Elements Of A Good Literary Analysis Essay



(how to do a worksheet)




SETTING: (skene, opsis)

Every work of literature has to create its own world. Every writer is singing a hymn of creation, light or dark. Whether or not the text contains the full account, it always implies one; and every reader has an alternative vision of the world to impose on the text. To read or write is therefore an act of creation of its own virtual reality.

The evidence of setting is the scenery and the props (properties), artificial or natural, as well as the time and light of day, the mood or atmosphere, the background music, the culture, and the people who are not characters (extras?). Setting is created largely by descriptions of places, objects, seasons, and sounds.

Hence, setting is related to tone and imagery. It also has a strong relationship to archetype and the psychological interpretation of character and action. In the age of the global village and ecology, setting is by definition an ecosystem or a habitat that embraces the whole community of earthkind, the substrate of natural and human history taken as one.



The words denoting a concrete, sensual experience of the world are called images; and in the minds of the imaginative writer or reader they often stand for something else (that is, by the kind of analogy we generally call metaphor). Hence, the violet by a mossy stone on the one level refers to a flower in the scene, but on an even more imaginative level refers to the girl the poet loves and all the feelings of tenderness or loss that surround his image of her.

The figures of speech which generate such associations and analogies include simile (comparisons using like or as) and metaphor in the specific sense (comparisons built into the basic sentence pattern, such as The shark reads the menu of the coral reef). Metaphor is world or scene mixing. Words denoting abstractions and emotions can also be used figuratively by an inversion of the process of imagery, so that a tiger might be described as baring teeth as sharp as hunger or as fierce as guilt.

Images accumulate into clusters and sometimes are reiterated enough to have a global effect on a literary composition. For example, the imagery of clothing that binds characters is prominent in one work while animals who are predatory keep cropping up in another. Usually, however, images are a part of the texture of the work and sift out into the expected or common frames inherent in the scene.



The symbol is a single prop or image which by reason of its position or treatment in the text must be taken as representative of the whole or perhaps elements greater than the whole work of art. A symbol is a single, inescapable image, like the pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the lily in icons of St. Joseph, or the green lantern at the end of The Great Gatsby.

Literary symbols can be:

    • unique to a particular text = textual
    • common in two or more works of the same artist = personal
    • a part of a larger culture, religion, or tradition = cultural
    • an archetype inherent in all human cultures. = universal

When symbolism is transformed into a complex narrative or drama, we have personification allegory. Such characters as Everyman in the medieval morality play or Faith in Hawthorne's story of Young Goodman Brown are symbolic, to be sure, but in general symbols are things, not characters.




CHARACTER: (ethos)

Aristotle used the word ethos to describe the character of the subject or hero of a tragedy. He saw every human as governed by a set of behaviors, virtues and vices if you will, habits of action that made one tend toward certain choices. Behind those choices one could see a rationale, a set of values.

 The immediate evidence for character analysis includes:

o        physical attributes,

o        thoughts and statements,

o        choices and actions of the subject,

o        the manner of his or her performance,

o        the gestalt or relationship with all the other characters (see structure), and

o        their statements about and reactions to the character.



Whose eyes, whose voice, and what physical or emotional position control our reception of the text? Is it consistent or volatile? Is it subjective (first person), objective (third person reliable or all-knowing), or limited (usually focusing on a single persona)? As Chaucer showed us so well in The Canterbury Tales, the character of the narrator makes all the difference in the world. Every story, poem, or essay has the warp of its narrative voice or voices.

The evidence for point of view in narrative is especially available at the beginning or the end, in any parenthetical or tangential remarks, in all the arrangements and naming of events and characters of plots and subplots, indeed, in the whole rhetorical appeal of the work. The narrator holds the camera, chooses the lighting, arranges the scenes, in fact, directs the whole script for our imagination. Point of view is not simply the opinion of the author or the narrator, but all these elements of the text under the control of a character telling the story.



