Identifying dramatic effects in literature can transform the way you think, talk, and write essays.
Why? Because dramatic effects are the whole point. By and large.
I’m not going to bang on about why that is – now. Instead, I’ve just created a list for you – a list that you can browse for inspiration. So let’s get down to it.
How to use this list
- Scroll down the list
- Make a note of the effects that seem like a ‘good fit’ for the text that you’re reading.
- That’s it.
You can then work these into your repertoire of things you can say about the text.
How the list is organised
In just a second I’m going to show you my list of dramatic effects in literature.
I’ve divided it into categories. But you don’t have to worry about them too much if you don’t want to:
Just scroll down and see what fits!
Here’s a link to a couple of other disclaimers / clarifications – otherwise, crack on:
Here are the big guns – a great place to start.
I’ve put these under the title ‘dramatic energy’ because that’s about as specific as I can be. These effects are such big players that they resist categorisation.
That’s right – ‘drama’ is an effect!
Drama is an energy that compels us, arrests us, and wins emotional investment from us. Sound vague? Well, that’s because it is – and you can use that to your advantage.
Sir, what do you mean I can use it to my advantage?
It’s like this:
Now, I don’t want to encourage you to be lazy, but…
… the expression “this helps to create drama” or “it makes it more dramatic” are fantastic catch-all explanations. And compared to some other catch-all explanations, they are actually quite convincing.
If you’re looking for a way to start explaining effects in literature, then consider starting here. Your teacher may say…
OK, in what way is it dramatic?Follow-up questions your teacher might ask you
Could you be more specific?
What makes it dramatic?
Sure, but how does that help you to answer the question?
But it’s a good start!
Pathos is a dramatic energy that evokes pity from an audience – usually in response to some sort of suffering or hardship. Don’t confuse it with pity itself, though. Pity is the emotion that you feel; pathos is the energy that makes you feel it.
If in doubt, check for irony. It is one of the commonest and most powerful effects in literature out there.
Sir, what actually is irony?
It’s a dramatic energy. It gives things an edge, a friction. Irony is something we feel first and make sense of later.
Irony takes its force from a tension between our expectations and reality (arising when they are somehow pulling against each other). Perhaps the best example I’ve heard of irony was given to me (straight off the bat) by a pupil in my first year of teaching:
Me: [asking a bad, beginner-teacher question] Can anyone think of an example of an ironic event or situation?
Pupil: Being run over by an ambulance, sir.
This example works well: you expect an ambulance to heal you – not to injure you. Now, obviously there’s a bit more to it than that – but you get the idea.
Being able to detect and explain irony is a huge part of building up your repertoire of effects in literature. You want to impress your teacher? Find some irony.
Let’s get this straight: dramatic irony is irony.
It just happens to be a special type. Here’s how:
Dramatic irony derives from a very particular state of affairs:
We (the audience/reader) know something that at least one character in the text does not know. That character’s conduct therefore pulls against what we know he/she should be doing (if only he/she knew what we know) – creating that special form of tension that we feel as irony.
Now, this effect can be cheap and manufactured:
He’s behind you!!!Every pantomime ever
But it can also be intense, painful, or deeply moving – as in these two examples from Shakespeare plays.
Romeo poisoning himself alongside the still-living Juliet, believing her to be dead.
Othello killing his honest and devoted wife having been tricked into believing that she has cheated on him.
It has been known for audience members to be so compelled by the dramatic irony in these kinds of spectacles as to cry out “She’s still alive!!” or “She didn’t do it, you idiot!!” That’s the power of this effect.
The effects which I’ve placed in this group can be built, achieved and sustained by texts – and they can also be strategically released. They are all effects in literature which can be enjoyed privately in the theatre of your mind (if you are reading by yourself) but they can also be particularly powerful when shared in a space amongst an audience.
Each of the qualities of atmosphere in the list below acts as an appeal to the audience.
In physics, tension is the result of at least two forces pulling away from each other, and it’s the same when we use the term as a metaphor to describe atmosphere.
