Study guide for literary analysis

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Updated 10/2017

Structural Elements of Narrative Literature

Narrative is a specialist’s term; simply put, a narrative has a “story” logic to its text. Fiction is narrative, and some nonfiction writing takes narrative form, too (like biographies or anecdotes within an essay). To analyze the structure of any narrative, we look at five fundamental elements:

Setting is the time and location of events that define each scene of a narrative’s action—the WHEN(s) and WHERE(s) of a story. An author may make the settings explicit or implicit (directly or indirectly presented), minor in importance/impact or major—attention should be paid to the purpose for setting changes/ choices (especially as they relate/ support other elements and the meaning of the text).
Setting is entangled with the plotting of a story (the ordering of events—a part of style—not to be confused with plot structure), so be careful how you “locate” flashbacks, dream sequences, etc—these “scenes” may occur chronologically in the wording, but retrospectively/ disjointedly/ virtually in the “logical” time or space of the sequence of action in the story, altering its interpretation. The setting of a story may or may not be the same as the time and place of the authorship of the story—even if the setting is left ambiguous, never assume!—look for evidence to justify your interpretation.
When fully developed—as it is in most complex texts—setting goes beyond being the “backdrop” to the action to function as a major or minor character. Setting at this level is considered “environment” because it not only surrounds, it influences the action/actors.

Be careful not to confuse the author’s tone (specifically a major component of tone, “mood”) with the author’s presentation of setting by reducing it to how it is perceived by characters (mysterious, hostile, etc) instead of analyzing its actual attributes. Setting—whether it’s simple or complex—is concrete context; mood is a judgment about how the author intended the reader to imagine the context feels and how it reflects or opposes the feelings behind characters’ action—see tone and mood.

Bottom Line for Setting

To analyze setting at the college level, go beyond naming the site and time of scenes and instead put together clues to see how the author fleshes-out the context(s) enveloping events and characters. Environment descriptions that capture this should fit the default phrase

[X character’s actions are only fully understood]… in the context of_________.

Examples of contexts: “a cultural/ religious/ social/ political revolution erupting;” “an epidemic when medical practice was still very primitive;” “a closed/ open, controlled/ free, urban/pastoral, diverse/monocultural society.”

Characterization/Character Development is the ACTIVE PROCESS an AUTHOR applies to assign attributes to each actor in a story (person, communal group, animal, force, influential thing—all are charACTers). The author embeds examples, testimony or not-C evidence of attributes in the narrative to develop what we call its “characters,” the specific WHO(s)—even if these aren’t beings but things—interacting within the story. Be careful not to substitute mere character description for analysis of character development, the decisions by the author, communicated through the narrator, that actually “create” characters. Be careful not to misinterpret the term “development of character.” Characters aren’t real, so they don’t “develop” [grow up] like, say, human children do. Authors develop them—that is, they create characters like, say, an invention.

There are 3 layers to characterization:

Character Personae –

Separate traits embedded by the author combine to DEVELOP a profile of every actor’s overall persona [singular of personae and a word we use to avoid the confusion of saying the “character” of a character and to push beyond the more general idea of personality]. To analyze what/who the author made a complex character be, look beyond simplistic categories or brief “bios” (like “his step-father” or “a man who had a hard childhood”); focus instead on
external and internal strengths/ weaknesses/ beliefs/ motivations
revealed by the character’s actions, reported thoughts and descriptions by the narrator or other characters. When you are analyzing these, remember they occur, as they do for real-life personae, in multiple dimensions:












In most narrative, development BY THE AUTHOR of personae is directly linked to the text’s theme and/or purpose (go figure, we like to use examples of actors like/unlike us to communicate and understand ideas). At the college level, to trace these links, look for how traits and/or personae within and between characters are related to each other—for example, the contrast between expected and actual traits—and related to other elements—for example, compare characters’ beliefs with their actions or decisions [plot]. Personae development is often used by the author to emphasize, highlight or otherwise connect together all the structural elements of a narrative (anthropocentric much?).
Character Types –

