Chapter 45: ANALYSIS OF ELEMENTS
How should you use the elements of literature to
write a simple analysis?
Problem and Assignment
1. Rough Drafting
3. Final Drafting
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Introduction: A Definition
An analysis of the elements is a simple exposition
or explanation of a literary working using the elements of literature. The
elements of literature include basic elements learned in high school such as
plot, character, description, style, background, setting, metaphor, and others.
This is perhaps the simplest literary writing assignment given in college.
An analysis of elements is not necessarily a
book report. In high school, a book report sometimes is assigned in which
you are allowed to simply write in any way you want--or write about what
happened in a step by step summary of the events. If that is how you
learned to write a book report, then an analysis of elements is quite different.
If, however, you learned to write a "book report" using the basic elements of
literature, one by one, then your "book report" was a type of analysis of
elements. An analysis of elements also does not argue a point or
try to interpret what the literary work means.
Rather, an analysis of the elements often simply
goes through the elements that the instructor requests, step by step, paragraph
by paragraph, describing how each element is used or occurs in the work of art.
A brief introductory paragraph and a concluding paragraph are attached to the
paper, each of which briefly summarizes what the overall elements show or
highlight. And often, at the college level, you are expected to
provide--with quotations and paraphrases--plenty of examples of how each element
is used or occurs. For this reason, an analysis of elements--and any other
type of literature paper at the college level--also requires that you know how
to quote and paraphrase well.
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Problem and Assignment
An analysis of elements usually is written for an
academic audience. This audience probably already has read the same work of
literature. Our role in writing this kind of paper is that of a serious student
of literature speaking to other serious students of literature. Our need is to
summarize--using the language of the literary professions--what happens in the
work of literature. The elements of literature are a part of that
language. Using frequent quotations and paraphrases are another part of
it. This kind of
examination may be easier to write well if we choose a literary work we feel we
especially can understand well.
Choose a work of literature that you like and
understand, if possible, something that relates to your life in a way with which
you can associate. You may also find your paper easier to write if you
choose a work with a clear problem in the plot and a solution or resolution in
the end that is clear to you.
Then provide a brief introduction with the most
interesting single quotation in it that summarizes the overall work. In
the body, provide one or more well developed paragraphs for each element your
instructor requests you to discuss. Offer frequent quotations and/or
paraphrases as examples when you explain the use of the elements in the work.
At the end, provide a final concluding paragraph
with perhaps the second best quotation you can find in the overall work that
summarizes its most important meaning, event, or character. Type the
result in a standard essay format.
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1. Rough Drafting
Start brainstorming by feeding your brain: skim this chapter for several minutes or
read this page. Skim the sample papers. Notice that the heart of a literary thesis is an
argument with several supporting reasons why it is true. And the heart of a literary
review is an evaluative conclusion using descriptions, interpretations, and evaluations to
reach this conclusion.
When brainstorming your paper, here are some ways to start. If you wish, you may
combine more than one:
(1) Write a list of ideas or images, and then narrow the choices.
(2) Make up a situation.
(3) Sit back, relax, breathe, clear your mind, and imagine a scene.
(4) Think of a person you know to whom you could write this paper.
(5) Think of a feeling or wish and how you could use it to write this paper.
To get started, try you need to consider whether or not you can choose what you want to
read. If you can make this choice, then you should decide: Writing an analysis is much
easier if we like what we've read, and writing a review is much easier if we don't like
what we've read.
If your reading already was chosen for you by assignment, then you may want to write an
analysis of review according to how you felt about the reading. (However, if your teacher
has you practice a number of short analyses and reviews in rough draft form throughout a
course, you may need to write whichever type of examination you are assigned each week.)
To write about your literary work well, you will need to read it at least two to three
times. Once you have read your assignment and skimmed this chapter and its samples, you
may start rough drafting. There are several ways to rough draft.