As so often in literature, Disney’s The Lion King provides the best example imaginable.
Most people will experience tension when Mufasa is clinging to the side of the ravine to avoid being trampled to death by stampeding wildebeest. In this case…
… our hope that he will be able to hold on or climb up and escape is pulling against our apprehensions of what might happen instead.
(BTW – This is why sympathy is important: the tension depends on our hope that Mufasa doesn’t die, and our hope derives from the sympathy we have already formed for James Earl Jones’ wise, booming father-you-never-had stability in the opening phases of the film.)
Emotional workouts like this one – in which tension is strategically built up and released – account for much of what we experience as ‘drama’.
And that’s true whether we are watching a film, reading a book, or at the theatre.
Oh, and it’s also true in concert halls, at the opera, the ballet, and in all manner of sporting events.
Because yes, tension can arise from uncertainty over what is going to happen next – but also from any sort of conflict or opposition, however subtle that may be – because we have forces pulling away from each other.
Like tension (above) and many other words describing effects in literature, this is a broad term. In fact, any scene that contains pressure, urgency, concentration, focus, jeopardy, or dilemma is going to have intensity.
So if you’re talking about ‘intensity’ in an essay, there’s a chance your teacher will ask you to explain further. In which case, you might want to try using some of the language I’ve provided in this guide to help you define the source of the intensity.
A particular type of tension that arises when we don’t know what is going to happen next or what is going to be revealed.
If you know what ‘tears of happiness’ are or you understand the expression ‘a real tear-jerker’, or if you have ever ‘welled up’ over a particular moment in a film, or at a wedding or a funeral, then you have experienced poignancy.
It’s a sharp and usually short-lived feeling of sadness – though paradoxically it can be felt at times of great joy and happiness.
Liveliness / Excitement
It is quite common to find this atmosphere at the beginning of a performance (or after an interval) – often as a way of settling down the audience and signalling that soon things will quieten down and we will be required to focus and listen.
Performances at the modern Globe Theatre in London always do this – with music and movement onstage before the dialogue begins. It’s a large, outdoor auditorium, so the director needs everyone’s attention and focus – otherwise important things will be lost!
There are of course other uses for this type of atmosphere – preparing the ground for a dramatic climax, for example.
An atmosphere of harmony may arise at the beginning of a text or performance (as something that is going to be disrupted) or at the end (as something that has emerged or been achieved from chaos).
Harmony emerges from our apprehension of order and stability – the kind of order and stability that are conducive to peace, wellbeing, and happiness. A common way of achieving this at the end of a comedy is to clear up misunderstandings, settle grievances, and ‘match up’ key characters so that they end up with a partner.
At the end of Twelfth Night, separated siblings Viola and Sebastian are reunited and then paired off with Orsino and Olivia respectively. Everything seems to fit together (well, nearly everything).
Go and watch a Richard Curtis romantic comedy like Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill and you’ll find a similar kind of effect: things end up in their ‘right’ place.
One thing to remember is that ‘complete’ harmony can be a bit… boring… or cloying (excessively sweet). So good writers (the kind you’re likely to be studying) tend to avoid it. So…
…be on the lookout any irresolution which might lend some complexity to the atmosphere.
Dissonance / Discord / Jarring effect
The opposite of harmony – the feeling that something is deeply wrong or that things are out of place. This is usually a short-lived effect: sustained dissonance becomes downright unpleasant.
This is an atmosphere created between people who want to look away… but feel they can’t!
As effects in literature go, this awkwardness and uncomfortableness describe perhaps one of the most fashionable and popular effects for writers to generate in the 21st century.
Awkwardness is a special type of dissonance, very popular with modern scriptwriters. If anything has ever made you ‘cringe’ as a spectator – and you knew that other people felt the same way – then…
… you understand what this atmosphere is like.
In fact, in a theatre, or amongst a group of friends watching the same TV programme – people will often use gestures to process this atmosphere and even to alleviate it: they may cover their eyes or look away from the screen, or groan in mock-pain.
