Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Dramatic Structure

I thought it might be fun (at least for me) to lay out, in a series of short blog posts, some of the basic terms and ideas that I present to my students when talking about the “close reading” of literary texts. Maybe there will be others who also find these brief outlines valuable. I have found, over the years, that close reading of literature is akin to the practice of Buddhist vipassana. Close reading teaches you to slow down, actually notice what it is that you’re looking at and experiencing, and see changes and patterns. Anyway, below are some basic literary terms and ideas that I share with my students concerning dramatic structure.

In Romantic terms, we might say that stories ‘go’ by Sturm und Drang  (“storm and stress”). William Faulkner once wrote that great literary stories are about “[t]he problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing.” From the reader’s side of the equation, we can think of Sturm und Drang  as the ‘rollercoaster’ of a story’s dramatic structure. The dramatic structure is what the reader’s rising and falling emotional responses track. Here are some basic vocabulary terms and ideas associated with dramatic structure:

  • A story’s plot consists of ‘mapped out’ incidents that, by arousing a reader’s interest, and even eros, draw the reader through the story, leading to a climax, and ultimately some sort of resolution (denouement ).
  • Recurrent elements in a story are themes (such as love) and motifs (such as the color red). Themes and motifs can be thought of as a story writer’s obsessive concerns—those things the writer returns to.
  • A story’s beginning is called its exposition. The exposition introduces characters and sets a scene (mise-en-scene ) for the reader to ‘overhear’ and ‘look in on.’ Sometimes a story begins en medias res  (‘in the middle’).
  • In Sartrean terms, all human beings, at any given moment, find themselves in very particular existential situations. Your existential situation is that collection of facts surrounding your existence at any given moment. (You may be, for example, an accountant in a bad marriage sitting in front of your computer right now.) Your existential situation is the place from which you make your subsequent choices. Likewise, with characters in fiction, the exposition is where a reader tends to first discover the existential situation of a story’s protagonist (hero or heroine) and becomes curious about what (s)he will do next (given the situation).
  • The exposition is typically where we are introduced to a story’s trigger (complication, crisis, conflict). The trigger initiates the action of the story.
  • In reading the exposition, you should also be mindful of curious details, for they may foreshadow things to come.
  • Traditional dramatic structure consists of five elements: the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and the denouement. The protagonist, as (s)he moves through this basic story structure, may experience a moment of decision, a turning point, an epiphany, a reversal of fortune (peripeteia ), or be saved or lost by the intervention of an author-introduced deus ex machina  (‘a god that arrives by a machine’). For this latter, think of an authorial contrivance as the ‘machine’ (as in the Wacky Races, where Penelope Pitstop is regularly rescued from danger by the Ant Hill Mob):

And since I’m thinking of cartoons for dramatic structure illustrations, here’s a painful-to-watch example of repeated peripeteia followed by an especially tidy denouement :

For “Close Literary Reading 101” reflections on narration see here, on characterization, see here, and on style, see here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Dramatic Structure

  1. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Thinking about How Stories End | Prometheus Unbound

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