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Understanding Fiction: Features and Characteristics

What Makes Fiction Different from Other Forms of Literature

Before we move on to short stories, we’ll define fiction, the broad category of literature to which short stories belong.
Study Task
Take a minute to jot down some brief notes on the features of stories and novels that you think make fiction different from films, plays, or poems. Try to think of basic differences, rather than complicated ones. Then, compare your answer with the following points:
First, fiction almost always contains a plot or a storyline, that is, a narrative. A sequence of events separates fiction from lyric poetry, but not from plays or films, which also usually contain narrative structures.
Second, fiction usually involves a storyteller: either a character or simply a “voice.” This feature distinguishes fiction from most plays and films, which more often than not dispense with narrators.
Third, fiction is written in prose—the common form of writing with sentences that follows expected grammatical and logical patterns—as opposed to poetry.
How do your ideas on the nature of fiction compare to those listed above? Would you add something to complete the definition?
Of course, more sophisticated definitions of fiction exist. Fiction writers themselves, who often delight in breaking through neat critical boundaries, might quarrel with our three-part definition. Still, it is a good working definition, to which we invite you to add to or change as your understanding of fiction develops.
Topic 2: What Happens to Us When We Read?
A story can draw us in, cause us to lose contact with the world around us. We know that the story was invented. One of the Latin roots for the word fiction means to feign, that is, to pretend. Normally, our first instinct would be not to believe what we’re reading, but a more powerful attitude takes over—what the English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Literature compels us to put aside our normal demands for fact and enter the imagined world of the story. However, our demands for credibility haven’t ceased; instead, they follow the new rules or laws of the literary world. Our imaginations go to work.
Literature permits us to get out of our skins and into the skins of others. We can explore the roads not taken in our own lives. By giving us a new angle on such figures as the shoe salesmen and the addict, literature salvages areas of experience that may otherwise be ignored or dismissed. It can expand our sympathies by casting new light on the familiar, and a first light on the unknown.
Literature also gives us much pleasure. In Ars Poetica, the Roman writer Horace comments that successful literature both delights and instructs the reader.
In a broad sense, literature instructs us by taking us beyond our own lives. In a narrower sense, it teaches us about human motivation and frailties, and even cultural ideas and ethical codes. Literature isn’t a philosophical treatise or a political tract: however, it is an art that can instruct us, move us, and please us with its beauty, all at once.

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