 TONE: (melos)

An actor, by changes in tone of voice, can make a hundred different plays out of the same crucial line. In literary analysis of tone we give the text a body, a voice to sound itself; we set the appropriate background music for the composition. Language is speech. The text has a sound system; and the great writers are always sensitive to the emotional effects of the sound stream as they create it.

The reader without ears will often miss one of the most crucial aspects of literary tone, irony. Irony occurs whenever there is a disparity of situation and tone (cosmic, verbal, or dramatic).



The music of literature, the combinations of patterns of sound and rhythm, is called prosody in poetry. The features of sound used frequently in poetry are alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and rhyme. The features of rhythm in poetry are metrical feet, caesurae, and cadence groups.

In prose, style refers to the consistent pattern of an author's language choices reflected in sounds, words, phrases, sentences, and larger discourse units.



 STRUCTURE: (mythos)

Structure is the sum of the relationships among the parts of a literary work. Hence, structural analysis takes into consideration chronology, cause and effect, association, symmetry, balance, and proportion in the larger textual divisions and units of composition. A novel often has a set of chapters, a poem a group of stanzas, and a play a series of Acts or scenes or both.

All the elements of literary analysis admit of description in terms of their distribution throughout the divisions of the text. Hence, plot structure represents the arrangement of incidents/actions in a narrative, character structure the constellation of dramatic personae, etc.



In speaking of narrative literature, we distinguish between the surface structure (the actual sequence of events within the textual divisions) and the deep structure (the underlying story which governs that structure). Take the story of the Iliad. We all know the underlying myth. It resides in our minds as story until one of us makes a novel about Helen's abduction, another writes an opera about the Trojan Horse, and a third choreographs a ballet about Achilles and Patroclus. All three "texts" or versions adapt the same story (mythos) about the war, but each represents a different kind of discourse. The surface structure varies from author to author and art form to art form. Plot is a feature of the surface structure or discourse unit of the narrative in whatever form.

Most plots start at an exciting midpoint, and then fill us in later about other parts of the story (exposition). Then complications, conflicts, and crises arise, build to a climax, and finally reach a point of resolution or exhaustion called the denouement. Often plot structures deliberately suppress elements of the story to create mystery, suspense, and a dramatic climax.

The evidence for plot is an outline of the major actions in the syntax or arrangement provided by the text. Often a play is thus structured into a number of Acts, but every story admits of analysis in terms of a set of actions. Another way to identify the plot is to block a story off into scenes. The actions or scenes, their clustering or arrangement when compared to the textual divisions of the manuscript or text, make up the evidence for interpretation of structure or form in a narrative.



An important part of mythos is the dynamics of conflict or opposition. Just as we can see a linear structure or timeline in the syntax of actions, we can also find patterns in the spatial structure of the text. These would be more or less constant and global forces working usually in all the parts of the text and responsible for the complications of the plot. As the anthropologist Levi-Strauss has shown, many of these opposing forces in a work of art or mythology are inherent throughout the culture. For example, in epical stories of culture heroes one often finds an inherent conflict between nature and civilization, the raw and the cooked, as Levi-Strauss first put it.

Again, every element of literary analysis can display opposition or conflict in the text. Symbols may represent war and peace, characters contain opposing forces in their own stormy psyches, etc. Actions, too, admit of opposition and reversal. For example, in Beowulf we see fighting and feasting oscillating in almost electrical currents.




THEME: (dianoia and lexis)

A theme can be expressed as a word, a phrase, a proposition, or a whole text. The educated person tunes into the history of ideas which human genius generates in every age or culture. In literature, the ideas of philosophers are embodied and disguised and sometimes personified overtly in allegory.

It is best to express an author's themes in his or her own words (lexis), but often a principal theme receives no explicit representation in the vocabulary of the text or the author; then the critic must invent terms to describe the themes in contemporary language.  

