When it comes to analyzing a literary work, here is what you need to know: the basic historical context of the piece; the reason the piece is considered great or important; and what the piece is, ultimately, about (what’s the point?). After that, you’ll want to look at the literary devices in the work and understand how they add to its meaning, beauty and effectiveness. This sounds like a lot of work, but don’t be a martyr: for context, and to get through more difficult works, I highly recommend CliffsNotes and SparkNotes . . . and skimming.
Bonus points: Understand the difference between good and great literature (one is well-written and entertaining while the other is these, plus important and universal in some way) and don’t confuse a work’s true meaning with the meaning that the author intended (the authorial intent). Great literature, it is said, is a mystical creature with a life independent of its creator.
A few additional notes on poetry interpretation: Though any great literary work can abide line by line analysis, due to its shorter length, poetry is particularly amenable to it. At least once in your life, choose a poem you like and study its use of some of the literary devices below, its use of repetition, rhyme, rhythm and cadence and, most importantly, its diction (both the connotations and the denotations of each word). Think about how each of these elements furthers the meaning of the poem. You might be surprised how much there is to say about those few lovely stanzas.
Basic Literary Terminology Checklist
Most people should probably know most of these terms; it just makes for better conversation about books. Play with literary analysis by choosing one or two favorite works and identifying some or most of the following literary devices in them. This will help you appreciate their beauty in a way you haven’t before.
Subject: The objective main topic of a piece of writing (i.e. Tom Sawyer’s adventures on the Mississippi)
Theme: The subjective, philosophical idea that is being explored in the work (i.e. boyhood or independence)
Narrative: The work’s story line
Genre: The type or category of writing (i.e. mystery, science fiction, romance, etc.)
Motif: A recurring idea, symbol or set of symbols in the work (i.e. the Mississippi River)
Premise: The question or problem posed by the work
Diction: Word choice
Syntax: The ways words are organized in sentences and paragraphs
Style: The unique way something is written, including the work’s diction and tone
Tone: The unique way the audience receives the work (i.e. formal, conversational, etc.)
Voice: The unique way the author writes. A magazine can have many voices, but maintain a single tone throughout.
Mood: The overall feeling of the piece (i.e. dark, brooding, light, fanciful, etc.)
Pace: The speed and rhythm with which a story is told
Literary convention: A commonly used style, idea or technique in literature
Figurative language: Language that implies or represents an idea rather than directly stating it, often for mood, dramatic effect, or humor (i.e. hyperbole, understatement, analogy, personification, euphemism, simile, metaphor, etc.)
Image/imagery: A mental picture or representation of a person, place, or thing
Analogy: A comparison that goes into some detail
Simile: A short description that compares two different things using the words like or as
Metaphor: A word or phrase that stands in for the object it’s being compared to. (Metaphors don’t use the words like or as.)
Symbol: Something that appears in a piece of writing that stands for or suggests something else
Onomatopoeia: A word or words that imitate a sound
Personification: The attributing of human characteristics to something that is not human
Irony: What occurs when reality is exactly the opposite of one’s reasonable expectation. Example: “I was hired to write books but instead, I am burning them.”
Paradox: A statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense
Foreshadowing: Hints of upcoming events in the story
Pun: A play on words that relies on a word’s having more than one meaning or sounding like another word
Cliché: An overused expression
Double entendre: A phrase that can be interpreted in two different ways
Euphemism: An innocuous-sounding phrase used in place of something disagreeable
Allusion: A reference that is not directly stated or explained (i.e. using “to be or not to be” without mentioning Hamlet)
Oxymoron: A phrase composed of two words with contradictory meanings
Synecdoche: Substituting a part for the whole (i.e. “boards” for “the stage”) or the whole for a part (i.e. “the Americans” for “the American team”).
Metonymy: Substituting a related concept for the whole (i.e. “the White House” for “the President”).
