• PLOT

These literary terms that will be discussed later are seen also to be the conventions of creative writing or concrete issues considered when appreciating a literacy work.  That is, a proper understanding of these terms would yield proper appreciation and understanding of any world of art.  In other words, students of literature should have a proper understanding of what these terms mean, to be able to discuss the aspects in a work of literature.  And these terms are:



Background which can be seen as the situation of a play, novel or poem, is a combination of the circumstances, the setting inclusive, out of which emerges the story’s action.  It also includes the motivation and the stimuli which give rise to the choices open to or made available to some characters in a novel or play.  It was the background (situation) of oppression and domination of blacks by whites in South Africa that gave rise to the spineless (timid) characters that we often meet in South African Stories of the apartheid era.



Setting is the particular location where all the actions in a piece of fiction or drama take place, at a particular time or under certain psychological and moral conditions.  These features serve as the plat-form against which characters live and pursue their life goals.  Moreover, setting is an important factor in the author’s choice of subject matter and certainly is influential in the implementation of his theme(s).  A story may have a physical, socio-psychological, temporal or metaphorical setting.  The physical setting of a story is its realistic background, its geographical environment.  It is the physical location of the occurrences in the story.  This may be localized in a known or imaginary/unfamiliar place.  In drama, the physical scenery presented on stage is also part of its physical setting.  The physical features of the places such as the flora and fauna, the jungle, the hills and mountains, the landscape etc. are important in tangible setting.  Such other details as sounds (including music and background noises) and odours are also part of physical setting.


The socio – psychological setting of a piece of literature has to do with its social emotional atmosphere, the cultural state of a period.  It includes the language spoken and the way it is spoken, the norms and the customs, occupations, attitudes, religious outlook, the moral and state of value, the living conditions, the quality of human relationship, the intellectual and emotional environment of the characters, the economic and social class formations prevalent at a time etc.  These influence the characters and inform their motivations and actions in a work.


Setting is temporal when it is simply a reference to historical times such as in Renaissance England, at the turn of the century post – independence era in Africa, the Nigerian Civil War period etc.  It is metaphorical when it tends to objectify or vividly show internal states.


It is important to note that the kind of setting a writer adopts is a function of his intentions, themes or notions.  A writer could also utilize all these levels of setting in one work or could make use of some.



Plot is the sequence of actions which constitute the nucleus (centre) of the story and conveys the theme.  It is what the characters do or what is done to them as the story progresses.  As bones hold up our mass of flesh and remain the only easily observable features on an x – ray film, so is the story’s plot, its structural framework.  A plot is a carefully thought-out plan in which all the events, all the actions and reactions of the characters contribute towards the forward leap of the story.


It is the plot that imbues (gives) a story with a recognizable form, a definite structure or shape.  A simple plot has pyramidal shape made up of an exposition, complication, conflict, climax and denouement.  Diagrammatically, it looks like this:
















action           A simple, linear or conventional plot.

It is necessary to explain the various parts of the simple plot:

(i)   Exposition (Development): At this point, the author establishes the background of the story, paints and builds up the setting and introduces the readers to his character.

(ii)  Complication: Here something throws spanner in the works. That is, some unexpected event disrupts the plans of the chief character.

(iii) Conflict: This is a clash between the hero and the villain in particular, or the clash of all opposing forces in the story in general.

(iv) Climax: It is the highest point of tension and intensity in a piece of fiction or drama.  It is also called the turning-point because it is after here that the reader descends the slope of the story’s actions.  A conventional plot usually has one climax while a more complex one would have more than one climax.

(v)  Denouement (Resolution): It is the unraveling or unknotting of the events.  At this stage in the narration, the tense situation is resolved or contained through the action or inaction of certain characters. The simple or conventional or well-made plot is only possible when we have a subject matter and theme which can be expressed by a linear or straight forward development of events.  That is, because X happened, Y took place, and because Y took place, Z occurred etc.



  1. With the aid of a diagram, define plot
  2. Briefly discuss background and setting.



The subject matter of a work of literature is simply the issue the author discusses in his work.

And this issue is made up of the particular actions, characters and settings which the author chooses for his work.