Characters’ personae—the combination of traits making up their “profile”—are developed to different complexity levels:

a Flat character’s persona is given only one or two traits in the narrative. Think of flat as having no depth or, less judgmentally, as the author choosing to show only one facet of him/her/it in the story.
a Round character’s traits, put together, make him/her/it many-sided, perhaps even self-contradictory, persona. Think of a round persona as “3-dimensional” (although this, of course, would make the character a sphere not a circle—sheesh, mathphobic literature geeks!) or more real-life-like. Roundness is often confused with being dynamic (see below).
a Stock character’s traits fit exactly—and only rarely expand or challenge—a stereotype character’s persona found again and again in similar texts (mad scientist, tough-minded CEO, sidekick)—but should not be confused with a stereotype in a society but not in literature (class clown; crazy driver; gaudy tourist). “Stock” is meant metaphorically, to represent “off-the-shelf” or cookie-cutter actors inserted by an author into any story as is. Contrast stock characters with archetypes, who are often round, individual “particulars” whose essence (not their surface), follows one of the ideal patterns established throughout the history and in very different genres and styles of literature. Stock characters are mostly flat, but not definitively so.
Authors present a character’s growth over time as one of two categories:

a Static character’s traits do not evolve from start to finish—that is, the character in any one part of the story could be relocated to an earlier or later scene and make sense, because he/she/it still has the same persona in it. A static character can be round, flat or stock and have any function in the plot. Staticism doesn’t reduce a character to being simplistic or minor (although simplistic, minor, static characters are sometimes stock)—in fact, many main characters of complex works are static—think about it!

a Dynamic character’s persona—all or enough of his/her/its beginning traits—undergoes permanent change throughout the plot—that is, the character relocated to a previous scene does NOT make sense or at least the same sense because the before and after personae have diverged. When looking at static vs dynamic, be careful to analyze change in TRAITS of the character, not in the character’s circumstances (a change in environment or development of plot, not of character). For example, dying/ getting older/ winning/ losing/ moving does NOT make a character dynamic. Again, remember that authors develop characters.
A dilemma everyone faces when analyzing dynamism of character is this question: did the character’s persona actually evolve from A to B (dynamic) or did the reader just learn new/expanded trait(s) about him/her/it as the story progressed that had always been there (the author adding to the character’s roundness)? Think of the multiple backstories/ flashbacks for the characters in “Lost.” If you followed the show like truly obsessed fans did, you had long online chats trying to parse out whether certain “new” info changed who the characters were or only added new layers to consider about them.
To justify dynamism for a character, show evidence implicit or explicit, that the evolution is:

  • logically within the possibilities of the character (no “jumping the shark”)

  • intrinsically motivated rather than merely response to new/changing events (or else the character didn’t change, circumstances did)

  • given sufficient time/ emphasis to justify it as intentionally communicated by the author to the reader (not your “gut feeling” that the character would be different)

Character Functions/ Roles in the Plot Structure–

The scope of action assigned to a particular character also ends up fitting specific categories:

a Protagonist is the central actor(s) addressing/ being controlled by the conflict, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic (may/may not be a “hero”). Protagonist is not synonymous with main character/s, which just means emphasized).

an Antagonist is the central actor(s) working against the protagonist’s intentions for solving the conflict, be it person, thing, force, environment, or even trait(s) of the protagonist’s own persona—he/she/it may also be sympathetic or unsympathetic (may/may not be a “villain”).
Major characters have direct, significant effect on other characters’ actions and/or on the plot structure—this could make them main characters or not; minor characters if they affect characters or plot at all, do so indirectly and insignificantly—so, a main character might be minor. A Foil is a category of minor character whose function is limited to highlighting the traits/actions of a major character or other element(s) of the story. A foil is often a double or opposite (mirror image) of another character’s trait(s)—other elements and even passages can also be a foil or a “echo” used for reinforcement or contrast. (Do not call foils or any character outside of an allegory a symbol, however—see literary devices, later, for why.)
Two Strategies Authors Use to Embed Characterization Within Narrative–

Direct Presentation – the author uses the narrator/speaker to communicate a character’s traits and/or development explicitly through exposition, description and/or commentary; and/or non-narrator characters are given the job of presenting through their reported speech or thoughts. Readers must JUDGE how to “take” direct presentation (whether by narrator or characters); the source may be credible or be unreliable for this information (see more in narration below). Rarely are type and role of character presented explicitly (The Princess Bride is an exception).

Indirect Presentation –the author keeps the narrator/speaker limited to showing the character only in action (with no commentary/ interpretation), leaving implicit the type, role and/or persona; the author is forcing the reader to INFER a character’s traits, impact and development by drawing implications from what he/she is told the character thinks, says or does in the story. This strategy of presentation is called dramatizing.

