The Parts that Make the Whole
An overview of Eight Literary Elements to Aid an Analysis Essay
Just as a mechanic takes apart a car, we take apart a piece of literature to see how it runs (or doesn't
run). This is known as analysis. Analyzing well crafted pieces, poems, plays and films adds to our
appreciation of them and also increases our ability to analyze other complex things such as family
dynamics, dreams, work situations, problems, life obstacles and life.
Plot. Plot Lecture. Textbook Chapter - 3
The What. Why do we keep reading a book when we have so much to do? Because we have so much to
do, and the book is a distraction – a little vacation. It takes us out of the world and puts us in a created
world. If that world feels real, we might stay awhile as long as we're curious to know what happens next.
What happens next – that's plot. It moves the story, and us, forward.
If plot is the engine, its drive shaft is conflict. Conflict is created by obstacles. A character wants or needs
X and can’t get it because of Y. Y could be a sudden storm, a missing piece of equipment, a monster, a
mean boss, a rival, an addiction, a fear – anything that stands
in the way.
Many stories begin with a situation or "inciting incident" that
requires action. In The Martian, for example, a dust storm
separates the main character (Matt Damon) from the rest of
the crew and strands him alone on Mars. Big problem, lots of
obstacles, good plot! For 10 bonus points, email me about
another film's inciting incident.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says he doesn't plan his
plots. He just starts with someone in a situation, and takes off.
But the situation probably includes a problem or obstacle or
deadly insect type creature from another dimension. More
obstacles = more action = more chances for us to get to know
the character by seeing how they react to obstacles.
Obstacles build suspense and tension in so far as the main character wants, needs, or fears something
up ahead. The Matt Damon character wants to
live. The climbers in Everest want to get to the top
(each for different reasons). Katniss Eberdeen
wants to save her sister (then later her whole
zone). The younger sister in "Saving Sourdi" (p.
181) wants to help the sister who helped her.
Everybody wants something, and hardly anyone
gets it without overcoming obstacles.
In a sense, each day has a plot if we have goals.
Too many obstacles make for a stressful day, but if
you're on the outside, watching or reading, they
make the plot more interesting. Hence the
popularity of Zombie flicks. Lotta obstacles!
Figure 1: The parts of a plot
Figure 2: Big obstacle = good plot
Questions to consider when writing a plot analysis
How did the plot add to or take away from my enjoyment of this piece?
What creates suspense / tension?
What is the main conflict and how does it unfold?
Where is the moment of highest tension (also known as the climax)?
Are there any flaws in the plot? For example, an unbelievable coincidence that changes everything?
How do the events of the plot reveal the main characters' true selves?
Characterization - Full characterization presentation. Textbook Chapter - 4
The Who. "The most important thing in life will always be the people right here, right now." Plot is
important, but we only want to know what happens next if we're interested in the people it's happening
to, right? Fast and Furious is full of plot-driven action, yet the above quote was taken from it. And check
out the opening scene to Furious 7. We see the villain, the Jason Stratham character, talking to his
comatose younger brother. "You're my flesh and blood, my cross to bear," he says, holding up a silver
cross necklace, "and so you remain." He's intense, loyal, confident, and REAL. We're drawn into the
piece to see what happens to him.
And in the next few scenes, we see the family life of other main characters. We get to know them before
all the action starts. This is good piece telling. Special effects, cars flying and such – that's fun and petty
omg, but cars gotta have drivers and pieces gotta have characters who are real and interesting.
Chapter 4 goes into the different types of
characters (stock, round, flat). Some are one-
dimensional, some complex. It all depends on
what works best with the plot.
Some ways authors characterize a character:
1. By describing how they look: clothes, hair,
posture, nervous tics if any, movements.
2. By describing what they do and how they do
it. Our actions reveal a lot about us, right?
The same is true of characters. What do they
do when you find a wallet? Miss a bus?
3. By revealing their motives: Why they do what they do.
4. By giving us what they say and how they say it. Is the character's speech casual, slangy, snooty,
verbose, educated, quippy, child-like, illogical? Says a lot.
5. By what others say about them. We’ve all judged people by what those we trust say about them. Is
the character a saint, a sneak, a softie, a sucker? Other characters and sometimes the narrator will
tell us. Whether or not we believe it depends on how those other characters are characterized (are
they honest, dishonest, insightful, judgmental, generous, envious . . .).
