What is an epistolary novel? – Literary Terms 101

Epistolary novel: “From epistle, or “letter.” A novel written in the form of a correspondence between characters. A popular alternative to first-person fiction that rose in the 18th century, though it shares different points of view.” – The NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms

My Take On The Epistolary Novel and Study Recommendations

Currently, I’m halfway through Dracula by Bram Stoker. It’s a wonderful epistolary horror novel and probably the first one I’ve been seriously interested in. Third-person narration is my preferred reading and writing perspective because I like omnipotence. An epistolary novel, however, presents the story in first-person and even though this perspective is more limited, you’re forced inside every character’s personal world. Many writers like first-person narrative for the sake of more apparent character development and intimacy. Epistolary writing shows there’s nothing more intimate than a character writing a letter to a loved one or sending an urgent telegram for a medical emergency. Additionally, there’s an interesting world-building element to this style of writing. It’s a given to make sure that your writing in any point of view makes the setting is clear. With an epistolary novel, you don’t have to only have letters where your characters mention certain places or events. Stoker used newspaper articles, interviews, and journal entries. Imagine writing an epistolary work your character’s Twitter fed or Facebook post. Movies have already done this, but it’d be really impressive to see this in a novel. Many RPGs I’ve played definitely use more than letters. Here are some classic epistolary novels you should look into if you’re studying the style.

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What is foregrounding? – Literary Terms 101

Foregrounding: “Calling attention to something–a word, a rhythm, a character, an idea, a viewpoint–by placing it in the foreground against a background. Taken from painting and the study of visual perspective, the term is used more broadly to mean setting anything off from its context or creating something that stands out from the ordinary…Interpreting a novel as if it were being read by a woman foregrounds the woman’s viewpoint,” – NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms (1991)

My Take On Foregrounding

I know this term is basically the writer doing their best to make sure a certain word or statement stands out from the present context, but I’d like to add a quote from The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms (2006) by Peter Childs and Roger Fowler:

“In literature, foregrounding may be most readily identified with linguistic deviation: the violation of rules and conventions, by which a poet transcends the normal communicative resources of the language, and awakens the reader, by freeing him from the grooves of clichĂ© expression, to a new perceptivity. Poetic metaphor, a type of semantic deviation, is the most important instance of this type of foregrounding.”

Peter Childs and Roger Fowler – Quote found from thoughtco.com

As I’m studying this term, I feel like I’m overthinking how it’s used. Metaphors are common nowadays and there are other types of linguistic deviations where the writer aims for something to stand out, but I think if you’re going to break certain literary rules, you should make sure there’s solid coherence. In other words, it better be damn good because many audiences are used to this and a poor attempt at foregrounding could either blow the mind of your audience or underwhelm them. Perhaps I’m worrying more about the negative results. I’d hate for my audience to be underwhelmed. I’m not objecting to chaos, surrealism, or randomness in literature, I just think it could go from symbolic to senseless real quick depending on the intention. But whatever…here’s to the rule breakers and those who become icons as a result of their rebellion.

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Why does this literary term give me anxiety in a way where I’m laughing about it to?

You know what? I think it’s because I found a new challenge in my writing. I like it ’cause it terrifies me.

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There are now two pages for Literary Terms. Huzzah.

All right, so the first page [Literary Terms A-Z] is the page where you click on the letter your literary term starts with so you can find it easily. At the moment, there are only four terms, so there are very few letters. It will develop in time. It’s a shame the page is so plain at the moment, but sometimes less is more. I want it to be user friendly more than anything.

The second page [Literary Terms (Recent Posts)] is pretty self-explanatory. The most recent posts regarding literary terms are there.

Huzzah. The metaphysical page and terms will be coming soon.

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What is poetic justice? – Literary Terms 101

Poetic Justice: “Rewarding the good and punishing the bad. The term was first used by Thomas Rhymer in 1678 to express the idea that in literature, if not always in life, rewards and punishments should be carefully distributed so that readers may be inspired to goodness and discouraged from evil.” NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms

My View On Poetic Justice

After reading the definition, I immediately thought about how often this technique was done in old films. There are audiences that still find it satisfying probably because it satisfies the dualistic status quo our cultures often reinforce: goodness is praised, evil is punished. But things aren’t always that black and white are they? Especially when you’re developing a plot or character, you need to mix things up.