Create a Draft
Next, express your thinking on paper. Choose one idea and explore it: write quickly and
spontaneously. Avoid worrying about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. You may entirely
avoid organization, or you may use the organizational parts suggested either earlier in
this chapter's introductory "Process" page, or in the "Organize"
section later in this chapter. You may write using regular prose sentences and paragraphs,
creating one giant paragraph, or developing a traditional or cluster outline. Try to write
one-fourth to one-half or more of the final required length of the paper.
Be sure that you have skimmed the sample papers before proceeding. The best method for
brainstorming a first-draft examination of literature is to summarize some of the basic
elements of the literary work you have read. Some of the major elements to summarize are
PLOT: The basic plot of a story usually is composed of three parts:
(1) hero and/or heroine (the good guys)
(2) villain or obstacles (the bad guys or problems)
(3) goal or solution
This also can be summarized as
(2) problem, and
Pick out these three parts and explain how they relate--how the good people break
through the obstacles or villain's bad deeds to reach a goal or solution. When summarizing
the plot, don't just endlessly summarize each event in the literary work: try to summarize
showing these three parts and the progress in moving through them to reach the end.
While describing the progress, you may want to take special note of
conflicts--especially the overall or main conflict (the main problem between the
hero/heroine and the villain/obstacles), and the climax (the peak emotional and factual
event which turns a story toward its final ending). There also are minor climaxes, called
"sub climaxes," along the way in many literary works.
CHARACTERS: There usually is one, sometimes two, main heroes or heroines around which the rest of the story revolves. If there are villains, usually there are, again, one or
at most two main villains who are the source of the problems or obstances. You should name
and describe these facts:
(1) Who are they (name, age, gender, profession, et al.)?
(2) What is their appearance and what do they sound like?
(3) What kind of personalities--private and public--do they have?
(4) What motivates them--what makes them tick?
SETTING: The setting may be one place or a series of places that are connected to each
other. Treat setting like another character and describe it, too:
(1) What is it (name/types of objects, location, age, et al.)?
(2) What are basic sensory details about it (sights, sounds, touches, smells, tastes)?
(3) If places were like people, what kind of "personality" would this setting
(4) What is its value or use to the characters?
STYLE: (includes "Voice,"
"Tone," and "Language")
VOICE and TONE: "Voice" means, simply, "Is the literary work 1st-person,
3rd-person, or 2nd-person?" and "Is its point of view limited or
omniscient?" "Tone" means this: Imagine the voice in the story is the voice
of someone you have just met or already know. How would you describe the tone of this
person's voice: is it highly personal as if spoken by a friend, humorous in some way,
silly, serious, snooty, tall tale-ish, dry, emotional, or what?
LANGUAGE: "Language" is the detailed use of words, phrases, and
sentences--their choice, order, rhythms, rhymes, color, length, et al. The way language is
used has a great affect on the overall tone.
SYMBOLS: Some of the objects, events, or people may possibly symbolize or represent
other objects, events, or people. For example, a picture of a heart often represents love,
and a picture of an angel or devil represents good or evil. Some symbols are purposely
placed there by the authors of the literary works in which they appear. However, probably
the greater number of symbols are those which readers like us perceive without the author
ever intending them to be there. In addition, the same object or person might represent
something different to several different readers. As a result, it is okay to propose
symbols that may or may not be there: if these symbols occur to you when you are exploring
ideas in a rough draft, then feel free to write them down.
THEME: The "theme" of a story is the basic issue of the literary work--what
the story is about. There can be several themes and even sub themes in a literary work. Romeo
and Juliet, for example, has as a main theme the tragedy of romantic love gone wrong,
but also as main themes the tragedy of feuds between two families and even the meaning of
honor. The author may or may not consciously intend a theme as he or she writes. One of
the most interpreted novels in the U.S. is Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
He said about this that he just simply wanted to tell a story and had no particular
meanings in mind. However, literary analysts find it rich with a variety of meanings.
"Theme" is, again, simply a major issue or idea in a literary work.
PURPOSE and/or MORAL/ARGUMENT: Two other meanings that are similar to but different from "theme" area
literary work's "purpose" and its "moral." A literary work's
"purpose" is its comment on life that the author in most cases intended to make.