In other words, these make up the subject matter, the surface facts. From the fore-going, a novel’s subject could be a place, a situation or the quality of the human condition.  It could centre on the adventures of a character with the opposite sex, a flashback into childhood, the modern Nigerian city (always the subject matter of many of Ekwensi’s novels), the Nigerian civil war (already the subject matter of many Nigerian novels), undergraduate life the travails of long spinsterhood or the embarrassment of chronic bachelorhood, barrenness etc. Out of a subject matter there could be many themes, themes being the abstract ideas that the subject matter exemplifies.  No theme is possible without a subject matter because it is in the relationship of the former to the later that the ultimate truth the writer has in mind is made obvious.


The theme (thesis) of a novel, poem or drama is the message it wishes to impart, some overt or subtle philosophical pronouncement it strives to make. The subject matter of Sola Owonibi’s “Homeless Not Hopeless” is composed of the mere facts of the action, character and setting of the poem; while the truth the author aims at namely, the economical, social and spiritual importance of the beggars in the African society, constitutes the theme. The subject matter, or simply subject, is the area of a story’s focus while the theme is the author’s attitude towards it.  For example, if the subject of a story is poverty, the theme may be the deprivations caused by it or the disadvantages to which a poor person is exposed in a developing country.


Motif should not be confused with motive.  It is derived from Latin movere, motum-meaning to move.  It is a particular idea or dominant element running through a work of art, constituting part of the main theme.  It is a type of incident, device or formula which recurs frequently in a piece of creative literature.  Very many authors aware of these motifs make use of them in their stories, poems or plays.  For instance, the motif of a beautiful lady who rejects all her handsome suitors but marries an ugly or non-human one is derived from folklore.  Motif or the German leitmotif (a guiding spirit) is equally applied to the frequent repetition of a significant phrase or set description or complex of images in a particular work.  If the theme of a work is the author’s statement of value for or against the events constituting the subject matter of a work, its motif is a recognizable incident which recalls a similar incident in oral or written literature or attracts a historical or bible comparison.  In the example we gave about the subject matter of a work being poverty and the theme being the deprivations it gives rise to, the motif could be the biblical incident between Lazarus and the king’s dogs which such a theme recalls.


Theme is occasionally used interchangeably with motif even though ‘theme’ has to do with some underlying doctrine implicitly or explicitly stated in an imaginative writing and which the author persuades his readers to behold.  Somehow, every creative writer has his own notions about life and humanity.  We call this notion a writer’s philosophy of life which in a good artistic work is often hidden from a lazy reader or the reader who is merely interested in the story.  Cyprian Ekwensi’s

Jagua Nana has two controlling ideas (themes) namely, the city corrupts young people and secondly, those who are morally deficient must pay for their short comings while one of its easily perceivable motifs is ‘the wages of sin is death’



M.H. Abrams speaks of the characters in a literary work in this vein: “the persons presented in a dramatic or narrative work who are interpreted by the reader as being endowed with moral and dispositional qualities that are expressed in what they say – the dialogue and by what they do – the action.”  In drama or fiction, there would be no story or plot without a character or characters.


Without characters, there would be no action since the events are determined by them.  The conception of, and manner of presentation of characters have a lot of influence on the stature of a piece of creative writing as much as the significance of the story’s events and patterning.  Character means both the people (including animals) who appear in a novel, play or poem and the description of the personality of any of these figures, particularly those traits which have significant effect on the development of the work.


To build up characters who are realistic and credible, who enjoy our love and affection or elicit our hatred or condemnation is probably one of the most herculean challenges that confront the imagination of a creative writer.  In conventional terms, the most important character in a story about whose fortunes and misfortunes we are most desirous of knowing is the protagonist, also called the hero or heroine, whether or not there is anything heroic in his or her experiences or actions.  The protagonist is often at the centre of the story’s action and controls the universe in which his actions or inaction provoke one form of crisis or the other.  In the process of the hero trying to tame his universe, he usually meets some resistance.  The reader is often desirous of knowing how he faces these obstacles and what he experiences in the attempt.  Sometimes we get so immersed in identifying with him that we laugh when he overcomes and sighs when he is disadvantaged.


