Study guide for literary analysis

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Updated 10/2017

Structural Elements of Narrative Literature

Narrative is a specialist’s term; simply put, a narrative has a “story” logic to its text. Fiction is narrative, and some nonfiction writing takes narrative form, too (like biographies or anecdotes within an essay). To analyze the structure of any narrative, we look at five fundamental elements:

Setting is the time and location of events that define each scene of a narrative’s action—the WHEN(s) and WHERE(s) of a story. An author may make the settings explicit or implicit (directly or indirectly presented), minor in importance/impact or major—attention should be paid to the purpose for setting changes/ choices (especially as they relate/ support other elements and the meaning of the text).
Setting is entangled with the plotting of a story (the ordering of events—a part of style—not to be confused with plot structure), so be careful how you “locate” flashbacks, dream sequences, etc—these “scenes” may occur chronologically in the wording, but retrospectively/ disjointedly/ virtually in the “logical” time or space of the sequence of action in the story, altering its interpretation. The setting of a story may or may not be the same as the time and place of the authorship of the story—even if the setting is left ambiguous, never assume!—look for evidence to justify your interpretation.
When fully developed—as it is in most complex texts—setting goes beyond being the “backdrop” to the action to function as a major or minor character. Setting at this level is considered “environment” because it not only surrounds, it influences the action/actors.

Be careful not to confuse the author’s tone (specifically a major component of tone, “mood”) with the author’s presentation of setting by reducing it to how it is perceived by characters (mysterious, hostile, etc) instead of analyzing its actual attributes. Setting—whether it’s simple or complex—is concrete context; mood is a judgment about how the author intended the reader to imagine the context feels and how it reflects or opposes the feelings behind characters’ action—see tone and mood.

Bottom Line for Setting

To analyze setting at the college level, go beyond naming the site and time of scenes and instead put together clues to see how the author fleshes-out the context(s) enveloping events and characters. Environment descriptions that capture this should fit the default phrase

[X character’s actions are only fully understood]… in the context of_________.

Examples of contexts: “a cultural/ religious/ social/ political revolution erupting;” “an epidemic when medical practice was still very primitive;” “a closed/ open, controlled/ free, urban/pastoral, diverse/monocultural society.”

Characterization/Character Development is the ACTIVE PROCESS an AUTHOR applies to assign attributes to each actor in a story (person, communal group, animal, force, influential thing—all are charACTers). The author embeds examples, testimony or not-C evidence of attributes in the narrative to develop what we call its “characters,” the specific WHO(s)—even if these aren’t beings but things—interacting within the story. Be careful not to substitute mere character description for analysis of character development, the decisions by the author, communicated through the narrator, that actually “create” characters. Be careful not to misinterpret the term “development of character.” Characters aren’t real, so they don’t “develop” [grow up] like, say, human children do. Authors develop them—that is, they create characters like, say, an invention.

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