Strictly speaking, all forms of literary analysis can be evidence for theme. When we ask, what does this symbol, image, feature of plot structure, or rhyme mean, we are accumulating evidence of thematic interest. To study theme, therefore, is to reach back into the whole of the text from the vocabulary of ideas and feelings it presents. One of the best ways to get hold of any theme is to draw a concept map of its relations to other major themes of the text.  

Most authors and major texts are available in concordance form, an alphabetical listing of all the content words in their vocabulary. A thesaurus proprius is such a concordance arranged in major subject headings or themes. It expresses therefore the whole network of themes in a single text or author. When we pull a theme out of a work that we think is central, it is best to place it in the context of the other key concepts of the text.



Frequently when we first look at a painting or walk out of the theater we have a question to ask the artist. We understand most of the composition in certain terms, but something sticks out as inconsistent, some item in the composition or some annoying repetition bothers us. We leave the theater but we can't stop going over the film. In literature it is the same, and the history of the reception of the text often reveals its principal problems and the source of its mystery or intriguing qualities. The notion of solving a puzzle in a work of literary art is inherent in our language. Often the business of resolving our initial misgivings will lead to rereading and research that will reveal a better understanding of the artistic, conceptual, or historical dimensions of the text.







The facts surrounding the publication of a text can have an important bearing upon our reading and interpretation of it. Hence, we can consider the historical, cultural, and biographical contexts of the author and the audience at the time of its publication. In some cases it is important to consider the pragmatic context, the actual occasion for the writing or presenting of the text, e.g. a coronation event, a Christmas celebration, an imminent death in the author's life. 

In a narrower sense, the context can be taken as a purely literary factor in terms of tradition, that is, as one in a set of texts by the same author, in the same genre, or belonging to the same period of literary or oral history. Of special interest, therefore, are any texts which the author may have used as sources, directly or indirectly, as well as any analogues of the text which may have derived from the same or similar sources and thus bear a strong association with the text, regardless of its date.



The theories of literature often have a bearing on the text because the author becomes concerned about presenting an artistic reaction to the abstractions which concern the discipline of literary art. In a very general sense, these theories can be divided into mimetic (those that value the poem or text as an imitation) and formalist (those whose value lies in the forms they achieve). 

A useful larger categorization uses the components of the communication model and distinguishes four theoretical approaches:

    • Expressionistic = expressing the artist's view
    • Pragmatic = pragmatically reaching an audience
    • Mimetic = imitating a world, or
    • Objective = simply existing as a work of art on its own.

Thus, the text can be considered in terms of the encoder, the decoder, the world at large, or the pure signal or message.



Each age and culture gives birth to new forms of literature which sometimes perdure and sometimes fade away. Authors invent variations and try mixtures of genre, but in general it is useful to understand what the distinctive features of each "kind" of writing might be, to pay attention to the conventions and the breaches of convention in any given work.

There are four major genres: prose (the essay), poetry (lyrics), drama (plays), and fiction (short stories and the novel). Each of these has a variety of historical and cultural variations.

Why does that word –analysis ­– strike fear into the hearts of so many college students, and just what the heck is a literary analysis, anyway?

Analysis is typically the last skill your brain learns, and most students don’t encounter this term until college. But never fear – I’m here to help you conquer your literary analysis essay in this blog post!

A smart literary analysis focuses on how a book or story’s plot, characters, settings, or themes are used by an author. Sometimes, you may want to explore how an author creates meaning through these elements; otherwise, you may want to criticize the author’s methods and their work’s message.

I’ll focus on both approaches in my handy list below, so read on!

Life After Book Reports

Before we dive right into analysis strategies, it’s important to note that analysis is not asummary.

You’ve probably written book reports before, and you know that these are pretty simple because you basically retell a book’s major events to prove you’ve read it.

But analysis requires more from you. Your professor can always read the book you’re analyzing, so you don’t have to recount the plot. Instead, your job in analyzing is to make aclaim or thesis about the text and to spend your essay supporting your ideas.

Analysis and argument actually have a lot in common, and if you’ve written argumentative essays, then you can probably write an analysis essay. I’ll break down the process into two phases to help you get started.