In fact, I’ve seen poetic justice used quite sarcastically or ironically to address that the way we want a clear cut picture of good and bad doesn’t always exist. But poetic justice, I feel, isn’t just about defining a dualistic morality. It’s satisfying when the character the audience roots for reaches success and when the character they can’t stand deals with struggle or suffers. The foundation of poetic justice is ethical satisfaction, confirmation in the legitimacy of the status quo, even in fictional worlds. It’s a great tool to help audiences attach to the story. Personally, I find that art has its greatest impact when it’s a moral challenge and encourages ethical relativity rather than be purely pleasing, but that’s just me.

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What is Explication de Texte? – Literary Terms 101?

explication de texte: “The detailed analysis, or “close reading,” of a passage of verse or prose… a method of teaching literature in French secondary schools. Such explication seeks to make meaning clear through a painstaking examination and explanation of style, language, relationship of part to whole, and use of symbolism.” – The NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms

My Take on Explication de Texte

So, this is basically hardcore literary theory or literary criticism for obsessors or borderline masochists? Perhaps, but I think nerds like us may find it fun. However, it does suck some of the fun out for me because explication de texte focuses more on the literal aspect of a poem or a piece of prose rather than the figurative aspect. This definitely takes me back to my undergrad days studying literary theory, but my favorite forms of literary criticism were deconstructionism and psychological analysis. New Critcism…is something I don’t think I paid much attention to. Britiannica’s definition of New Criticsm is: post-World War I school of Anglo-American literary critical theory that insisted on the intrinsic value of a work of art and focused attention on the individual work alone as an independent unit of meaning. It was opposed to the critical practice of bringing historical or biographical data to bear on the interpretation of a work. (Britiannica).

I know explication de texte basically comes off to me as a very painful book report, but I’d like to hear what you think. Have you done it before? Technically, I have in many papers, but I don’t think I’ve reached the extensiveness this definition implies. I do think you can gain a stimulating understanding of the text itself in its autonomy, but chopping out the essence of the author, their history and life basically, completely out of the criticism seems…cold. Whenever I read something and the author hooks me in, I want to know who the author is, what their life is like, and more. My current example would be Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. After reading halfway through the book, I couldn’t resist listening to a couple of her interviews. I’m also reading her novel The Secret History simultaneously.

If there’s a book you’ve taken the time to break down before explication de texte style, but you want to find an edition of it that’s rare and beautiful, go to abebooks.com. I bet you anything they have it and it looks gorgeous.

What Does Pastoral Mean? – Literary Terms 101

Pastoral: “A poem having to do with shepherds and rural life; from pastor, the Latin word for shepherd…The three forms are (1) the singing match between two shepherds, sometimes called the eclogue, (2) the monologue of a single lovesick shepherd lamenting his mistress’s aloofness; and (3) the elegy, or dirge, for a dead friend,” (Morner and Rausch, 1991) – The NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms.

My Take on Pastoral Work/Poetry

I see rural or rustic life as having a mixture of peaceful simplicity and complex melancholy. As a southern Colorado person, I find the wide open space and absence of urban life to have a calm to it, but my mind has transformed that calm into a type of sadness. I really relate to pastoral works, especially elegies. If you think about rural life, small farm towns where everybody knows everybody, the passing of someone or the breaking off of a relationship is often devastating. You have very few activities to distract you and even more responsibilities to attend to if you don’t have some of the conveniences city life can offer. But no matter where you live, loss happens. John Milton’s Lycidas is a well-known example of a pastoral elegy. Milton had so much anxiety about his life accomplishments and his mortality. Milton wrote many elegies, so existence and death must’ve been at the forefront of his brain. Through Lycidas, I want to argue that he did a kind of self-talk to face his grief over his college friend, Edward King; Apollo, St. Peter, and the Muses appear and seem to help him confront the shepherding lifestyle that reminded Milton of his friend, but guided him from a place of despair to hope and inner peace.