All of this is because of the empathy we feel for a character who feels, or is about to feel, or should feel, embarrassment or shame.
|Scenario||We empathise with…|
|Someone makes a mistake or intrusion that causes some sort of upset, offence, or damage.||their embarrassment|
|Someone gets found out or confronted for being selfish, cynical, dishonest, or hypocritical.||their shame|
|Someone receives well-meant but unwanted attention or is courted by an unwelcome suitor.||their embarrassment|
We empathise: we partially feel what the character feels. And crucially, when we know that other people in the space also empathise, our feelings seep into the atmosphere around us and create awkwardness and uncomfortableness.
Relief (including ‘comic relief’)
A relaxation of tension following a particularly intense passage. A common example might be the return of a hero who has been absent for some time – perhaps when other characters are starting to get into a tricky situation.
Relief arrives when Sherlock Holmes reappears in The Hound of the Baskervilles having been absent for several chapters. Watson has been getting into a bit of a muddle, and he appears to be in a tight scrape – when Holmes arrives and we realise that Watson is safe.
‘Comic relief’ is still relief, but it enjoys its own literary term because of the job it does. It provides a break in the middle of something dismal or intense – usually without advancing the plot.
A well known example is the scene with the Porter in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – immediately after Duncan has been horribly murdered in his sleep and his servants framed for the bloody crime. Then…
(1) The Porter is awoken from his sleep by a mysterious knocking at the castle gates…
(2) he is confused! He doesn’t know what’s going on!
(3) much hilarity ensues….
(4) and then it’s back to the plotting and murdering stuff again.
Calm is often created so that it can then be disrupted – a classic (and potentially cliché) storytelling device.
Calm can also descend in the middle of a story as well (notice how tension ‘arises’ and calm ‘descends’). This can be a device to enable the author to provide detailed or intricate exposition: for example, James Bond returns to the calm of London HQ after the action-packed opening sequence of the film, so that his mission can be explained to him.
Calm can also feature when a writer is trying to wind up a story when the climax has already subsided and the main ‘problem’ has been resolved. The author wants to give us a ‘soft landing’ by not ending the story too abruptly after the climax. To achieve this, there may be a subplot that has not quite been completed, and so (for example) we cut to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson safely back in their flat at 221B Baker St: “Holmes, there’s something I still don’t quite understand….” (Or something like that.) This too is a popular technique in James Bond films.
Whilst an atmosphere is a quality or characteristic we detect in a space (which may or may not contain other people), mood is the dominant feeling shared by the people who are occupying that space. It results from what we sometimes call the chemistry between people: people detect effects in literature – and their response creates its own effect.
To be honest, unless you have good reasons for doing so, I wouldn’t tie yourself in knots worrying about the difference between mood and atmosphere. For most people, it’s more important simply to be familiar with the kinds of mood and atmosphere below – so that you can identify them when you see them.
A mood of good humour describes the mood you detect when you are in a space where there is a general apprehension that jokes are being made and laughter is not just permissible but expected. If you’re reading, that ‘apprehension’ might arise between you (the reader), the narrative, and the other people you know are reading, or have read (for example) The Pickwick Papers. In the theatre, it arises amongst the audience and between the audience and the stage.
Where an audience or a reader is being invited to reflect, that invitation can be enough to establish a reflective mood. Equally, if characters or voices in the text are reflecting or speaking in a thoughtful way, the mood will often take on the same character. Sometimes voices will move into the present tense and try to draw general truths or lessons from the story that has been told. Philip Larkin does this in his poem The Mower, concluding “we should be kind / While there is still time.” Or how about the Prince’s closing lines in Romeo and Juliet? “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
A mood of intimacy is often generated when we are shown characters who are in conversation and are:
- letting their guard down
- being themselves
- confiding (sharing something sensitive)
- talking honestly about the things that are really important to them in life
This can arise from a dynamic of sexual intimacy between characters (or even between writer and reader) – but it doesn’t have to: it can simply arise from a scene in which characters are sharing their deeper thoughts or feelings.