Questions to consider when writing character analysis
Which character did I like least / most? Why?
Is there a villain (such as Krogstad in “A Doll’s House”) who is really a victim, or visa versa?
Figure 3: It’s not all about the action: characters we care about.
Is there a seemingly minor character (such as Mrs. Linde) who plays a major role?
What are the main characters' motives? Where/how does the writer show those?
How do the characters' choices shape the plot?
How does one character compare to another?
Does the main character change? How, why? Is the change believable?
Setting. Textbook Chapter - 4
There is no separate lecture on setting yet.
The Where and When. Where does the piece happen? When? These are key. Is it a haunted house, a
crowded airport, a parking lot, ancient Egypt, the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the moon in 2050, the
top the Empire state Building in 1921? Writers have fun with their settings. They may return to a place
they love, go to a place they've always wanted to go to, or just make up an incredible place — a dream
house, a domed city in the 25th Century, a miniature submarine that can travel in the bloodstream, a
magical tree, a school for wizards.
Setting also includes the mood of the place
and time. Is it Time Square on VE day, 1945?
Or Time Square on a rainy, cold October in
2001? Big difference. Writers create settings
by painting with words. The words create a
picture and also a mood. The children looked
back at their house, versus The children
looked back at their home. Home has a
feeling (or connotation) that is more than its
simple definition (or denotation). Home
connotes warmth, comfort, love.
Questions for analyzing setting
Did I like this story more or less because of the setting?
What is the mood of the time and place and how does the author create that mood?
How does public history affect characters and/or plot?
How do social pressures (prejudice for example) affect the characters and/or plot?
How do social values affect the characters and/or plot? How does this piece compare to other pieces set
in a similar time or place?
Point of View. Textbook Chapter - 4
There is no longer lecture on this element.
Who tells the piece? Who tells the piece affects everything. If you have siblings, think of a big family
event such as a move as told by each one. Will each tell the same piece? Probably not. The youngest
sibling may remember very little, the middle one just their old room and the smell of the moving van,
while the oldest may know all about why the parents decided to move.
Figure 4: Concrete details create a real-seeming time and place
The one who tells the piece is the narrator. The narrator could be outside the piece or one of the
characters. If the narrator is outside the piece, that's called third-person narrative because the third-
person pronoun is used: he, she or they; not I or we: They got into the car. Not, We got into the car.
Chapter 6 covers the three types of third-person narrators nicely on page 196. "The Piece of an Hour"
uses a third-person narrator, "She sat with her head thrown back…" (Meyer 16). For 10 Bonus Points,
send me an email telling me which of the three types of third-person narrator this is. Explain why you
If the narrator is a character this is known as a first-person narrator because the first-person pronoun is
needed: I remember the day we moved to Texas. The fun thing about first-person narration is that they
might be unreliable. They don't know the whole piece, and/or they have a bias or a limited perspective.
This can make the plot more interesting and the reading more fun as the reader sometimes knows more
than the narrator, or figures it out. In Forrest Gump, the narrator, Forrest himself, is naïve about many
things, but we get it. In Fight Club, the main character has a split personality but we don't realize just
how unreliable his perspective has been until the very end. I think THE best unreliable narrator may be
in the film Memento, based on the short piece "Memento Mori." The
main character and narrator is a man with backwards amnesia. He
can't remember anything for more than a few minutes. Since we see
events through his very unreliable point-of-view, who is friend an
enemy and just what is going on in general.
From our reading, the young man in "Battle Royal" is a naïve narrator
(but learning fast just how the world is). Coming of Age pieces like
The Cather in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn are popular because we
enjoy seeing an innocent young character deal with life and grow.
For 10 Bonus Points, explain how any piece of fiction (film, novel or
short piece) with an unreliable narrator would be different with a
reliable, omniscient narrator. What would be gained; what lost?
Questions to consider when analyzing point of view
How would the piece be different with a different narrator? What
would be lost, gained?
Did you sympathize with the narrator? Why, why not? How did the
writer make you feel that sympathy?
What does the way the narrator tells the piece reveal about them?
If a third-person narrative, does it fit into one of the three types (p.