The "moral" (as in "What's the moral of this story?" is the ethical or
moral purpose that an author usually intended to make. Be careful to separate
"purpose" and "moral"--many authors choose to make a comment on life
that has nothing to do with morality or ethics: for example, part of Shakespeare's purpose
in Romeo and Juliet may have been to make a comment on the meaning and existence of
romantic love, neither condemning nor praising it. However, another purpose that
Shakespeare clearly had in writing this play also was to morally condemn or
argue against the fighting of
two clans, which fighting leads in the story to the untimely death of the clans' brightest blossoms,
Romeo and Juliet. This is a moral of the story or argument that is, in fact, mentioned at the end of the play.
Again, though, be very careful in deciding whether
an author has decided on a specific purpose or moral/argument. Some
authors merely set out to write something without intending anything. This
is, as mentioned above, what Hemingway claimed when asked about the ultimate
symbol or meaning of his book The Old Man and the Sea.
Also be careful never to confuse "theme" with
"purpose" or "moral/argument." A theme is an issue, something that can be
objectively said of a literary work and almost no one would disagree. A
theme is simply its subject matter or, if you choose to break it into several
sub-categories, its several basic subject matters. Charlotte's Web
has without doubt as one of its themes the difficulties in life of a spider.
Does it have a purpose or a moral/argument? Perhaps it does, or perhaps
not--often, unless the author makes a purpose or moral/argument very, very
clear, there is none, or it is so hidden that we can only guess it.
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Start thinking critically about your paper by reading the chapter and the sample papers
carefully. Then ask yourself, "How well can my rough draft meet the needs of this
paper?" Some rough drafts may fit closely while others may require shifting of tone
or parts. Still other rough drafts may need partial or complete rewriting.
Use a set of criteria--a series of judgments--to help you evaluate whether and how your
rough draft meets the assignment needs. Here are some possible criteria to consider:
a. Is the tone right--does the rough draft sound like this type of paper?
b. Can I organize my rough draft or its idea into the needed parts?
c. Who is my primary audience and are the contents right for it?
d. Do I like my rough draft? If not, could I rewrite it so I do?
e. Do I need to understand the subject any better than I already do?
f. Do I need to read all or parts of the literary work once or twice more?
g. Have I chosen the right type of paper for my purposes, needs, and abilities?
f. Can I easily find any required supporting material such as interviews or library
g. Am I being moral or ethical in pursuing the subject in this manner?
Rough drafts are helpful starters for your thinking. The next step, however, requires
evaluation of what you need to do with your rough draft to make it work best for this
writing assignment. Sometimes this evaluation is simple, but sometimes it can be more
complex. If it is complex, using the criteria above can help break the evaluation down
into easier steps.
The next step is to organize your paper. If you have done the brainstorming well, then
organizing should not be difficult. The way in this case to move from your rough draft to
a more organized draft simply is to develop your material more and organize it into the
Ask your teacher whether he or she expects underlined subtitles. If not, then be sure
to provide a strong topic sentence at the beginning of each new subject section, one that
names the type of element you are about to discuss and states in a general way what you
will discuss. For example, you might have topic sentences similar to these (the key-word
elements are underlined):
"First, the characters of Romeo and Juliet include not only the
title characters, but also their parents, the friendly priest, Romeo's friends, Juliet's
cousin, and Juliet's nurse."
"Next is the setting, which is the city-state of Verona in
It is not traditional to use underlined subtitles in high school and college literary
papers; however, if you were to look in professional literary journals, you would find
that many modern literary scholars do use some kind of divisional dividers. If your
teacher wants underlined subtitles for each section, it is likely he/she will accept the
names of the elements themselves: e.g., Characters, Setting, etc. However,
this does not absolve you from the use of good topic sentences: in this situation, use
both subtitles and good topic sentences.
Your paper should have an Introduction and Conclusion. Write these
last--once you already know what you're going to say.