Phase One: Hunting and Gathering

In this phase, you should choose the work you want to analyze and then consider your approach. What are your initial ideas? What do you have to say about this book, and how do you plan to support your position? Brainstorm and outline during this phase.

You may be saying, “where do I start?” Glad you asked!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #1: Know the Elements

When analyzing literature, you’ll first want to consider the following elements from a different perspective than when you’re just reading a book. True analysis means approaching your text like a detective. Plot, characters, and setting all leave clues to deeper meaning, and your job is to discover them.


Plot is the pattern of events that make up a story. In your literary analysis, you’ll want to focus on whether or not these events are significant to your claim.


Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces, typically the protagonist and antagonist. Conflicts often follow this traditional form, but sometimes characters experience internal conflict. Or the conflict comes in the form of a natural or supernatural force. The main conflict in a story can often reflect an author’s opinion about the world they live in or the issues of their day.


Characters are the people or “players” in a story. Characters are great for analysis because they are the ones causing and reacting to the events in a story. Their backgrounds, appearances, beliefs, actions, etc. can all be analyzed. You can often start with characters in an analysis because authors usually express opinions about race, culture, religion, gender, etc. through character representation, whether intentional or not.


Just like characters, setting can be easily analyzed. As an author may express certain opinions through their characters, what they have to say about places can also be provocative and revealing.

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #2: Focus on Literary Devices

You can analyze a book’s themes by first brainstorming some ideas and thinking about the impression you get when reading it. Novels are full of symbols and allusions, and most authors have something to say about the world.


In analyzing TheLord of the Rings, you could discuss how Tolkien uses light and dark imagery as symbols of good and evil. “Gandalf the White” is certainly a representation of good, while evil is implied by the “Black Gates of Mordor.” You could continue by focusing on Tolkien’s language used for good or evil characters and settings.

Allegory andMetaphor

While these terms have different meanings, you can approach them with the same strategy in your analysis essay. If a novel uses allegory or metaphor, then its story represents some real-world event(s) or criticism thereof.

A well-known Christian allegory is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. You could write an analysis essay that argues how Aslan’s journey represents Jesus’s story in the Bible. If you wanted to take this one step further, you could also explore whether or not Lewis’ interpretations could be seen as accurate and why.

Think about metaphor by analyzing how The Lord of the Rings’ plot is a metaphor for the events of World War II. You could also explore whether Tolkien opposes war or glorifies it, depending on how you interpret the novels.

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #3: Take a Critical Approach

If you’re struggling to come up with your own ideas, then you can definitely fall back on critical approaches or “lenses” through which you can view and analyze your topic. There are quite a few of these, so I’ll just focus on one here as an introduction.

If writing about the first Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins, for example, you might apply the feminist critical approach.

That’s a big subject, so you have to start somewhere. The Purdue OWL suggests starting with a list of typical questions. Your answers will help you form your claims.

Here are some of the questions on the OWL’s feminist criticism page:

  • What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
  • How are male and female roles defined?
  • What constitutes masculinity and femininity?

Here is my answer to these questions that I could use to get started:

Traditional gender roles are rejected as Katniss Everdeen exhibits more fortitude, confidence, and intelligence than most of her male counterparts, Peeta, in particular. However, the novel still relies on traditional masculine and feminine characteristics as most of the female characters appear ethical, soft-spoken, and passive, whereas most of the male characters are aggressive and less ethical in their actions.

Now I have to start thinking about how to support this stance, just like an argument.

You can apply a similar approach to any of the critical lenses. The most common approaches that students use today are Feminist, Marxist, Post-modern, and Psychoanalytic.

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #4: Follow the 5 W’s

Who, what, where, when, why/how – think about these when writing your notes and outline:

Who is the author? Does his or her background have any impact on the writing? What links can you draw between the author’s life and those of the characters in the story?

What is happening in the story? What events are significant and why?

Where does the story take place, and why is this important to your analysis?

