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Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions




How should you use the elements of literature to write a simple analysis?


Introduction: A Definition

Problem and Assignment

1. Rough Drafting

2. Organizing

3. Final Drafting



Sample Paper (Separate Web Page)


See also Prewriting Activities and Critical Alternatives.


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

The Problem

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.

The Assignment 

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 as follows:

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

(1) person,
(2) problem, and
(3) solution.

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 have?
(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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2. Organizing


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 materials?
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 required categories.

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 fifteenth-century Italy."

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 paper.

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 you.

Next, you should proceed with your analysis using the elements of literature. Develop each element thoroughly:

Voice, Tone, & Language
or Moral/Argument

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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Sample Paper (Separate Web Page)


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 43. What Is "Writing to Lit"?

 44. How To Read Literature

 45. Analysis of Elements

 46. Critical Analysis

 47. Interpretive Thesis

 48. Literary Review


Prewriting Activities

Critical  Alternatives


For writing about content in articles, essays, & books, see

E. Responding to Reading



 Related Links in

4. Literature, Reading, & Writing


Updated 1 Aug. 2013

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Previous editions: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted
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