4.5: How to Analyze Fiction - Elements of Literature
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Elements of Literature
Before you dive straight into your analysis of symbolism, diction, imagery, or any other rhetorical device, you need to have a grasp of the basic elements of what you're reading. When we read critically or analytically, we might disregard character, plot, setting, and theme as surface elements of a text. Aside from noting what they are and how they drive a story, we sometimes don't pay much attention to these elements. However, characters and their interactions can reveal a great deal about human nature. Plot can act as a stand-in for real-world events just as setting can represent our world or an allegorical one. Theme is the heart of literature, exploring everything from love and war to childhood and aging.
With this in mind, you can begin your examination of literature with a “who, what, when, where, how?” approach. Ask yourself “Who are the characters?” “What is happening?” “When and where is it happening?” and “How does it happen?” The answers will give you character (who), plot (what and how), and setting (when and where). When you put these answers together, you can begin to figure out theme, and you will have a solid foundation on which to base your analysis.
We will be exploring several of the following literary elements in the following pages so that we can have a common vocabulary to talk about fiction:
- Rhetorical Devices
Here are a few questions to ask when looking at some of the main elements of fiction. We will be looking at each of these in more detail in the following pages.
Setting is a description of where and when the story takes place.
- What aspects make up the setting?
- Geography, weather, time of day, social conditions?
- What role does setting play in the story? Is it an important part of the plot or theme? Or is it just a backdrop against which the action takes place?
- Study the time period which is also part of the setting
- When was the story written?
- Does it take place in the present, the past, or the future?
- How does the time period affect the language, atmosphere, or social circumstances of the novel?
Characterization deals with how the characters are described.
- through dialogue?
- by the way they speak?
- physical appearance? thoughts and feelings?
- interaction – the way they act towards other characters?
- Are they static characters who do not change?
- Do they develop by the end of the story?
- What type of characters are they?
- What qualities stand out?
- Are they stereotypes?
- Are the characters believable?
Plot and structure
The plot is the main sequence of events that make up the story.
- What are the most important events?
- How is the plot structured? Is it linear and chronological or does it move back and forth?
- Are there turning points, a climax, and/or an anticlimax?
- Is the plot believable?
Narrator and Point of View
The narrator is the person telling the story.
Point of view: whose eyes the story is being told through.
- Who is the narrator or speaker in the story?
- Is the narrator the main character?
- Does the author speak through one of the characters?
- Is the story written in the first person “I” point of view?
- Is the story written in a detached third person “he/she/they” point of view?
- Is the story written in an “all-knowing” third person who can reveal what all the characters are thinking and doing at all times and in all places?
Conflict or tension is usually the heart of the novel and is related to the main character.
- How would you describe the main conflict?
- Is it internal where the character suffers inwardly?
- Is it external, caused by the surroundings or environment the main character finds themself in?
The theme is the main idea, lesson, or message in the novel. It is usually an abstract, universal idea about the human condition, society or life, to name a few.
- How does the theme shine through in the story?
- Are any elements repeated that may suggest a theme?
- What other themes are there?
The author’s style has to do with the author’s vocabulary, use of imagery, tone, or feeling of the story. It has to do with his attitude towards the subject. In some novels the tone can be ironic, humorous, cold, or dramatic.
- Is the text full of figurative language?
- Does the author use a lot of symbolism? Metaphors, similes?
An example of a metaphor is when someone says, "My love, you are a rose." An example of a simile is "My darling, you are like a rose."
- What images are used?
Your literary analysis of a novel will often be in the form of an essay or book report where you will be asked to give your opinions of the novel at the end. To conclude, choose the elements that made the greatest impression on you. Point out which characters you liked best or least and always support your arguments. Try to view the novel as a whole and try to give a balanced analysis.
These are the Elements of Literature, the things that make up every story. This is the first of two videos.
Video 4.5.1 : Elements of literature with Mr. Taylor: Part I
Video 4.5.2 Elements of literature with Mr. Taylor: Part II
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from Writing About Literature: The Basics by CK-12, license CC-BY-NC
- Adapted from How to Analyze a Novel by Carol Dwankowski, provided by NDLA, license CC-BY-SA