To analyze dramatization by an author, justify where the following are implicit in the narrative:

  • a full character profile (traits that fit together to form a coherent persona for the character type; no outliers/ contradictions)

  • the actions/reactions aligned to the profile’s motivation(s)/ belief(s)/ strength(s) and/or weakness(es) (role that is justified by the plot structure and the character persona and type; no missing links/gaps)

  • connections between character and context (persona/ type/ role are plausible, given the events/environment of the story)

Direct and indirect presentation is used by authors to develop most elements of narrative. So, pay attention to HOW you are told the story (what’s explicit and implicit in the work) in order to support your claims about its interpretation [just like I said on the second day of this class!].

Bottom Line for Characterization

Instead of character summary or description, college-level ANALYSIS of author’s characterization will ask you to define and dissect WHAT THE AUTHOR IS DOING and HOW IT AFFECTS meaning. So:

  • purpose(s), technique(s) and effect(s) related to the specific types, roles, personae in a text

  • specific traits/dimensions of character related to each other and connected to other elements

  • effects of direct vs. indirect presentation of the above

Plot Structure is the abstract pattern “behind” (implicit in) the actual sequence of events/actions in a story that gives it a logical structure—the HOW of WHAT HAPPENS. Like characterization, college-level plot analysis goes beyond summary or description of the action. Instead, since stories are arguments (everything’s an argument!) think of plot structure as Toulmin Analysis: identify the default warrants, backing and grounds that make up the implicit argument, HOW the story WORKS. Plot structure can be thought of as the outline of the author’s proof-of-claim.
Western culture’s basic plot pattern is also its fundamental “formula” for understanding human experience. Its stories logically “prove” how it views the pattern of a life: growth of awareness, confrontation/decision about truth and solution of problem(s) to gain a higher state of knowledge/ existence/ stability. (Do you see the Judeo-Christian worldview that informs this shared cultural outlook?)

We break this basic pattern into 5 interconnected Cs.
NB: Never forget that other cultures’ patterns are different, because their formulae for life and worldviews are different. Also, within the Western tradition, there are variants and alternates to the basic pattern. This 5 C pattern, however, is a baseline with which to compare/contrast any narrative’s logical structure.

CRITICAL NB: The Cs are OUR terms, developed to support quality literary analysis by our students at Jackson. AP and college instructors elsewhere do NOT use these same terms and, in fact, will expect their students to use others (see notes below for related, commonly used terms you should familiarize yourself with). THINK and READ using our terms—since they are effective—but be ready to:

    1. align our Cs with other common terms when you come across them in other sources (study guides, published literary analyses, etc)

    2. EXPLICITLY DEFINE not JUST NAME, terms as you argue about any text (ex: “The decision the main character makes that solves the conflict is…” instead of just “The climax is…”). This is a good, general tip for ensuring that any audience sees that you know what you’re talking about for any definition.

    3. WRITE/RESPOND for other audiences (AP, ACT, SAT, college profs, etc) using the common terms they expect and/or defining the component as you use it explicitly so there is no confusion.

Conflict is a fundamental problem that sets off action and that must be solved in order for the action to end. Think of conflict as analogous to a catalyst for reactants in chemistry, the reason all the elements of the story combine as well as the why they stop reacting (solution is achieved when the catalyst has been used up, right?). An effective default formula to describe conflict is:

_____________ (unacceptable sitch) is present and must be addressed and solved in some way; otherwise the events/ actions that involve the problem will continue.
You will see basic conflict “categories” in some sources like:

  • person against personhuman protagonist must confront human antagonist

  • person against environment – human protagonist must address external force, physical nature, society, “fate”, something supernatural (possibly context!)

  • person against selfhuman protagonist must address trait(s) in his/her own persona.

