Formal Features of
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
choice, and rhythm--
that establishes the
ambient quality of a
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
to the meaning of a
Freitag’s Exposition (A-B): the exposition introduces the central
character and provides background or dramatic context.
Triangle 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.
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