Comparing Techniques Used in Different Literary Mediums

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Literature can take many varying forms, each providing a different experience for the reader, viewer, or listener. This lesson will explore some of the strategies used that make each medium unique. Additionally, the lesson will cover comparative techniques for various literary mediums.

Literary Genres

What we call literature can really be anything that tells a story, regardless of the method used. Spoken stories have been around for a very long time, even before humans used writing to record their words. Once writing was available, stories could be recorded and passed on to others: poems, short stories, fables, myths, novels, and plays. Live theater performances are usually based on a written script. These scripts can be adapted, and then we have films and television programs.

Reading or Listening

Let's think now about written fictional media - perhaps the text of a poem. There are many specific qualities of poetry that set it apart from other genre of fiction. For instance, many poems, of past and present, take a traditional form including rhythm and rhyme. Various line lengths and stanza breaks also come into play. You may have read some examples of this type of poetry, like a sonnet by William Shakespeare.

Some poetry, especially in the 20th century and after, is called free verse because it does not use a regular form. In this poetry, one key quality is economy of word use; this is why poems need to be read carefully and every word considered in order to understand the poet's meaning.

Written Text of a Free Verse Poem
Written poem

When you read a poem, you say the words in your mind and try to capture the imagery and meaning. Now let's imagine that you have an opportunity to go to a poetry reading and hear a poet perform his or her own poems. This is quite a different experience: you can hear the words as the poet intended and read them at the same time. The writer's tone of voice and inflection give all new meaning to the poem. Hearing and reading poetry are different experiences, as hearing involves your auditory senses and reading requires you to interpret the words in your mind.

A Live Audio Experience of Poetry
Poetry Reading

Live Theater and Film

If you have ever read a play without actually seeing it, you know the power of your own imagination in creating the story. When watching a play on a stage, there are elements that come between the words in the script and your experience of the story. There is a director, who has a great deal of input on what you see on the stage. There are also actors, who interpret the actions, emotions, and tone of the playwright's characters. And, of course, the setting must necessarily be a representation of the place and time intended.

South Pacific as a Stage Play
South Pacific

In the case of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, South Pacific, the setting is an island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. As you can see from the image above, the ocean must be represented abstractly, and the viewers must be willing to believe that the action takes place on this island.

Another feature of live theater is that you have no opportunity to return to a scene or a bit of dialogue that you missed. You, as a viewer, are constrained to know only what you see and hear as the story unfolds before you.

Now let's think about the same musical portrayed in film. The camera and the entire cast and crew can actually travel to an island in the South Pacific - and you get the chance to see the setting as it might exist in the world of reality. Of course, you know that the story and the characters are fictional, but you see and hear the story in a more realistic manner.

A Possible Film View of the Setting of South Pacific
South Pacific beach

Film also allows a greater amount of movement to be shared with the audience. For example, a cattle stampede in a stage play would necessarily be an event that takes place off stage. The audience would know that part of the story probably through the characters discussing it after the fact. On the other hand, a movie can depict the cattle stampede in all of its frightening action.

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