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, 
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, 
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor; 
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, 
And yet anon repairs his drooping head, 
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore 
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky: 
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high

Lycidas Lines 165-172

It’s kind of interesting that Milton, who grew up in a bourgeois family and lifestyle, wanted to use pastoral themes to honor Edward. I know it was the 17th century so what they considered “urban” or city life isn’t how we see it today and I’m probably overthinking it (lol). Some analyses of Lycidas consider Milton using pastoral poetry to metaphorically call out the Church of England clergymen, which is more likely. So am I taking pastoral works too literally? Even Virgil’s pastoral work is described as, “…a poetic genre in which the author could use humble characters to talk about public figures and current affairs. Because shepherds are the poet-musicians of the countryside,” (Poetry Foundation) but his pastoral poetry is also “…not just a literary construct, inasmuch as there are striking touches of realism in the descriptions of country life,” (Poetry Foundation). So there is something about the countryside that encourages deep contemplation! But Virgil became a rich boy too with humble beginnings. I guess I find it interesting as to how the wide open spaces of the countryside can inspire so much existentialism.

Anyway, there are many other good pastoral works out there (Shelley’s Adonais is recommended as well). I think the most important quality of this genre is the act of contemplating life whether that leads to existential dread or a kind of revelation. I wonder if pastorals influenced Westerns and other storytelling mediums about country life. I also want to add that even though I chose an example that focused on death and grief, not all pastorals are so morbid. There’s a beauty and charm in pastoral simplicity as well, such as finding love and simply loving. The point is that the pastoral piece itself addresses elements of rural life emphasizing its influence or symbolic meaning on life events, similar to an idyll.

Let me know what you thought of this. Have you tried writing pastoral poems before? How would you write one if you’re a city slicker or have you ventured the countryside before? I’d love to hear from you.

What is Hamartia? Literary Terms 101

Hamartia: “The error, misstep, frailty, or flaw that causes the downfall of a tragic hero. Sometimes called the tragic flaw… bad judgment, ignorance, accident, inherited weakness, or plain bad luck…Whatever the error or defect, it results in action (or inaction) that leads to disaster. – NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms by Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch (1991).

I strongly recommend getting this dictionary if you’re a fiction writer.

My Take on Hamartia In Writing

Hamartia must appear in every story, if you think about. It’s necessary conflict (internal and external). How else is your character going to develop if they don’t endure some sort of issue that is placed upon them or self-perpetuated? Many authors understood that any type of tragedy or disaster makes audiences feel pity, fear, or satisfaction for the character(s) affected by it. One example off the top of my head is (vague Game of Thrones spoilers ahead!!) is Hodor who just…had to hold that damn door and shatter my heart into a million pieces.

I’ve seen tragedy hit the whole spectrum of archetypes, even though this definition focuses solely on the tragic hero since the Greek Classics have most protagonists fail due to their prideful nature. It has to happen because that’s what makes a plot work; that’s what makes characters relatable. Audiences want to see the character confront disaster, whether they survive it or not because it echoes reality, you succeed or you fail. However, tragedy is not that black and white. Some rise from the ashes of their suffering and some don’t, but transformation is inevitable. Even when a villain faces disaster in death, and I mean a well-crafted villain with backstory, motive, and ambition, you see them as more than just the bad guy who got what they deserved. If anything, it should poke at the audience’s moral compass encouraging them to question their ethical boundaries (because pitying a villain is strange to some and accepted by others).

Additionally, adding a little metaphysical take on this, the act of manifesting or weaving your own destiny is common in stories and hamartia plays in the mix of that. Most of us prefer calling it “reaping what you sow”, but in the metaphysical community, we call that “The Dark Night of the Soul“, where you’re in a place of complete sacrifice or surrender and come to terms with whether you’ll endure what’s happening to you by trusting yourself to survive it or choose to despair and desperately mourn that you didn’t reach your ego-based expectations. I don’t think hamartia is enticing if it becomes the definite annihilation of the character where they’re damned for eternity for their purposeful or accidental sin and that’s it. A choice must be made. Hamartia exudes its greatest effect as an inevitable, destructive force that shows no bias to any archetype and shouldn’t be considered “evil” or “just”, “bad” or “good”, but simply destined to appear before you and demand you make a choice, which can be taking action or being inactive.

I’ll be sharing more literary terms in the future, but seriously, get the dictionary of literary terms. Maybe I’m being a lit nerd and pushing too hard, but it’s just…fun to read. Especially if you like learning random new things.