196), or is it a hybrid type?
Symbol - Symbolism Lecture. Textbook Chapter – 7
The thing. Symbols are concrete things and actions in the piece that contain or hint at abstract ideas
and qualities. A flag symbolizes a country; a paper heart, love; a wedding band, commitment and union,
a yin-yang symbol balance. These are conventional symbols. In good fiction, characters have personal
symbols: things and actions that have meaning just for them — that old blanky that symbolizes comfort
Figure 5: Imagine Kate Chopin's "The
Story of an Hour" without the omniscient
narrator showing us Mrs. Mallard's
thoughts and feelings
and safety; the worn rolling pin from gran that symbolizes nurture; the
tassel that stands for high school friends, fun and success.
There are also symbolic actions: Friends pricking a finger each and
mixing blood to be friends forever; doves released at the opening
ceremony of the Olympics, for world peace; the hands of a clock
stopped at the hour of someone's death; smiley face emoticons
standing for happiness.
Symbolic things and actions may be described with more weight,
more poetry. They may also recur in the piece, appear in the title
and/or the climax, or be important to the characters. Someone considering divorce accidentally loses
their wedding ring? Hmm…
Questions to consider when analyzing symbols
How is the meaning (theme) of this piece revealed by the symbols (interpret them for the reader).
What is the main symbol? What meanings does it carry? Do the meanings change?
Is there a symbolic action? What does it show about character & theme?
Does this writer use symbolism more than most to convey theme? Why?
Theme - The Piece in a Nutshell. Textbook Chapter - 8
The Why. Finding and making meaning – some say that's what all fiction and indeed all art is for. Theme
is the element that covers meaning, message, moral, lesson. It's the bumper sticker of the literary
elements. But unlike a bumper sticker it's not stuck to the back of the piece; the whole piece creates it.
Sometimes, often near the end, a character may speak the theme out loud, in conversation or to
themselves is a moment of realization (an epiphany). They
may suddenly understand the meaning of events or maybe
even their whole life.
Maybe the family pieces that get passed down are preserved
because they hold meaning that's important to the family.
Never give up, or family matters above all, or don't buy
property on the ocean, or a penny saved is a penny earned, or
live it up while you can. Some authors start with a theme and
build plot, characters and setting around it. Some start with
characters and let events happen to them, with meaning
emerging out of the rich soil of human experience.
Does this year of your life seem to have a theme? For up to 20 Bonus Points, write about one day or
event in it in a way that someone reading it could make a bumper sticker for it.
Questions for analysis of theme
What is the underlying message of this piece?
Does this piece seem to want me to change in some way? How?
If a character changes a lot, is it for the good? What lesson did they learn?
What meaning does the piece's main symbols imply?
What does the piece mean to me? What in the piece led me to that meaning?
Figure 7: Can you boil the piece down to a saying?
Figure 6: The Ying-Yang symbol shows up a lot
because it conveys so well the idea that
Opposites can be complementary
Style. Style Lecture here. Textbook Chapter - 9
In creative writing style is the writer’s stamp. It gives the writing a voice
readers can hear and relate to. Many choices go into creating style, from
whether to use a comma or a dash in a certain spot – they’re a little
different – to how long sentences will be and whether most of the words
will be casual or dressed up, plain or fancy.
As with colors, there is a range of word choices for most things:
Home – Warm feeling. Home is where the heart is. “There’s no place like
home, there’s no place like home.”
House – Cold impersonal feeling. A new house on the block.
Crib – Modern, hip, youthful. “Now this crib's about to kick off, this party
Pad – Once modern, beatnik then hippie. “Let’s go back to my pad.”
Place – Neutral feeling and casual. “Nice place you got here.”
Residence – Formal, official language. “State your residence.”
Abode – Fancy, poetic diction. Pretentious? “Welcome to my humble abode.” (But haha not a humble
Analysis questions related to style
What different style choices do two different writers make?
What ideas or themes does the style express?
Are key words repeated? Where and why?
Are key sounds repeated (usually poetry)? Where and why? What effect does that have on the reader?
Tone. Tone Lecture. Textbook Chapter - 9
Tone is the author’s attitude toward the topic. Sometimes that’s obvious – I love it! Sometimes it takes
the kind of skill I hope you’re developing to begin to hear subtle tones and tone shifts in the language
the way you probably already them in music and film.
