A. What fiction is
Fiction (from the Latin fictio, “a shaping, a counterfeiting”) is a name for stories not entirely factual, but at least partially shaped, made up, imagined. It is true that in some fiction, such as historical novel, a writer draws upon factual information in presenting scenes, events, and characters. But the factual information in a historical novel, unlike that in a history book, is of secondary importance.
Fiction as we know it today is considered to be a relatively new genre compared to poetry and drama. The tradition of fiction started with myth and legend and allegory. But the fictional characters in these imaginary worlds were mostly one-dimensional abstractions, personified as Love, Greed, War, or even Faith. The evolution from allegory to novel (and short story), from the sermon about an abstraction in human guise to the story of the individual whose personal experience might have universal application, took a long time.
B. Fable and tale
Modern literary fiction in English has been dominated by two forms: the novel and the short story. The two have many elements in common. Perhaps we will be able to define the short story more meaningfully---for it has traits more essential than just a particular length---if first, for comparison, we consider some related varieties of fiction: the fable and the tale. Ancient forms whose origins date back to the time of word-of-mouth storytelling, the fable and the tale are relatively simple in structure; in them we can plainly see elements also found in the short story (and in novel).
Fable is a brief story that sets forth some pointed statement of truth. For in fable everything leads directly to the moral, or message, sometimes stated at the end. The characters in a fable may be talking animals, inanimate objects, or people and supernatural beings. Whoever they may be, these characters are merely sketched, not greatly developed.
The name tale (from the Old English talu, “speech”) is sometimes applied to any strory, whether short or long, true or fictitious. Tale being a more evocative name than story, writers sometimes call their stories “tales” as if to imply something handed down from the past. But defined in a more limited sense, a tale is a story, usually short, that sets forth strange a...
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...es more on wit and wordplay than on physical action for its humor. Low comedy explores the opposite extreme of humor. It places greater emphasis on physical action and visual gags, and its verbal jokes do not require much intellect to appreciate. Low comedy does not avoid derisive humor; rather it revels in making fun of whatever will get a good laugh. Drunkenness, stupidity, lust, senility, trickery, insult, and clumsiness are inexhaustible staples for this style of comedy. Although it is all too easy for critics to dismiss low comedy, like high comedy it also serves a valuable purpose in satirizing human failings.
Derisive humor is basic to satiric comedy, in which human weakness or folly is ridiculed from a vantage point of supposedly enlightened superiority. Satiric comedy may be coolly malicious and gently biting, but it tends to be critical people, their manners, and their morals.
Romantic comedy, another traditional sort of comedy, is subtler. Its main characters are generally lovers, and its plot unfolds their ultimately successful strivings to be united. Unlike satiric comedy, romantic comedy portrays its characters not with withering contempt but with kindly indulgence.
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