One of the advantages of creating intimacy is that it is a good way of developing an audience’s sympathy for characters: for example, if we never got the chance to see Romeo and Juliet being so utterly in love with each other, Shakespeare’s play would not have the same power.
Where a mood of intimacy is unwelcome, or where we are ambivalent towards it (perhaps because we are unsure about a character in the story) it can raise tension or even trigger our moral disgust or sensory disgust.
If you have ever attended a funeral, memorial service, or ceremony of remembrance, then you will be familiar with this mood. It’s a sort of controlled, respectful sadness and you kind of feel that you’re supposed to feel it.
And if you behave in a way that is inconsistent with the mood, you are likely to cause offence or upset – because there is a sort of unspoken agreement about how everyone feels.
Because sombreness is controlled, it is different from poignancy, which tends to be more acute, more spontaneous, and has a knack of taking you by surprise!
Melancholy / Dejection
A mood of feeling generally ‘low’ or ‘down’ – perhaps because we ‘catch it’ from a character who appears to feel that way.
|Melancholy||A vague feeling of lowness; it isn’t always clear what the cause is.|
|Dejection||Tends to stem from a particular disappointment or misfortune.|
These are feelings that writers first embody in their characters. And because we empathise with characters, those feelings can seep into the overall mood – so they become moods in themselves.
For example, Hamlet’s melancholy in the opening phases of Shakespeare’s play doesn’t tend to confine itself to the stage – it seeps into the audience on account of our ability to empathise with him.
Many poems create or access this mood – often on account of unrequited love!
Euphoria, elation, ecstasy, bliss
Overcome or buzzing with delight, pleasure, or happiness. (Bliss is the exception here – it has more peaceful connotations. If you’re lucky, it’s what you’re left with when the euphoria subsides.)
In real life, you might expect to find euphoria, elation, or ecstasy at a music festival, an evangelical church, or a political rally. However, it is possible also for art and literature to take people to a higher plain and even leave them feeling uplifted and feeling better about their lives.
Music is often a powerful ingredient in generating this mood, and people often leave musicals, concerts, the opera, ballet , and art exhibitions ‘on a high’.
Be careful with this one: for literature to have this effect on a reader or audience is something really special! However, here is a common route through which writers have a tilt at achieving it:
Readers and audiences might share or empathise with characters or voices in literature who do profess themselves to feel these feelings with their full force:
Romantic poets, I’m looking at you!
Many poems capture or conjure these kinds of feelings, such as Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, which concludes:
For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils. (Wordsworth)
Let me explain.
Hysteria describes a state in which audience members have lost control of themselves. Hang on, though….
Does that really happen to people who are reading or who are in the theatre?
It does happen in art – usually during the successful performance of a farce or comedy. In this case you could expect to see people crying with laughter and virtually incapacitated!
Don’t believe me? Go and watch an episode of Fawlty Towers. You don’t have to find it funny yourself – but listen to the people in the audience at the most outrageous moments in the episode.
Oh, and by the way:
We have arguably become desensitized to the idea of comic hysteria.
That’s because these days anything funny on the internet is ROFL or LMAO. Right?
I mean, how often have you sent a ‘crying with laughter’ emoji 😂 when you have actually been crying with laughter? Usually it’s a gross exaggeration, and it’s become fashionable to make that exaggeration.
Recognise that it is actually ‘a thing’.
And it’s a thing that can be brought on by art. And there’s something else:
People will pay good money to experience it. Banners for comedies that play in the West End or on Broadway – or for books that are supposed to be funny – often include reassuring testimonials from people who were “crying” or “shaking” or “dying” or wetting themselves with laughter. Hysteria sells.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the amateur performance of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe (a play within a play by a group of amateur actors calling themselves the Rude Mechanicals) can be side-splittingly funny. Performances of more recent plays like One Man, Two Guvnors and Noises Off can achieve similar effects.