Style choices create tone, just as the outfit you choose
from shoes to hat reflects your attitude toward where
you’re going or the people you’ll be with.
Figurative language also shapes tone. Metaphors and
similes, what we compare a thing or person to, reveal
our attitude toward that thing or person: “His smile’s a
charm the gods dropped and don’t want back /
because on him it’s all that” to quote a poem. This
conveys a loving, lofty tone doesn’t it?
Understatement, sarcasm and hyperbole
(exaggerating) also create tone. We all know folks who
like to crack on the weather. If it’s snowing and the
Figure 9: Deadpool takes a playful, ironic attitude
toward the whole superhero genre
Figure 8: Shades of meaning
wind’s blowing and the temp is well below zero they may poke their head out and say “Nice weather
we’re having,” in sarcastic understatement. Imagine a traveler from another planet trying to figure us
out if they don’t hear or understand our different tones of voice. “I’ve told you a million times,” we
might say, exaggerating just a bit (notice my understatement there too). Well they sure can’t count,
thinks the space traveler sarcastically.
Analysis questions related to tone
How is irony used, especially in the ending?
How is this piece a good example of a consistent and/or effective tone?
How are two pieces on the same topic very different because of the tone?
How is the tone of voice a kind of argument?
Why does the tone shift dramatically in a certain spot?
Your Analysis Essay
Pick a piece we have read and an element that’s important to it. Review the story, poem, film or play
looking for how that element works in it. You can also compare and contrast how that element works
differently in two pieces. We’ll use the forum to discuss ideas and help everyone match a piece with an
It’s fine to use internet sources to get ideas for your essay. But be sure to base your analysis on what
you see in the piece. This is a writing course, which means it’s a thinking course. It’s not an advanced
literature course where you’re expected to discover the secret, hidden truth of a hard piece of
literature. You’re expected to use what you’ve learned about a literary element – a basic building block
of creative writing – to look closely at a piece you have chosen out of all those we’ve met. It’s not about
getting it right; it’s about writing an analysis with some energy and commitment. Read and quote the
piece. Support your points with evidence. Think.
Put some thought into what piece and element you want to write about. Choosing well is half the work
here. You can use unassigned pieces if they are in the chapter on that element or if I okay it first. I am
open to novels you have read and know well and films, as well as short stories not in our textbook. Send
an email or call to discuss your options.
Here is a good analysis of character from a past semester. It’s by Alexis Shamey, used with permission.
She contrasts two very different characters in one stiry, “Killings” (p. 93). She ised quotes with skills to
make her writing very concrete and her points quite valid.
A Tale of Two Killings: Love, Loss, and Revenge
Andre Dubus’s short story “Killings” focuses on the Fowler family, particularly Matt
Fowler and his wife Ruth, who have recently lost their son Frank to a senseless murder. As the
story progresses, we follow Matt through his journey from depression and anger to his plotted
revenge and eventually, murder. One could argue that murder is immoral, no matter the
circumstance; however, Matt seems to have a much more justifiable explanation than his son’s
murderer, Richard Strout. The characterization of these two very different men makes the reader
empathize with Matt and his doings leading up to the climax, and feel disgust towards Richard
and his hasty, jealousy-fueled actions. Dubus is able to reveal Matt and Richard’s characters
through their specific actions, choices, and emotions throughout the story.
Matt Fowler is a great husband and father. He and his wife Ruth have raised multiple
children. However, their world was turned upside down when their son Frank, “who had lived
for twenty-one years, eight months, and four days…” (Dubus 93) was murdered by his girlfriend
Mary Ann’s ex-husband, Richard Strout. The fact that Richard is out on bail is tearing Matt and
his wife apart. “Every day since he got out. I didn’t think about bail. I thought I wouldn’t have to
worry about him for years. She [Ruth] sees him all the time. It makes her cry.” (p. 94) This quote
from Matt Fowler proves that he is a caring individual. He realizes that he must do something to
get rid of Richard because of the fact that his wife constantly sees him in town; the man who
brutally murdered their son is able to walk free in society.