Alliteration: The repetition of initial sounds in closely-placed words
Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in closely-placed words (anywhere in the words)
Consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds in closely-placed words (anywhere in the words)
Connotation: A word’s unspoken implication
Denotation: The dictionary meaning of a word
Plot: The events of the story
Subplot: An additional plot interwoven with the main plot
Conflict: A struggle that affects the story line
Setting: The time, place, and conditions in which the action takes place; the work’s context
Point of view (POV): The view from which the story is told. It can be first person (the narrator speaks as himself), objective (the reader knows no more than the reader), limited omniscient (the narrator knows a bit extra about the characters, as when he/she tells the story through the eyes of the protagonist), or omniscient (the narrator knows everything about the characters and situations).
The five parts of dramatic structure: Exposition (inciting incident), rising action, climax, falling action (resolution), and dénouement
Rising action: The set of conflicts in a story that lead up to the climax
Climax: The peak moment of the action, occurring at or near the end of the work. It is the turning point for the protagonist.
Reversal: The point in the plot at which the action turns in an unexpected direction
Falling action: The action that occurs after the climax, moving it toward its resolution
Dénouement: The final resolution of the story
Characterization: Writing that brings a character to life and makes them unique
Protagonist: The story’s main character
Tragic hero/tragic figure: A protagonist whose story comes to an unhappy end due to his or her own behavior and character flaws
Antihero: A protagonist who isn’t all good and may even be bad
Antagonist: The story’s main bad guy
Round character: A character that is complex and realistic
Flat character: An uncomplicated character that doesn’t feel real to the reader
Foil: A character who provides a clear contrast to another character
Soliloquy: A monologue by a character in a play
Fiction: Imagined, untrue literature
Nonfiction: Factual literature
Biography: A nonfiction life story written by someone other than the subject
Autobiography: A nonfiction life story written by the subject
Memoir: A nonfiction story written by the subject about his or her own experiences, but not about his or her entire life
Anthology: A collection of short stories written by various authors, compiled in one book or journal.
Myth: A story that attempts to explain events in nature by referring to supernatural causes, like gods and deities. Usually passed on from generation to generation.
Fable: A story intended to depict a useful truth or moral lesson. Fables frequently involve animals that speak and act like human beings.
Tale: A story about imaginary or exaggerated events that the narrator pretends is true
Parable: A short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson
Parody: A humorous imitation of a popular work
Satire: A humorous work that makes fun of another work or anything else, revealing its weakness
Travesty: A work that treats a serious subject lightly or mockingly
Types of poems: Ode (dignified poem written to praise someone or something), lyric, free verse (rule-free poetry), limerick (lighthearted rhyming poem with a particular structure), haiku, sonnet, villanelle, sestina, acrostic, elegy, epigram, ballad (narrative folksong-like poem), epitaph (brief poem sometimes written on a gravestone paying tribute to a dead person or commemorating another loss), more.
Stanza: A group of lines in a poem that form a metrical or thematic unit, set off by a space.
Verse: Poetic lines composed in a measured rhythmical pattern, that are often, but not necessarily, rhymed.
Beat: One count pause in speech, action, or poetry.
Stress: The emphasis, or accent, given a syllable in word pronunciation or in poetry reading
Meter: A recurring rhythmic pattern of stresses and unstressed syllables in a poem
Rhythm: A term used to refer to the recurrence of stressed and unstressed sounds in poetry
Couplet: A group of two rhyming lines
Triplet: A group of three rhyming lines
Quatrain: A four-line stanza. Quatrains are the most common stanzaic form in the English language, having various meters and rhyme schemes.
Epic: A long narrative poem, told in a formal, elevated style that focuses on a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation.
Lyric: A brief poem that expresses the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker, not necessarily of the poet.
Sonnet: A fixed form of lyric poetry that consists of fourteen lines, usually written in iambic pentameter, with a varied rhyme scheme.
Acrostic: A sentence where the first letter of each word of the sentence helps to remember the spelling of a word, or order of things
Villanelle: A type of fixed form poetry consisting of nineteen lines of any length divided into six stanzas.
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