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 its 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 Cliffs Notes, 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 as well as its use of repetition, rhyme, rhythm, cadence and, most importantly, diction (both the connotations and the denotations of each word). Think about how each of these elements furthers the meaning of the poem. Ask yourself how these elements add to the meaning of the piece. You might be surprised how much there is to say about those few lovely stanzas.
Most people should probably know most of the terms below; 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.
BASIC LITERARY ANALYSIS
Literary convention: A commonly used feature, style, idea or technique in literature. Some examples are: a hero’s journey; a three-act structure; and a sidekick character.
Literary device: A writing tool that helps convey ideas and meaning or adds interest to a work. Some examples are metaphors, similes, and personification.
Subject: The objective main topic of a literary work. An example is Tom Sawyer’s adventures in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Theme: The subjective, philosophical idea that is explored in a work. An example is the theme of boyhood in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Narrative: A work’s story line
Genre: A work’s category based on its content and form. Some examples are mystery, science fiction, romance and historical fiction.
Motif: A recurring idea, symbol or set of symbols in a work that contribute to the work’s theme(s). An example is the house in Gone With the Wind, which is named Tara.
Premise: A work’s basic setup, which might include its setting and the question or problem faced by its main character. An example is the premise of George Orwell’s novel 1984, in which the main character’s desire for freedom is prevented by a totalitarian government.
Diction: Word choice
Syntax: The ways words are organized in sentences and paragraphs
Style: The unique way an author writes, which encompasses many aspects of their work or works, including diction, voice, tone, mood, pace, favored themes and more
Voice: The author or narrator’s unique way of perspective on their material, as conveyed through style, tone and more. Novels can have many voices within them. A magazine can have many voices, but maintain a single tone throughout.
Tone: The attitude of the narrator toward the work. Some examples are: formal, conversational, humorous and nostalgic.
Mood: The overall feeling of the piece. Some examples are dark, brooding and fanciful.
Pace: The speed and rhythm of a work, which is conveyed through sentence length, plot movement and more
Figurative language: Language that implies or represents an idea rather than directly stating it, often for mood, dramatic effect, or humor. Some examples are hyperbole, understatement, analogy, personification, euphemism, simile and metaphor.
Imagery: A mental picture or representation of a person, place, or thing
Analogy: A comparison that goes into some detail
Simile: A figure of speech in which two things are compared using the words like or as
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which something is said to be something else, without using the words like or as. An example is Shakespeare’s line, “All the world’s a stage.”
Symbol: Something that appears in a piece of writing that stands for or suggests something else. An example is the red letter A worn by the main character in The Scarlet Letter.
Onomatopoeia: A word or words that imitate a sound. Some examples are bang and pop.
Personification: The attributing of human characteristics to something that is not human. An example is: “My computer hates me.”
Irony: A figure of speech that occurs when reality is the opposite of one’s reasonable expectation. An example is: “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. An example is: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Foreshadowing: Hints of upcoming events in a work, often included to build suspense. An example is: “She didn’t know what she was getting herself into.”
Pun: A play on words that relies on a word’s having more than one meaning or sounding like another word. An example is: “A boiled egg for lunch is hard to beat.”
Cliché: An overused expression. An example is: “Actions speak louder than words.”
Double entendre: A phrase that can be interpreted in two different ways. An example is: “That’s what she said.”
Euphemism: An innocuous-sounding phrase used in place of something distasteful or offensive. An example is the use of the word passing in place of the word death.
Allusion: A reference that is not directly stated or explained. An example is using the phrase “to be or not to be” without mentioning Hamlet or Shakespeare.
Oxymoron: A phrase composed of two words with contradictory meanings. An example is “open secret.”
Synecdoche: A figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole or a whole stands in for a part. Some examples are: using the word boards in place of the word stage and saying “the Americans” instead of “the American team.”
Metonymy: A figure of speech in which a related concept is substituted for the whole. An example is saying “the White House” in place of “the President.”
Alliteration: The repetition of initial sounds in closely-placed words. An example is: “Sally sells seashells by the seashore.”
Consonance: The repetition of any consonant sounds in closely-placed words. An example is: “All’s well that ends well.”
Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in closely-placed words. An example is: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”
Denotation: The dictionary meaning of a word
Connotation: A word’s unspoken implication(s)
Plot: The events of a story
Subplot: An additional plot interwoven with the main plot
Conflict: A struggle or challenge that affects the story line
Setting: The time, place, and conditions in which a work’s action takes place; a work’s context
Point of view (POV): The perspective 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 events 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
Editorial: A short article expressing an opinion or point of view. Often, but not always, written by a member of the publication staff.
Exposition: Explanatory writing
Didactic writing: Instructional writing
Freewriting: Writing continuously without much thought in order to discover hidden ideas or feelings
Serial: A series of related works or a regularly published work, as a newsletter or magazine
Synopsis: A brief summary of a story, manuscript, or book
Rough draft: The first organized version of a document or other work
Hook: A starting sentence or idea that grabs the reader’s attention. In an essay, the hook might be a statistic or a paraphrased idea presented by an expert. In an article, the hook is usually the main idea.
Thesis statement: The part of an essay that clearly states the essay’s main point. It might also briefly mention several of the relevant supporting points. It is usually either one or two sentences in length (most commonly one).
Three-prong thesis statement: A thesis statement that offers three supporting points and is usually only one sentence long; for example, “I love rabbits because they are fast, soft and beautiful.” This is a simple way to go, if your ideas allow for it.
Five-paragraph essay: A simple essay format that includes one introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs and one concluding paragraph. The three body paragraphs present three supporting points for the thesis (which is usually a three-prong thesis).
Jargon: Terms only familiar to those in the know
Bibliography: The list of books, magazines, journals, people, websites, or any other resources that you consulted in the process of writing a book, article, or paper.
Boilerplate: A piece of writing that gets reused frequently, sometimes with minor changes
Canon: Works generally considered by scholars to be the most important of a genre
Byline: The author’s name appearing with his/her published work
Pseudonym: A “pen name”
Public domain work: Any written material not under copyright
Query: A short letter pitching an article or a book idea to an editor or agent
Side bar: Extra information put alongside, but not in, the main article
Slant: The bias or angle in a piece of writing
Solicited/unsolicited manuscript: A manuscript that an agent or editor has or has not asked to see
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
Vilanele: A type of fixed form poetry consisting of nineteen lines of any length divided into six stanzas.
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