One sign that the ‘hysteria’ effect has been achieved is that the actors need to leave long pauses between their lines – sometimes 10, 20, or even 30 seconds – in order to allow the laughter to die down a bit. In fact, this usually helps to draw out the effect and maximize it.
One more thing to note here:
Farce is an interesting experiment because it allows for a safe sort of hysteria. More inflammatory and dangerous types of hysteria have been known to be provoked by art, however. Infamously, the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (Paris, 1913) provoked a riot.
Of all the dramatic effects in literature, these are arguably the most important. Not much is possible in literature if we don’t empathise.
The responses listed below are felt towards or for characters (e.g. “we feel pity for Tess Durbeyfield”). And those ‘characters’ can be:
- Human beings
But they can also be:
- Trees and plants
- Vehicles such as cars and boats
- Buildings, gardens, and other places of importance
- Toys designed to resemble any of the above
The point is, the object of your empathy has to be a sentient, living thing capable of its own feelings – or you need to be able to imagine it in that way.
The power to empathise is an incredible thing. There are other animals who do it (exclusively mammals) but not many.
To empathise is to simulate and feel what someone else must be feeling – often by using your imagination and ‘putting yourself in their shoes’. It can be deliberate or involuntary. Empathy is huge because it basically opens the door to all the possible human emotions as effects that a writer can achieve. A few of them have already come up on this page.
OK, first of all, sympathy doesn’t have to mean ‘feeling sorry for someone’.
In fact, it can mean:
- understanding people
- approving of their goals or actions
- wishing them well or rooting for them
- celebrating their successes or – yes – feeling bad for them about failures or misfortunes
- simply liking them
Sympathising with a character (or a couple, or a group of characters) gives us an emotional stake in the story, which facilitates the drama. It’s also important in a text where a character has symbolic value and ‘stands for’ a group of people (or for the whole of humanity).
Sorrow and pain brought about by our apprehension of someone else’s suffering – requiring empathy. One of the most powerful effects in theatre and (according to Aristotle) an essential ingredient in tragedy.
This is the opposite of sympathy – an intense feeling of dislike towards someone. That may well be brought about because of the next item in the list….
We like to use the word ‘disgust’ as hyperbole (‘You disgust me!’) when we’re actually just upset about something rather than genuinely disgusted. However…
It does belong in this list of effects in literature. And it tends to get triggered when:
- We feel that a character has crossed all the boundaries of human decency (discord)
- Their actions are likely to cause or allow some level of suffering or injustice to other people
- Those people are vulnerable and already have our sympathy
A strong contender for our moral disgust would surely be Alec D’Urberville in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) for the coordinated litany of dishonest, unfeeling, unscrupulous, and objectionable things he does to the vulnerable heroine – and her consequent distress and suffering.
Unlike the effects above, these ones don’t get sustained. They tend to be short-lived and fleeting. In fact, that’s the point of them – they punctuate and help form the structure to a text.
A climax is a peak or high point – whatever a text, part of a text, or even a sentence is building up to.
Sometimes people get all prudish about the sexual connotations of the word – and choose a different one. Don’t. ‘Climax’ is fine.
There can be big climaxes and little climaxes – it depends on where you start, and where you end up. Often, the point of being able to pinpoint the climax is to help you show how the text builds up to it, and climbs down from it.
A meaningful anti-climax – often comic, but can also be tragic. It can be huge or it can be subtle.
The scriptwriters of sitcoms like Friends love using this device: the conversation reaches a point of tension or seriousness (even if it’s just mild seriousness) – and then we get a punchline that bursts the balloon.
Bathos does not have to be comic – it can also follow moments of ecstasy and elation to bring us ‘back to earth with a bump.’
These are often instantaneous feelings that we feel at things (“horror at the realisation”, “wonder at how it was achieved”) rather than towards them (“sympathy towards“) as we do with empathic responses. We don’t detect them, and neither do we direct them – but rather…
…they take hold of us.
