnisciently down? Is it someone we can trust or someone we must question?

A work of fiction is not just a description of a series of incidents; it is a description of a series of incidents as told by a particular teller. Sometimes a fiction is more about the teller than it is about the events in the storyline itself. Whatever the narrator choice or mode of telling, this important aspect of great fiction is something we don’t want to miss.

In this post I’m going to talk about the many different types of narrators an author could choose when constructing a fiction, and how that artistic choice influences the story that we experience as readers.

How to Read Fiction Series

Step 1: Style

Step 2: Theme

Step 3: Plot

Step 4 Part 1: Characterization Techniques

Step 4 Part 2: More Characterization Techniques

Step 6: Tone in Fiction

 

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Going Deeper: Five More Characterization Techniques; How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2

Barefoot young man wearing suspenders sits in wooden chair in middle of dirt road with book open on his head and book pages flying around him in the air. Characterization techniques help characters spring from pages as if real.

Characterization techniques help characters fly from the page. Readers experience them as if they are real people.

In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.

As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.

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How Characterization Makes Characters Live: How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 1

20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

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Appreciate Plot Structure: How to Read Fiction Step 3

A very tall first hill of a red roller coaster reflects the structure of a fictional plot. Enjoy the ride, but also appreciate the plot structure.

Following a good plot can be as thrilling as riding this roller coaster. Go ahead and enjoy the ride, but also learn to appreciate the plot structure!

At least since Scheherazade wove 1,001 tales for King Shahryar, readers have fallen under the spell of master story-tellers. Though authors think a lot about how to craft their plots, readers don’t often give much thought to how a plot is built, beyond consuming it. We just love being on the roller coaster ride: What happens next? And next? How will the characters ever get out of that mess? And the next, even harder one? How will things turn out for the characters we come to care for?

What most readers want in plot is a fast-paced but also logical chain of events, including some twists and surprises. At story’s finish, everything should just feel right, as if events led to the place they naturally would. Enjoying and critiquing a plot of this familiar type feels easy and natural.

What happens, though, when a work we are reading doesn’t follow the typical plot conventions? Great literature often does not.

Roller coaster riders on this yellow coaster are enjoying the ride just as readers enjoy riding the structure of a good plot. But readers can appreciate plots on a deeper level too.

Riding the plot roller coaster is fun! But there are more ways to enjoy plot than just to consume it.

For one thing, some great works were written before plot as we know it was fully developed. Later writers of great fiction may experiment with plot structures or focus more on other elements of fiction like character or narrator perspectives. Some important works may even avoid bringing the plot to a firm finish or resolution, to make a point or for some other artistic purpose.

Such departures from convention may frustrate some readers who don’t expect them, making it hard for some who don’t find a fast-paced plot full of events, their favorite entry into a story. But unexpected or highly artistic uses of plot can be the very element that lifts readers to a more extraordinary aesthetic experience.

If you want the meaning and power of great literature to open up for you, it helps to consider and appreciate how a plot in fiction is built, not just read to find out what happens next.

The best plots don’t just grow; they are carefully built. Knowing the parts of a typical plot can help you see and enjoy when authors structure them well, or poorly, and also notice when they purposely avoid following conventional plot shapes.

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How Ideas and Themes Shape Fiction: Reading Fiction Step 2

Young woman in white top leaning toward shelves of books in a library, gazing at a shelf and smiling.

One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.

Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.

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Style, the Writer’s Unique Music: Reading Fiction Step 1

His own style: Man wearing casual jacket and turtleneck playing violin outdoors in front of stone wall, with Vermeer print on wall behind him.

Style is the distinctive music created by an author’s words. Can you hear it?

Style in fiction is the distinctive music created by the way an author handles words. Many readers put Style last on their list of things to notice when reading a fictional narrative. But that’s a mistake, in my view, because when reading literature, HOW something is said is just as important as WHAT is said. Style in fiction is more than just decoration. Indeed, relishing a great writer’s style is one of the finest pleasures of reading, since it is through a writer’s style that we are brought into direct communication with that writer’s mind and personality, with his or her unique way of seeing the world. Even more, through great style, readers are set awash in a distinctive kind of beauty that flows from the sound and sense of language well-handled.

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