Matt can also be viewed as a caring, yet protective father. When Frank first became
involved with Mary Ann, his mother was very against their relationship, citing reasons such as
she’s four years older and she has children. But Matt, on the other hand, was more supportive
and understanding of his son’s new love. Matt talked to his son Frank about his budding
relationship with Mary Ann on a father-son trip to Fenway Park. “It took them forty minutes to
get to Boston, and they talked about Mary Ann until they joined the city traffic…” (p. 97)
Despite the fact that she was going through a divorce, Matt still liked her and saw that Frank
genuinely loved her. Also, the fact that Matt is seeking revenge against Richard proves that he is
a good father who is willing to avenge his son and seek justice that his family deserves.
Richard, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Matt. People saw him as
the high school running back, the young drunk in bars, the oblivious hard-hatted
young man eating lunch at a counter, the bartender who could perhaps be called
courteous, but not more than that: as he tended bar, his dark eyes and dark, wide-
jawed face appeared less sullen, near blank. (pgs. 95-96)
This man seemed to be a hot-tempered and jealous character. The first time he and Frank had any
interaction, he brutally beat Frank. Richard was jealous of the developing relationship between
his ex-wife and Frank. This was somewhat a foreshadowing of what would happen in the future;
a warning sign to Frank. Unfortunately, the violence continued and “Richard Strout shot Frank in
front of the boys.” (p. 98). This proves that Richard does not have any regard for anyone other
than himself; his two sons were sitting in the living room as he committed this heinous crime.
This section of the plot was particularly hard to swallow because of the ruthlessness of Richard.
He was cool, calm, and collected when he entered Mary Ann’s house and when he was done, he
“looked at the boys and Mary Ann, and went home to wait for the police” (p. 98) as if nothing
even happened. He also does not seem at all remorseful for murdering Frank. When Matt
kidnaps him at gunpoint and they enter Richard’s house, rather than apologizing for killing
Frank, all Richard can think about is the jail sentence that he is facing. He even tells Matt, “I
wanted to try to get together with her again. I couldn’t even talk to her. He was always with her.
I’m going to jail for it; isn’t that enough?” (p. 102) As the conversation between the two
continue, he is yet to apologize, but he does mention his jail sentence one more time claiming
that “I’ll [Richard] do twenty years, Mr. Fowler, at least.” (p. 103)
While these two characters could not be any more different from one another, they do
share one similarity; in their minds, they did what they believed that had to do i.e., what was
right for their family. For example, Richard truly believed that he had to get rid of Frank because
he was intruding upon his family, interacting with his children, even “making it” with his wife. It
seems as though he was scared to lose the ones that he loves. Unfortunately, that feeling caused
him to take an innocent life, which in turn, caused another entire family to suffer. Similarly, Matt
felt as though he had to eliminate Richard because his presence in the town was tormenting his
wife and tearing her apart inside. It just so happens that because Matt is characterized to be an
overall “better” and more likeable person, Dubus makes it so that the reader empathizes with his
decision to kill Richard, while we resent and feel disgust towards Richard. However, the main
point is that Richard and Matt are just two ordinary men who, when faced with conflicts in their
lives, chose murder as a way of coping.
My reaction to this story was very emotional. I could relate very well to Matt Fowler and
his over-protective caring towards his son and his whole family in general. I appreciate the
author’s use of vocabulary and profanity because it elicited a very realistic and gritty feeling.
This story affected me on a very deep level because I couldn’t help but side with Matt. Although
he had committed a crime, I don’t blame him for feeling the way he felt and doing what he had
to do in order to protect his family and avenge his beloved son.
As one can see, Dubus specifically characterized these two individuals to be quite
contradictory of each. However, they did share a common bond; a deep-seated emotion which
then lead them both to act in a disturbing manner. Although Matt Fowler – a loving and caring
family man, and Richard Stout – a spoiled, jealous, and ill-tempered individual – could not be
more different, this story goes to show how an emotional wound can cause one to react in
surprising ways. Because Matt is an overall respectable man, I automatically sided with him; also
because his story is much more relatable. However, the decision is ultimately left up to the
reader. In the end, whether you feel more compelled to side with Matt or would rather take
Richard’s side, there is no doubt that Dubus perfectly creates two opposite individuals through
specific characterization via the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and actions.