Poets from Geoffrey Chaucer to Wilfred Owen to Seamus Heaney have found ways of appealing to our sense of disgust – at decay, infection, disease, or unwelcome intimacy.
Disgust can be used as a vehicle for tension because of the way it disturbs us. It can lend an uncomfortable frisson to humour and comedy, or giving a sinister edge to material that is already grim. Here is Dickens building tension in Bleak House.
Mr. Guppy sitting on the window-sill, nodding his head and balancing all these possibilities in his mind, continues thoughtfully to tap it, and clasp it, and measure it with his hand, until he hastily draws his hand away.
“What, in the devil’s name,” he says, “is this! Look at my fingers!”
A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.Chapter 32, Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
This instantaneous reaction needs no introduction. But it does deserve attention.
Horror possesses us in a way that will obliterate anything else we were previously thinking or feeling.
In real life, genuine horror can leave us scarred or traumatised: it is not something we want to experience.
When experienced it in a controlled way – when a tiny circuit at the back of your brain knows that it’s not real – horror gives us a thrill and can leave us ‘shaken’ in a way that allows us to enjoy the journey back down to normality.
Just as people are willing to pay good money to be put into a state of hysteria and euphoria, experiences which offer horror are extremely popular. The successful Alien and Blair Witch franchises are good examples.
But 21st-century students can be reluctant to attribute horror to moments in texts other than films.
And as a literature student, you need to cultivate an appreciation (or at least recognition) of how horror can be felt in the theatre – or just in an armchair reading a novel.
Horror in novels:
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
The Woman in Black (Susan Hill, 1983)
Horror in the theatre:
The Duchess of Malfi (1613) – where the Duchess (and the audience) is suddenly shown a depiction of the dead bodies of her murdered family.
The Woman in Black (Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel): this play began performing in the West End in 1989… and has been so popular that it has never stopped.
There are also plenty of texts from classical Greece and Rome which can evoke horror. So do not assume that horror did not exist before Netflix!
In literature shock tends to be generated by depictions of topics which:
- are taboo to particular audiences
- confound an audience’s codes and conventions
- which grate against an audience’s tastes or sensibilities:
Here are some things which can elicit shock in an audience (depending on who the audience is):
- sexuality in general – or the acknowledgement of it
- sexual relationships which are interracial, incestuous, homosexual, or which transcend the boundaries of social class
- blasphemy or heresy
A word of warning: for some reason, students seem to love imagining historical audiences as having been universally and terribly innocent, prudish or bigoted. These audiences were (these students imagine) made up of delicate little souls or religious zealots who all believed in God and marriage and were apt to be ‘shocked’ by things – things which are not shocking to an oh-so-enlightened modern audience.
When we are shown a spectacle that is magical, beautiful, remarkable, or majestic, ‘wonder’ and ‘awe’ can often describe the feeling that takes hold on us. One way this effect might manifest itself is through the murmur or gasp that goes round a crowd when a street performer pulls off a particular trick.
But this happens in the theatre as well!
And it’s a favourite of Shakespeare.
An example might be the end of The Winter’s Tale, when the statue of Hermione (supposedly dead) comes to life, providing an astonishing resolution to the play.
Ballet is also a medium that lends itself to the production of wonder and awe. It is surely no coincidence that many of the most famous ballets contain magic as part of the plot: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Don Quixote.
The dramatic effects in literature listed below are all to do with stimulation, attention, and focus.
This is a good effect to be able to identify when ‘the plot thickens’ and the audience has incomplete information which they would like to piece together, often making them curious and attentive.
Intrigue is a really useful effect to be able to identify, because it’s subtle, and it covers a range of possibilities without being too vague.
Tip: If you’re going to write about intrigue in your essay, the expression you are looking for is “creates intrigue” – try to avoid the rather lame and speculative phrase “intrigues the reader/audience.”
This is more intense and dramatic than intrigue because we feel more immersed or overwhelmed by our lack of understanding. The audience’s information is incomplete and our hopes of gaining that information feel remote. Mystery can lead to a feeling of wonder and awe.
