Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2021

The Fundamental Elements of a Literary Analysis

GrammarMaven

If you're a college student, graduate student, or you have a job or internship that requires or asks you to write literary analysis, you might be wondering what the heck that is and how to tackle it.

Fundamentally, a literary analysis is an essay that closely examines a particular text. However, it should not be confused with other essays like rhetorical analysis, book report, or book summary. It's an in-depth argumentative essay that focuses on a piece of literary writing, such as a novel, a novella, a collection of poetry, a play. The literary analysis identifies a point, or argument—in other words, your thesis—that is the bases of the essay, and the examination of the text will allow you to gather the evidence you need to explain or prove that point.

This essay focuses on how the text was written, homing in on the plot development, characters, tone, writing style, and other devices the writer employs to tell the story. It does not focus on the content in terms of judging the idea, writing about how interesting—or not—the text was, or if the writer enjoyed it. The literary analysis focuses on the technical aspects of writing and storytelling to determine what makes the story effective.

So, if you've got a literary analysis in your future, or you'd like to write one for your own personal use, we've got some tips to make the process a little easier.

Choose your thesis

The thesis is the argument of your essay. In other words, it's the foundation on which your essay will be written. You'll want to pick a thesis you already have some strong feelings about. Perhaps you want to focus on a text's use of an unreliable narrator. Or maybe you want to focus on the way they've written the story in second-person perspective. Perhaps you've read a novel that has two storylines happening concurrently, and you want to examine this device from the perspective of it adding clarity rather than confusion to a story. Whatever the case, choose a specific point that address some facet of the writing mechanics.

Ideally, you'll choose a thesis based on an opinion that began germinating while you read the book. This will allow you to approach the selection of your thesis more easily, and allow you to tackle the writing itself with more clarity.

It's also important to note here that you want to choose a thesis you can readily write about and argue. You don't want to choose a thesis that leaves you stumped while you're sitting at the computer, if you have a say in the matter. Occasionally, a thesis will be provided to you, particularly if you're in school, which can present some challenges. You may need to read the text more than once and do some research to better understand the thesis you are being asked to write about.

Elements of the literary analysis

No matter what your thesis is, whether you've chosen it yourself or it has been assigned to you, you'll want to start organizing the elements of the text you plan to analyze to argue your thesis. Common elements of an analysis of a text include:

  • Type: This element focuses on what kind of text you're analyzing—whether it's a novel, a novella, a memoir, a short story, a collection poetry or a single poem, a play.
  • Genre: This element is usually fiction and its various subgenres, like literary fiction, historical fiction, etc. Non-fiction that has creative elements, like memoirs or creative non-fiction, are also good choices due to the creative element and use of literary writing devices and techniques.
  • Characters/character development: This element might focus on the role of the characters in the story, what they represent, how they act for or against the main character, how they further the plot development, and criticisms of their development.
  • Plot/plot development: This element may address the complexity of the plot, whether or not it is fully developed, whether or not any plot holes exist, if it builds tension at an adequate pace, if the climactic event feels developed and adequately positioned in the novel, etc.
  • Use of plot devices: This element focuses on their usage and effectiveness within the text. Some examples include the red herring (a fake-out), plot voucher/Chekov's Gun, love triangle, quest, cliffhanger, and deus ex machina. Some plot devices are frowned up, and others are celebrated, so considering the various devices a particular text uses may help you determine whether the plot device was adequately or inadequately applied to the text.
  • Use of literary devices: This element differs from the plot device, in that where a plot device is immediately connected to the story or text you're reading, a literary device is used to deepen the meaning of themes and ideas. Examples include symbolism allegory, foreshadowing, satire, and others.
  • Writing style: This element can include writing tense (e.g., past, present), point of view/perspective (e.g., first person, third person), tone, voice, language. Writing style plays arguably the largest role in storytelling, as it's the vehicle that carries every other element of the story. While a literary analysis shouldn't focus on whether or not you "liked" the writing style, you can argue its effectiveness or lack thereof.
  • Structure of the novel/text: This element addresses how the novel is organized. Is it told linearly? Does it make use of flashbacks? Is it told through news articles or letters or blog posts? When analyzing the structure of a text, you'll want to do so through the lens of how effective it was in conveying the story/plot/narrative.

Evidence

This will be an intensive and time-consuming part of the literary analysis, wherein you will go through the text in detail to pull out passages, sentences, paragraphs that highlight your thesis. For instance, if your thesis is about the use of the plot devices and you're addressing the use of Chekov's Gun in a particular novel, you might reference passages as evidence that highlight the places where the "gun" was "placed on the table" that tie into when it is finally "fired" later in the novel. Or, conversely, you might reference various things that seem like they're Chekov's Guns, but never "fire" in the story at all, which creates a confusing and frustrating reading experience.

You'll want to ensure you're selecting passages that directly speak to your thesis, one way or the other. You will want to make notes while you're reading and researching. You might want to read reviews of the work, articles about the work, and articles about the writer. There might be analytical information available that deal with your thesis and the writing, explaining why the writer made a decision to include or not include something in their text. Explore resources outside of the text but that directly relate to the text so that you can gather a robust collection of evidence that will help you argue your thesis.

During the evidence-collecting phase, you may discover that your thesis needs to change. An entirely different thesis may come to you as a much better point for you to argue, or you may need to tweak your currently thesis slightly to be more specific or pointed. If you were assigned a thesis, make sure to check with your instructor before altering your thesis.

Organization

Now that you have your thesis and your evidence, it's time to organize your essay. This is an important step to take before writing, so that the writing process will go much more smoothly.

Start with an outline to organize the general flow of your essay. There are plenty of resources online that can offer guidance on how to do this—this is a good one. In general, your essay will comprise three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction will introduce your thesis—why you're writing the analysis. The body will present all of the evidence you gathered in a logical, progressive flow. Your conclusion should restate the thesis and answer the question within the thesis (it should not introduce any new information).

Once you have your thesis developed, your outline detailed and organized, and a conclusion drawn, it's time to write—and having a well-developed and highly detailed outline will make the writing much easier!

Writing a literary analysis whether you want to write it or because you've been assigned to write it can seem daunting, but following the steps above will ensure you have the proper tools to execute it confidently. It's a good idea to give yourself adequate time to complete your analysis—from reading the material to researching it to organizing your ideas. This isn't something you'll want to tackle the night before the deadline, so give yourself plenty of time to conduct your research and write your analysis.

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