The character in opposition to the protagonist is called the antagonist or the villain. He opposes the hero and tries to foil him in his plans.  He makes every effort to soil the hero’s good name and reputation, and / or snatch his lover or mistress from him.  The foil of a character contrasts him; his role in the novel or play is essentially to serve as a mirror of behavioural contrast to the chief character.  The hero’s goodness stands in bold relief if the antagonist is shown to be mean, cunning and devilish.  However, the antagonist need not be an ‘evil’ character in the way that the protagonist may not have to be a ‘good’ personality.  For example, in The Merchant of Venice by Williams Shakespeare, the protagonist is shylock, the resolute money-lender, while the antagonist is the kind-hearted Antonia.


Two main characters exist in literature.  There are the round and flat or static characters.  This is in fact the only way we can conveniently say it because human personalities are difficult to be neatly classified, the human person being capable of adopting a combination of roundness and flatness if he so desires, and depending on the circumstances before him.  The roundness of character indicates that a literary character is dynamic, complex, developing, life-like and multi-faceted.  A round character grows and changes as the narrative progresses.  The growth may be physical – from childhood to adulthood; it may be mental /psychological – from ignorance to knowledge, or from naiveté to sophistication.  A round character is not usually in the same state of innocence or ignorance with which he is associated at the beginning of the novel or play.  Towards the end, he now exhibits a new consciousness, a new awareness and can now behold reality with new eyes, capable of surprising the reader in a convincing manner.


The other type of character is the flat or simple character, also referred to as one-dimensional, non-developing or simple character. Flat characters are quite predictable and never really grow or change in the course of the story.  Often static characters are minor characters, but this need not be so.


The stock character, on the other hand, may be round or flat.  His distinguishing quality is that he is a character type which recurs repeatedly in a particular literary genre.  He is an archetypal model, the typical character specimen whom authors try to portray as prototypes.


Characterization is the effort made by a creative writer to erect credible characters. Authors adopt a number of methods in characterization.  There is exposition in which the writer or narrator steps into the tale to let the reader know about the character such as his physical attributes, his motives and his traits.  Another is the dramatic or scenic or showing method, the author presents the character as he acts, reflects, talks or interacts without any attempt to tell the reader the type of person the character is.


The writer allows the character to reveal himself through his words and actions. Characterization could be advanced by the author’s use of some characters to inform his reader about the other characters.  In that way the writer is further removed from the scene, and in that way increases his level of objectivity in the story.  A writer does this by pitching characters against one another in dialogues at which they talk about their fellow characters.


There is also stream of consciousness method by which the writer merely records the state of a character’s mental activity as it traverses the present and the past, as it reels off the character’s mental torture or excitement.  Through this approach, the writer appears to be showing us the character’s mental film of feelings, thoughts and memories which flows or streams.  In the end readers learn about characters by what they do, what they say and what others say about them.  In one work, a writer may use all these techniques or some of them.



  1. Explain character and characterization to a layman.
  2. What factors differentiate subject matter from theme and motif?



  1. A play is said to be tragic when ____ (a) the author paints life as  a hopeless venture or adventure   (b) the author presents life as absurd    (c) there is much bloodshed in the play   (d) a weakness in the principal character causes his/her downfall
  2. The central organizing element which links character, action, style and language in a work of art is referred to as ____ (a) theory (b) plot      (c) theme      (d) paradox
  3. When a question is asked in a piece of work without an answer being sought, such a question is known as a ____ question. (a) rhetorical (b) paradoxical (c) leading (d) pointed
  4. ‘Assonance’ in a poem results from the use of ____ (a) many consonants (b) similar-sounding vowels    (c) similar-sounding consonants (d) different-sounding vowels.
  5. A saying that is short, emphatic and witty, and bears antithesis or paradox is said to be an ____ (a) anology (b) epiphany      (c) apology       (d) epigram


  1. Explain in detail, the two characters we have in literature.
  2. Identify vivid examples from all recommended works for each literary term mentioned



A Handbook of Creative Writing by J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada pgs 48-51.