To arouse a sexual or sort-of-sexual excitement or interest.
This is more common and less niche than it sounds. I’ll explain….
OK: titillation isn’t usually a goal in itself (although, to be blunt, sometimes it is). But:
It can be a means to an end.
Here are some of the ‘ends’ that a bit of titillation can achieve. It can:
- Create irony
- Put an audience off-balance
- Make an audience a little uncomfortable
And the effects above can leave an audience vulnerable to other effects that are to follow – often horror.
Think about the shower scene in Psycho (1960): lady gets in the shower… plenty of shots of her naked calves and shoulders… then she gets brutally stabbed to death. Oh, and what about the opening sequence of Jaws (1975)? Girl takes her clothes off and goes skinny-dipping… and then gets savaged by a Great White Shark. These scenes have become famous partly because the initial titillation helps to prepare the ground for the horror that is to follow.
Fulfilment (or lack of it)
These are effects in literature which ‘fulfil’ (or leave unfulfilled) something that the audience wants or wanted even before they began reading or took a seat in the auditorium.
They tend to be either:
(1) deep-seated human desires
(2) deeply established (or entrenched) ideas about how the world works (or should work).
Satisfaction (but of what?)
We tend to satisfy tastes, appetites, or expectations. Of course, what the audience wants from a text can vary widely. Here are a few examples of things that an audience or readership can want:
- Compatibility with social convention
- Alignment with external narrative (e.g. political or religious)
Gratification (but of what?)
This is a bit like satisfaction (above) only stronger because you’re offering it rather than merely providing it. To gratify is to indulge a particular desire, taste, sensibility, or set of beliefs; for example:
- A patriotic set of beliefs
- A conviction of social hierarchy
- A taste for violence.
An appetite for blood and gore is something that literature has indulged or gratified for centuries. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a bloodbath. And 400 years later the films of Quentin Tarantino offer their own bloody spectacles – because it’s something that people want.
A special type of gratification. Nostalgia is the warm fuzzy feeling of affection and security you get when art offers you experiences which confirm, enliven, or embellish your memories and ideas about the past.
Tension is resolved. Things sort themselves out. The problem is solved. The uncertain is made certain.
This can be the cause of suspense and tension, but it can also survive the end of the text:
The lights go up in the theatre, the show is over, and the tense atmosphere evaporates – but the feeling of irresolution remains!
This tends to be the case if there are questions that remain unanswered, or if we’re not really convinced that all the characters were going to live happily ever after.
Irresolution is a common effect at the end of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’ such as Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. And in fact, many, perhaps all of Shakespeare’s comedies can leave us with the feeling that not all has ended well.
Irresolution can compromise the harmony of the atmosphere in a text – which can in fact lend more complexity and weight to the experience.
Denial or Frustration
This is what happens when the text blows a raspberry in your face.
Or, in other words, the audience’s desires, expectations, or tastes are deliberately or markedly not fulfilled – possibly on account of a late twist.
Imposing denial or frustration is a risky strategy for a writer.
If badly executed, readers and audiences will find it… well… frustrating, disillusioning, or even upsetting. If it is a ‘stunt’, or if audiences feel like they have been cheated or deceived, it is unlikely to go down well.
On the other hand, many would argue that it is the purpose of art and literature to test the boundaries. And they might add that sometimes people need to be shaken out of their complacency because they are too stuck in their ways. It depends, of course, on the text and the context. Sometimes people need a new perspective – which brings us to the next main part of my list.
It’s sometimes worth considering whether a text would be likely to influence how people think and respond to effects in literature after the show is over – so to speak – as opposed to how they feel during the performance or whilst reading.
The words below describe effects other than the emotional on a reader or audience. And they often describe an effect on a collective audience – rather than on individuals.