Our experience is that these commonly used categories are too broad to be effective tools for analysis at the college level (note for example that they focus on human actors, imply single rather than communal action, etc). However, knowing them may help you to consider options for conflict you would have otherwise missed. These are not complex enough to demonstrate analysis of conflict for this class.
Go beyond the PROBLEM of the MAIN CHARACTER(s) when analyzing conflict at the college level. This is very hard to avoid (anthrocentrism strikes again!). To train yourself out of this, state a problem that is, at least, shared by all major characters.
Complications are events/actions in the story that get in the way of—block action or add complexity to—solving the conflict (usually by introducing new sub-problems). Other sources group these kinds of actions/events together as “rising [plot] action.” Be careful not to confuse plot complications (acts/events) with actors like the conflict’s antagonist (character). Complications may or may not be under the control of major characters; they would, logically, be related to them in some significant way.
Crisis (if one is present at all) is a final, usually culminating, complication that takes the form of an emergent obstacle to the established progression of actions/events—specifically a hurdle/dilemma that forces the climax to occur. The crisis could be the endpoint of a series of complications leading directly to the climax, or a crisis can occur because circumstances in the narrative demand immediate relief/ resolution (like the ticking time bomb trope). In traditional stories like folktales, the crisis is the most important complication or one that was made inevitable by earlier events/actions (think Cinderella). Not all narrative will have a crisis—if no complication stands out, the complications instead build up to the climax. In fact, melodramatic narratives often employ crises ineffectively to develop plot—think of bad action movie moments of “what WILL he do?” Analyzing crisis is a convenient first step to evaluate the quality and complexity of plot development (see below) and to relate different complications to each other to determine their significance/ effects.
This next C is our biggest departure from what you’ve been taught before. Trust us, though; it works:
Climax is the DECISION made by the main character(s)—not an ACT/EVENT—that directly resolves the conflict (the cause for the solution of the problem). This definition is more specific and “proveable” than the usual one found in high school sources, “most exciting part/turning point of the story.” Our contention is that all acts that resolve the conflict come in the form of a choice (since a resolution that wasn’t intentional would mean the problem solved itself). In traditional stories the protagonist controls the decision, but it is not necessarily either the protagonist(s) or antagonist(s).
Analyzing climax at the college level requires you to justify with evidence of direct and/or indirect presentation what the decision was and why it—not something else—directly solved the problem YOU defined as the conflict.
Conclusion is the actual—realized—resolution of the conflict: HOW the problem comes to fruition (does the climax-decision work or not?). It is NOT how the story ends. So, if the climax were the decision to confront the enemy, the conclusion would be the outcome of that confrontation: who has the power NOW? It would NOT be the confrontation itself. Events do occur after the plot structure’s conclusion (think: happily ever after, reunion scene, victory party, etc). Do not confuse the author’s “tying up loose ends” with logical solution of the conflict. Dénouement is the specialized term for these “wrap ups.” Other sources call the series of events from climax through dénouement, “falling action.”
Bottom Line for Plot Structure

Plot structure is like Toulmin Analysis, an argumentative outline, NOT a summary. To analyze it, trace the story’s patterns of cause -> effect, going beyond just the steps the main characters take (very hard for most students to manage). Plot structure is the “plan” the narrative follows to prove its theme(s).

To evaluate the success of an author’s development of plot look for:

Artistic Unity is the name for how effectively the directly and indirectly presented actions/ events are made cohesive in terms of plot structure by the author. To evaluate this, analyze how the actions in the story relate to each other and align with other elements. For example, the technique of foreshadowing—authors’ insertion of details of the story early in a narrative that are “pre-echoes” of details that re-occur and are made significant later in the story—creates a “chain” that links otherwise disparate passages, elements or scenes together, similar to literary devices that link words through sound or organization. Unified plot development aligns closely, too, to the criteria for effectively dramatizing characters—coherence, logical justification and plausibility of the whole. Where parts of plot are left out of the narrative’s reporting of events, the author’s intention and the effect on meaning should be analyzed.

Plot Manipulation describes an author’s choice to make the action depart from what is predictable or expected for the characters, conflict and/or setting as they have been presented. To be effective, it should avoid any implausible twists or turns (evil twin!), false leads (“red herrings”) or unjustified gaps/inclusions (what happened? what was that?) and, instead, add complexity/ depth/ richness to the process of communicating meaning to the reader.

Themes are significant, IMPLICIT messages from the author to the reader indicating how the story should be applied to real life/ real world—WHY the author thinks the story should matter to the reader. To avoid being banal or just plain wrong, think of theme as the implications of the argument of the work—that is, what we readers should do, what we should be aware of, or how we need to look at things in life/the world differently now that we’ve understood this story.
Warrant: theme is related to, but different from, the argument the story makes.

