Analysing Works of Literature: The Basics
Simple steps to get you thinking correctly and analytically
by Sofia Johansson-Vithal
After reading this you should be able to:
- Understand more fully what is meant by Structure and how to write about it
- Understand more fully what is meant by Language and how to write about it
- Understand the basic terminology to help you write and think analytically
How Structure, Form and Language fits into your analysis:
Using the appropriate terminology and concepts you should be able to articulate informed, relevant and creative responses to literary texts. To do so you need to demonstrate ‘detailed critical understanding’ of the meanings in literary texts shaped by structure, form and language.
- Identify the significant and relevant aspects of structure, from and language
- Critically analyse and explore how these aspects shape meaning
- Refer in detail to your chosen literary text in support of your responses to the above points.
Writing about Structure:
Structure should be looked at as the framework and the way of how something is put together. Take a minute to consider how you might comment on the way your writer has structured his/her work. In literature, structure could refer to Story structure or Text organisation – the latter focusing on how the text is organised into sections – chapters, paragraphs or, in the case of poetry, stanzas.
Story Structure: How the story develops
A similar structure is applied to most stories, however long or short, including a narrative (account of a something/a story) of some kind.
HINT: Does the literary work you have read fit into the below pattern? If not, think about why this might be. Some stories also contain minor stories alongside the main one – these are known as sub-plot.
- Exposition: (The ‘laying out’ of the story)
The beginning of the story introduces us to the main characters and setting (the world) of the poem, play or novel. This is what the world is like before the really begins and things start to change. Written texts before 1900 tend to have a longer exposition than more modern works of literature.
- The Inciting Incident:
This is where something happens to change things, usually for the protagonist (main character), and the story ‘really begins’
If everything is worked out easily, there is no story. The course of a story changes through turning points (complications). In a full-length novel there are usually two or more turning points. Try and identify these.
- The Plot: (The Climax of the story)
Strangely, the plot is usually not right at the very end of a story. A plot is the main scene, which all the turning points in previous scenes, have been building up to. It’s also the scene where things come to a head leading to either a tragic or happy ending.
- Resolution/The Coda (A term used often in music):
The resolution describes the final section in literary work and as the name suggests; resolves (mostly) all questions. This is where we are given a chance to reflect on what has happened and how the world has changed. The writer can also remind us of the beginning of the story; by having the protagonist return or by repeating lines from the start, although slightly changed. This is how the writer ‘ties up any loose ends’.
Text organisation, although closely related to story structure, is where writers use the end of a scene or chapter as a mini climax. It leaves the reader wondering what will happen next and is done effectively at intervals in television dramas, ensuring the audience’s return after an ad-break.
HINT: Don’t write what you’ve spotted, e.g. ‘the novel is divided into 18 chapters’.
Do look at anything unusual in the structure and think of the effect of how the text is organised, e.g.
- The classic English literature novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë starts at the end as Lockwood asks Nelly to tell him the story. How would this intrigue the reader?
- Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield is in chronological order as we follow the protagonist David from birth onwards. What effect does this have on the reader?
Things to consider:
- Does the opening of the story intrigue the reader? And does it establish the world of the text successfully?
- Does it shock or surprise you? Or gently lead you into the story?
- Does the ending leave us with unanswered questions or does it neatly resolve the loose ends from the plot?
- Does it refer back to the beginning, if so, how does it leave us feeling?
Remember: Do not only comment on the structure of the text but show how the structure, in turn, shape and create meaning to the text.
Imagery: How the writer ‘paints’ a scene
Imagery conveys atmosphere and emotion in works of literature. Without it the text would seem ‘flat’. Imagery is how, and the way, in which the writer ‘paints’ a scene through the use of words and descriptive language like metaphors and similes. There are two types of imagery, Literal and Figurative:
Literal Imagery: Describes a ‘real’ scene.
Figurative Imagery: Using an image of one thing to tell us about another, e.g. metaphor or simile.
Metaphor: Refers to something as something else, e.g. ‘time is a thief’, ‘feeling blue’, ‘heart if stone’.
Smiles: A direct comparison of one thing to another using ‘as’, ‘like’ or ‘then’, e.g. ‘big as a house’, ‘faster than lightning’.
Consider the writer’s choice of imagery and look for themes, patterns and techniques in your text:
- Personification: Writing about an object, animal or idea as if it were a person to give it human qualities, e.g. ‘the wind whispered’
- Symbolism: The use of an object to represent an idea or feeling, e.g. A dove symbolises peace
- Pathetic Fallacy: When surroundings (e.g. the weather) reflects the mood of a character.
Top Things to help you ‘ACE’ your analysis:
Throughout your analysis you need to support a point you’ve made and convince the reader that your point is valid. This will help create more depth and understanding in your analysis. It also demonstrates a thorough understanding of the writer’s style, his/her techniques and is simply achieved by using the below guidelines if PEE.
PEE: Point, Evidence, Explanation
- Make an original and interesting point
- Back it up with an appropriate reference to the text
- Explain or Explore how the evidence illustrates your point in a sophisticated way
Do let me know in the comments if this post about basic analysis has been useful and/or if there is anything else you’d like me to cover. Good luck with your analysis!