When is the story set? How does this time period affect your interpretation? Think about historical context as this can be very important.

Why/how do you justify your claims? What evidence from the text will you use?

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #5: Making an Assertion vs. Using an Argument and Evidence

An assertion makes a claim and can work as a topic sentence, but an argument is more complex and complete. An argument provides your claim but also supports it.


Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped forehead scar represents a badge of achievement for thwarting Voldemort.


Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped forehead scar represents a hero’s badge of achievement for thwarting Voldemort as well as his fame and status in the Wizarding world. Ron Weasley confirms this notion early in Sorcerer’s Stone when treating the scar with reverence on the Hogwarts Express. In the same scene, Hermione Granger immediately recognizes Harry because of his scar and only remarks about a smudge on Ron’s face, revealing the disparity between supposedly “normal” characters and how Harry’s scar and its history define him as the special hero character.

See the difference? In an argumentative paragraph, you offer a specific assertion/claim, evidence to support it, and commentary to show how that evidence is relevant.

Other Evidence

Double-check with your professor about her expectations. Typically, you’ll use summary, paraphrasing, and direct quotes from the literature you’re analyzing as evidence. Often, you’ll only have to focus on your own ideas and simply support your claims with logic and evidence from your text. However, you may be expected to use other sources, such as scholarly publications, to support your analysis. If so, visit your university library or its website to start researching your topic.

Phase Two: Writing

Okay – now that you’ve collected information about your topic and brainstormed some ideas for your approach, let’s move on to actually writing the literary analysis!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #6: MLA Format

Most literary analysis essays will typically appear in MLA format, so you’ll want to make sure you get this step right. Here is a great link to a sample MLA paper that shows you the ropes.

You may also be expected to cite the book or story you’re analyzing in MLA. You can use an online tool, such as Easybib, to create your citations, but be sure to double-check these for accuracy!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #7: Academic Voice

Walk like me; talk like me. To write academically, train your “voice” to be:

  •         Skeptical, not cynical
  •         Confident, not cocky
  •         Logical, not biased
  •         Critical, but fair
  •         Concise, not wordy

I can’t stress this last one enough. You are smart, so don’t try too hard to sound smart. Students often make this mistake and end up with bloated and pompous prose, which is when professors like to unload a lot of ink from their grading pens!

You’ll also want to avoid the dreaded “I factor” of first-person writing. For a successful literary analysis essay, third-person writing is the way to go!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #8: Essay Organization

Writing your rough draft:

Intro and Body and Conclusion and Bears, oh my!

Okay, so there are no bears, but all good essays are well organized, and a literary analysis is no exception! You may already know the basics, but let’s cover the specifics:


The introduction needs three things to be successful: an interesting hook, background on your topic, and a strong thesis that makes a clear analytical claim.


This section will make up the bulk of your paper. Each body paragraph will work to support your thesis. Recall the assertion vs. argument section from above – an analytical paragraph should include the following:

  • Your assertion or “sub-claim” that is relevant to your thesis.
  • Evidence from the text that can support the assertion.
  • A logical evaluation of that evidence – show the reader how the evidence supports your assertion.


The conclusion is your final paragraph. Its job is to recap the main ideas in your essay and reassert your thesis. No new information should appear in your conclusion, so make sure you’ve wrapped up your analysis before you get to this point!

Putting Theory Into Practice

There are many ways to approach a literary analysis, and I hope this post gives you a “leg-up” in starting your own. Whether you’re coming up with your own theme-based approach or you decide to use a critical approach, so long as you take your time and brainstorm, take notes, and outline effectively, you should be off to a good start!

Let’s review. When writing a smart literary analysis, you should focus on:

  •         Starting with a thesis or claim
  •         The 5 W’s
  •         Argumentative paragraphs
  •         Using evidence to support your assertions
  •         Using MLA format
  •         Practicing academic voice
  •         Strong organization – Intro, Body, and Conclusion

And when you’ve done all that, Kibin will be standing by to proofread your work!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

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