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English 1102: Writing about Literature

'This guide will help you find and use resources related to English 1102, specifically literary criticism, classic literature, and writing skills

Writing about Literature

Writing about Literature

Writing about literature typically involves analyzing a literary work, whether it is a novel, short story, poem, or drama (plays). There are many ways to analyze a literary work, but the most common ways are

The GALILEO databases offer literary criticism, which can be very useful when writing about literature. The presentation below gives tips on searching for literary criticism in GALILEO.

In order to effectively analyze a work of literature, it is important to understand the various elements within that work. In novels, short stories, and dramas, these story elements include the following:

The elements of poetry differ slightly, but include

Story Elements

Story Elements (Back to Top)

There are many elements to consider when reading a story or drama in order to criticize it. Below are some of the main elements and their definitions. All definitions have been summarized from Kennedy and Gioia's Backpack Literature.

- Characters are typically people, or occasionally animals, who are imagined and crafted by the author to be placed within the story. Characters can be flat (i.e. created for one single purpose, not well-developed, and incapable of growth) or round (i.e. created with depth and capable of growth and change as the story, well-developed). Flat characters are rarely central points in the story, instead they help to give the story itself depth and often help to encourage growth in the round characters. Round characters are typically protagonists and antagonists, they play central roles--both good and evil--and the story gives them a way to grow and learn.
- Plot is both the events in the story and the over all arrangement of those events. Plots have an exposition to set the scene, typically build up to a climax, which is the moment of tension, and then have a conclusion, which resolves whatever conflict caused the climax. Most stories include a protagonist, or the "good guy", and then the antagonist, the "bad guy". Neither the protagonist or antagonist have to be human, sometimes it could be something like a human protagonist fighting against the elements.
Point of view
- Point of view looks at how the person telling the story see things, and how much that person knows about the events.The person, in this case, is the narrator, not the author. There are two main types of narrators: participant narrators who play a part within the story and nonparticipant narrators who are only present to tell the story. Points of view can be first person (participants) or third person (nonparticipants), and the narrator can be all-knowing where he, she, or knows events beforehand and can get into the mind of other characters; limited omniscience where the narrator can get into the mind of a single character other than himself or herself; or objective where the story is only being told form the outside through the observations of a narrator who may or may not know events--but does not know thoughts.
- The setting is the time and the place of the story. The place is the physical backdrop for the story and could be something as simple as a bedroom or as complex as a city that the characters move around throughout the story. Included within the place is the weather throughout. The time relates to the time period, the time of day, the time of year, or anything else relating to when the story takes place. Finally, the feeling or mood during the story is part of the setting.
- Symbolism is the use of symbols: objects that represent additional meanings or insights. Symbols are often complex and may not mean the same thing from person to person. Symbols can be places, objects, people, and they can often appear multiple times throughout a story. Allegories are a type of symbolism where the majority of the characters, places, or things are obvious symbols.
- Theme is the main idea or meaning of a story, poem, or play.Theme and plot may seem like the same thing, but theme is the idea or the meaning, while plot is the method of revealing the theme.
- Tone is the feeling or attitude of the story.Tone could be positive or negative, and it conveys the narrator's feeling toward a subject as well as the author's. It is similar to tone of voice, but it cannot be heard and so it must be shown in other ways. It can be demonstrated through word choice, setting, symbols, or even the plot; generally, it is displayed through all of the elements of the story.

Poetry Elements

Poetry Elements (Back to Top)

There are many elements to consider when reading a poem in order to criticize it. Below are some of the main elements and their definitions.

- Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word; connotations are additional meanings determined by context. Denotation is relatively simple--just look the word and its meanings up in the dictionary. Connotation is more complex. The meanings can change over time, are influenced by the context of the words around it, and can convey an attitude toward the word itself or what it is describing.
- Diction is the deliberate choice of words within a poem.Poems have very limited space for words, so the author must choose each word very carefully. This deliberate, conscious choosing of words can alter the meaning of a poem entirely, or can change the tone, symbolism, or many of the other elements. This can work with the denotation and connotations of words.
Figures of speech
- Figures of speech are words that take on comparisons in order to better explain a meaning or paint a picture for the reader. The two most well-known figures of speech are metaphor and simile. Metaphors compare by stating that one thing is another when it is not. Similes use words such aslike,as, or than to show how something is like something else when it is not.
- Imagery is all of the images from within a poem.Images in the case of poems are words that describe a visible object or any of the five senses. Images can be important in helping to determine the meaning of a poem and it can help to create a visual, relatable image for the reader.
- Rhythm in poetry is the stresses and pauses that can be heard and felt when the poem is read out loud. Stresses, or accents, and pauses occur by syllable rather than by word (aside from single-syllable words). The rhythm of a poem can help emphasize meaning and is repeated throughout the entire poem. This repetition of rhythm is called meter.
- Tone is the feeling or attitude of the poem.Tone could be positive or negative, and it conveys the narrator's feeling toward a subject as well as the author's. It is similar to tone of voice, but it cannot be heard and so it must be shown in other ways. It can be demonstrated through word choice, setting, symbols, or even the rhythm; generally, it is displayed through all of the elements of the poem.

Need more help?

If you need more help, don't forget to look at the following series for examples of literary criticism: Critical Companions, Bloom's, and Greenhaven's Literary Companion.  You can search our Library Online Catalog.

Literary Criticism Presentation

Literary Criticism

The presentation below was created using Prezi and covers information about what GALILEO is, how it provides access to literary criticism, and some tips for searching in GALILEO. To use Prezi, just hit the start arrow and then use the arrows at the bottom (in the black bar!) to move to the next slide.


Analysis (Back to Top)

An analysis essay is "an essay that breaks a work into its elements and, usually, studies one part closely" (Kennedy and Gioia 1115). In other words, an analysis essay first looks at a story, drama, or poem as different parts (e.g. tone, theme, symbolism, diction, rhythm, and etc). Then, it identifies a single part to focus on, such as symbolism. Finally, it examines how symbols help form the story, drama, or poem. It is important to remember that any statements made about an element should be backed up by quotes from the work.

An example of a topic for analysis would be the use of symbols to represent rising rebellion in Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games. To properly analyze the book, several examples of the symbols as rebellion would need to be given, and then it would be necessary to demonstrate how rebellion (and the symbols of it) effects the book's plot and meaning over all.

In The Hunger Games, food, flowers, and mockingjays all represent rebellion against a society where death is amusement at the cost of the less fortunate. In the end, the tentative uprising created by Katniss and Peeta opens the doors for a more powerful rebellion in future books.

Comparison and Contrast

Comparison and Contrast (Back to Top)

Comparison and contrast papers come in three varieties. First, there are comparison papers, which point out the similarities of two or more works, characters, symbols, themes, or other elements. Second, there are contrast papers, which point out the differences of two or more works, characters, symbols, themes, or other elements. Finally, there are comparison and contrast papers which examine both the similarities between two things and the differences between those same two things.

For example, one might compare and contrast Pip, from Dicken's Great Expectations, with Oliver, from Dicken's Oliver Twist. Both boys were orphaned at a very young age, and both ended up being very successful in life; however, Oliver grows up in a life of crime before finally being assisted by long-lost family, while Pip grows up with relative luxury, financed by an unknown benefactor.


Explication (Back to Top)

"Explication is the patient unfolding of meanings in a work of literature" (Kennedy and Gioia 1107). In other words, explication looks, in detail, at every line and every word in a story, poem or drama. Typically, explication is only used on short works like brief poems or parts of works because it is a very long, tedious process. Rather than looking at the whole of the poem or focusing simply on one element (like in an analysis), readers look at small details and meanings and how those tiny details can make up a larger theme or image. To properly explicate a work, the denotations, connotations, imagery, rhythms, and other notable details must be examined individually.


Response (Back to Top)

A response paper is "a short essay that expresses your personal reaction to a work of literature" (Kennedy and Gioia 1127). In other words, it is an opinion paper. This paper does not require much, if any, research aside from the work itself and your own thoughts on what the work was about or what one aspect of the work was about, and how this affected you. Did it evoke questions; if so, what were they? What did the work make you think about as you read it? What experiences do you share with the characters, with the plot, with the author?

For example, after reading The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, I could not help but think about how Holden Caulfield's actions over the years had affected his younger sister. After her big brother leaves school early and visits her, she decides that she too wishes to leave school. I never idolized my own big brother like that, so it made me wonder why she feels like she does about Holden. Is it because her brother goes away to school and she only sees him for brief periods of time?.

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