Definition: narrative literature argues

hypotheses regarding the layers and/or impacts of the relationships of

WHOs to WHEREs to WHENs to WHATs to HOWs to WHYs
See my room wordles for common concepts related to literature’s arguments and themes.
Unlike what high school textbooks and online study guides would call “controlling ideas,” (which is the topic of study for informative/expository, not narrative, genres), narrative themes are reasonable conclusions about what to do/ think/ understand about life/the world that understanding the work’s “proof” of the layers/impacts gets you to draw.
At the college level, themes:

    • are best expressed as complete argument (claim and reason), never as a single idea (NOT “motherhood” but “Our families sometimes are more frustrating than rewarding because…”)—using both claim and reason to state themes works to keep you from a trap like “A theme is ‘Don’t mistreat people’ …because… why?—it’s wrong to mistreat people… because…mistreating is not treating fairly??”

    • are plausibly applicable to the real world/lives of the intended audience, not lessons that apply only to particular characters or specific situations in the story (NOT “stay out of the basement when a killer is on the loose” but, perhaps, “one’s strength isn’t really known until it’s tested because…”)

    • yet are NOT generalized beyond the parameters of the situation depicted in the work (NOT “[all] Modern life is [always] dehumanizing” but “In today’s hectic world, living amongst a crowd can be as lonely as solitary existence because...”)

There is often more than one argument and thus more than one theme within a complex piece of fiction, but that does not mean that ANY message a reader takes from a work is a reasonable theme. You must be able to justify any theme by first being sure it matches the college-level definition above and then analyzing evidence from the work’s structural elements to establish that it argues layers/impacts of a relationship that would plausibly lead to that conclusion. Rarely is argument in a complex work presented directly through the narrator or character—even in narrative nonfiction; rather, a combination of indirect presentation along with direct and a combination of elements—never just characterization or plot—communicates it.

Move beyond simplistic arguments of a work that just restate a main character’s outlook, actions, motivation or beliefs in a particular situation so you can avoid banal themes (“We should do/not do what X does when faced with a similar situation”). You can do so by answering this default question:
What is the author arguing is likely true in the real world by creating a “virtual” scenario where X narrator/character thinks/does/believes Y in Z situation?
NB: Any statement that reduces a narrative’s argument or theme to some aphorism or cliché should be avoided. Do not use “A stitch in time saves nine,” “You can’t judge a book by its cover, “Treat others the way you wish to be treated” and so on. Well-written and well-understood narrative makes complex and significant arguments that are worth applying to the real world. Look at narrative theme as the implications of the whole story’s argument, the full, elaborate test of the author’s theory about the world/life (not just judgment of one act, one person, one situation), and you should be able to move beyond banal toward cogent.
Bottom Line for Theme

To derive theme at the college level, first determine a claim and reason plausible for the work to be arguing, which logically unifies the setting, plot structure, narration and characterization by:

    • accounting for all the major details of the story (no outliers….like “Cinderella argues that only children are superior to siblings in behavior and appearance…and…er…maybe some other things, too.”)

    • not contradicting any logic of the elements (no fallacies…like “Cinderella argues that being morally good will bring you true…despite the fact that Cinderella ‘cheats’ to meet the Prince at the ball.”)

    • reflecting what’s in the story not the reader’s judgments/view of its subjects/ situations (no bias…like “Cinderella is really arguing girls should be weak if they want to be happy/”).

Then plumb the warrants of that argument to get to theme(s): how would this argument apply, reasonably, to the real world of the intended audience?

Narration refers to the LITERAL Point of View of the storyteller—where he/she/it stands in relation to the action of the story (like perspective for a painting). In fiction, the narrator who is telling the story should NEVER be confused with the author (even if the narrator has the same name, like Dante). Thus, you would never say “Faulkner says” when you mean “the narrator in Faulkner’s story says” (Faulkner writes what the narrator tells the reader). In nonfiction works, however, the narrator and author are assumed to be the same unless the work indicates otherwise (Madison, Jay and Hamilton created narrative identities who “spoke” the text of the Federalist Papers.)
Narration as an element occupies a gray area between structure—the logic—and style—the artistry—of narrative, because it combines components of the story with effects of the language. Pay close attention to when/how narration relates to/overlaps/departs from the text’s style1. Don’t underestimate Narration’s impact on precise interpretation of meaning—since it is, of course, the foundational element of Narrative.
Narration/Point of View can be analyzed by filling in the formula:
WHO the Narrator is telling the story mediates the VIEW the reader gets “into” the story, by employing what level of access to information and how much control over the reader.
Point of view in the literary sense should not be confused with an author’s “point of view” or “perspective on” life, racism, politics, etc. Remember: analyzing the perspective/point of view of a painting is within the piece of art; analyzing the painter’s perspective on a subject is talking about what is outside of the art. The same is true for text.

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