Formal Features of Literature GMC College
Introduction • An Introduction to the formal Features of Literature • Dr. Joel Peckham, Assistant Professor, Georgia Military College
Topics of Discussion • Whenever you are reading or re-reading, it is good idea to find a point of focus for critical response. Sometimes you will find yourself liking a piece, or hating it, or being indifferent to it and not knowing what to say. But if you break the piece down to its component formal elements and then use one or two of those elements to open up the text, you will find your level of understanding and pleasure increasing exponentially.
Symbol • the word SYMBOL means literally something that means something else. A dove, for example is a symbol of peace. Authors use symbols as intensely compressed units of meaning and rely on the reader's understanding of what a certain object, color, person or even symbolic action represents. This understanding may be developed through culture or through the writer's personal symbolism established over time in his or her own work.
Image • an IMAGE is a visual representation. In literature images are often used together to create a pattern which can give a reader a sense of tone or can establish a theme. Tracking how an image changes in visual representation, context, and meaning as it progresses through a piece can help a reader to understand the piece more fully.
Simile a SIMILE is a comparison qualified with the word like or as. They also serve to make the reader consider the relationships of things to each other--just not quite so radically. When Felicia Hemans writes that "No other smile to thee could bring / A gladdening, like the breath of spring" she is comparing the qualities of a spring breeze to a mother's smile.
Analogy • an ANALOGY is an extended comparision--usually of one setting or psychological situation to another. Often an author will develop such a comparison by using the words associated with one place or set of circumstances and comparing them to another.
Context • The context of a piece is more than its physical location--its SETTING. It is also its TIME PERIOD, and CULTURE. Context helps to establish tone and theme through placing an observation or event within a specific framework. Often an author will attempt to embed references between the culture or setting within the piece and the culture it was written in.
Diction • Diction means, quite literally, "word choice"--specifically, the way in which an author uses words to create a particular literary effect through analogy, tone, or theme.
Tone • Originally a musical term, literary tone is generally taken to mean that element of a piece--established through figurative language, word, choice, and rhythm--that establishes the emotional and ambient quality of a literary work--its mood.
Narration • The study of Narration or of Narrative Structure involves an exploration of why a piece has been put together in such a way--why it begins in-media-res, why it starts with dialogue or a description of setting. It assumes that the formal placement of narrative elements--such backstory, setting, characterization, dialogue etc.--contribute to the meaning of a literary work.
Freitag’s Triangle • Exposition (A-B): the exposition introduces the central character and provides background or dramatic context. • Introduction of the conflict (B), which leads to the complication or rising action (B-C): this part of the story offers a series of events that complicates the central character's situation. At some point, something forces the character to make a decision or take a course of action. That point is known as the deciding factor. It causes the action to reverse itself. • Climax (C): this is the actual moment when the deciding factor takes place. What happens at this point determines the outcome of the piece. • Falling action(C-D): the conflict begins to resolve itself. • Resolution (D)
Characterization • Characterization involves how a character is developed--why she is the way she is-- and how that character changes throughout the course of the plot--how and why that character becomes what she becomes. Our understanding of who a character is in a literary work is developed though that character's physical description, dialogue, personal history, representative actions, family relationships, possessions, religion etc. Often critics will refer to a character as "flat" or "round" based that character's potential for growth. A "flat character" is simply evil, or stupid, or good throughout the text. A "round character" changes in response to stimuli provided as he or she progresses through the narrative. In an "epiphany story," for example, a character will come to a drastic realization that will fundamentally change the way he or she looks at the world. We often judge whether or not a character has changed by comparing how the author presents that character in terms of physical description, association, dialogue, representative actions, etc. in comparison to how the character was presented earlier in the story.
Theme • A theme is what a literary work is "about"--one of many points made in a text regarding how we live our lives. A theme of a work is not the same as its subject. Rather, it is that element of a work--usually referred to throughout the piece--that seeks to comment on larger issues such as value of family relationships, the value of community, the nature of love, the nature of death, etc. etc. And most literary works make numerous arguments regarding these issue--few of them explicitly stated. The ambiguous nature of artistic "argument" is part of its mystery, power, and interest. And that ambiguity is what makes discussion about literature lively and engaging.