Educate, instruct (didactic texts)
It’s probably fair to say that only a minority of the texts studied as part of ‘literature’ courses are didactic. We don’t really like being lectured. True, we tend to use stories with a ‘moral’ or ‘lesson’ with small children – but they’re not really to modern adult tastes. That said, some texts do find beautiful ways of achieving this kind of outcome – particularly devotional or sacred texts of the medieval period.
If you’re a writer and you want to make an impression on your audience’s sense of morality, their loyalties, and their codes of behaviour, it is better to take those things and embody them in a hero.
The romance genre (I mean chivalric romance) is a perfect example of this – offering examples of knightly virtue and refinement.
Unadulterated, this sort of content can be a bit bland. Far better to give it some ambiguity and complexity…
Satire challenges all sorts of things by poking fun at them:
- Individual people and institutions
- Social codes and conventions
- Public sentiment
- Political or cultural movements
Tip: It is always worth being on the lookout for satirical implications in the text you are studying.
By contrast with didactic literature (above), satire is huge as a field of literary study.
Enlighten, create a shift in perspective
Literature has the power to shape the way people perceive the world and their own lives (for good or for ill).
The work of the Romantics – not just poets and novelists but painters and musicians too – exhibited the power to have this effect. So did Victorian novelists such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy through their (often unflattering, sometimes damning) depictions of the society, economy, and the institutions they saw around them.
Did you have any sympathy with this character? Or did they get what they deserved? Literature thrives on the differing opinions people will have in response – and the likelihood that they will want to debate
Provoke reaction, create a sensation / commotion / scandal
This is like a stronger version of stimulating debate.
We are very familiar with this effect in the age of viral videos and incendiary tweets – but:
Literature has always had the power to do this.
It can happen on account of a variety of the effects you can find in the list above – but shock ranks highly amongst them.
Lady Chatterly’s Lover is one of the most famous examples of a text that has had this effect on society.
Other titles that have caused sensation, commotion, or scandal:
- Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
- Ulysses (James Joyce)
- The Colour Purple (Alice Walker)
- The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)
One word of caution here: this isn’t an effect to speculate over in your essay (“it might have created a sensation when it was published”). The questions is simple: did it, or did it not have this effect?
That’s because sensation and commotion are widespread effects which get communicated in the media – or in other records of events.
Also, texts can only really have this effect when they are being published and read or performed for the first time.
Questions about dramatic effects in literature
Because I want to provide you with something useful, I’ve taken a lot of things for granted in my list above. If you’ve found my list of dramatic effects useful but still have questions, I’ll be happy to try and answer them below.
What about tone? Isn’t that an effect?
Yes, tone is an effect.
This page is about the effects that literature can have on us, around us, and amongst us – and the way we respond when we read, watch, listen to, or experience literature.
Tone as rather different.
That’s because tone is in the text. It belongs to the text. It lives in the text. But the effects I’m talking about above? Like I said, they take place in us, around us, amongst us – often in these things we like to call ‘the mood‘ or ‘the atmosphere‘.
It’s because generally speaking tone is something that we recognise and receive. The same cannot often be said of the effects above: they require us to feel – and they don’t necessarily require us to recognise what we’re feeling.
What is the difference between mood and atmosphere?
OK – first of all: unless your teacher has set you an essay on this exact question, answer these questions:
- Do you need to know the answer?
- Is it genuinely going to help you write your essay?
- Are you just fussing over literary terminology?
Are mood and atmosphere the same? No.
Is there a perfect definition and distinction between the two that will work every time? No.
Let me be honest:
I have yet to come up with a really satisfactory answer to this question.
I mean, sure…
… you can do a web search…
… and you’ll come up with all sorts of results…
… with people telling you confidently and authoritatively what the difference is.
But ask yourself: who wrote this? what are their qualifications? what’s their source? do they offer any examples? And take their ‘definitions’ with a pinch of salt – and try to decide for yourself.
In my list above there will be words where some readers think “hmm, I don’t think that’s a mood – it seems more like an atmosphere to me” – and in most cases that’s absolutely fine. The important thing is that you can identify the presence of the effect in the first place.