The Introduction should contain a brief statement of the title of the work you
are analyzing, your source for it (if it is in a larger work), and the author. You also
should say something interesting--have some interesting details about the work--and/or
provide a strong opening quotation (and describe why this quotation is particularly good).
Use only one paragraph for your introduction. Your very first or very last sentence should
be a statement of the type of paper--of your purpose: i.e., that you are simply
"analyzing the elements" and nothing more. Otherwise, readers may think you are
arguing a point or writing a review, neither of which is the case in this particular
The Conclusion should be only one paragraph in length and should briefly restate
the author or title, say a few interesting words, restate the fact that the paper is
simply an analysis using the elements of literature, and then have perhaps your second
most interesting quotation as a way of closing. You also may add some of your own
interesting final thoughts or ideas in the beginning, middle, or end of this paragraph.
The order in which you present these different parts of the conclusion really is up to
Next, you should proceed with your analysis using the elements of literature. Develop
each element thoroughly:
Voice, Tone, & Language
The order shown here shows plot and theme near the end, in spite of the fact that
people often like to start in natural conversation with these two elements. However, many
teachers of literature have found that students can more easily offer a clear, efficient,
and simple view of plot and theme if, first, they have had to describe some of the more
obvious and clear details. In a sense, the order shown below represents a mental process
that moves from smallest details to ever-broader abstractions. The idea in writing a
literature analysis in this way is to start with what is very clear and obvious to
everyone--the facts--and then to gradually, from those facts, build to a point where you
can more clearly explain the abstract parts such as symbolism, the nature of the basic
problem and solution, and the major probable theme or themes--the last several of which
might be too vague or hard to tie down without first sorting out important details.
Be sure to find out from your teacher just how much development he/she wants in each
element's description. In other words, should you describe just one or two most important
characters, settings, symbols, etc., or all the major ones; write just a paragraph for
each element, or several; provide simple descriptions or complex, developed ones? Most
teachers expect supporting quotations and/or paraphrases to show that your statements about the elements
are based clearly on specific passages from the literary work you are analyzing.
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3. Final Drafting
Rewrite what you have done. Literary examinations contain many references to the
literary works that they examine. These references are the proofs or examples of the
points you make. You will need to know how to write these references smoothly and
sensibly. In addition, as you rewrite, you should be sure that all your details are in the
divisions where they best fit, and that you do not have anything in your divisions which
does not fit there. In addition, be sure that you have strong topic sentences at the
beginnings of your divisions.
If you do not know how to place quotations and paraphrases in your paper, check the
chapter on using quotations and paraphrases in the end part of this book. In addition,
there is a good description of how to use quotations and paraphrases at the end of the
chapter on how to write an interpretive literary thesis.
Allow some time--preferably several days--before the paper is due to edit it very
thoroughly. Editing means checking for the small but usually numerous errors of typing,
punctuation, spelling, and grammatical usage. Go to a tutor, read your paper out loud, ask
a friend whose editing skills are excellent to read it, and/or make a list of your major
and minor editing problems and needs and then look for such problems them one at a time
throughout your paper.
There are two keys to good editing: one is to NOT try to fix everything in one sentence
or paragraph, everything in the next, and everything in the next: this is both tiring and
inefficient. You will find editing less tiring and be more efficient if you take care of
just one or two types of problems at a time throughout the whole paper. The second key is
to edit your paper backwards: start with the last sentence and edit, then go to the second
to the last sentence, then to the third to the last, etc. Editing in this order disrupts
our conscious and unconscious thought processes about the contents of our paper. In other
words, we cannot see the content, so our minds more easily focus on the mechanics. In this
way, we can edit much better. Even seasoned, well-published teachers and professional
writers use this method.
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A literary analysis of a work of art is, in its simplest form, just an in-depth
discussion of the elements found in that work. The best analyses are thoughtful
explorations of literary works, explorations that engage readers and lead them to read the
work itself or, if they already have read it, explorations that help them understand the
work more thoroughly and logically in interesting ways.
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