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Critical Reading: The Literary Stuff

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I finally started the book I’ve chosen to read critically: Home to Harmony by Phillip Gulley. I chose it because I’m currently trying to write a small-town fiction novel, but have lacked inspiration to get into that world. Since I’ve already read Jan Karon’s first Mitford book, I decided I needed something else similar to it but by a different author, one published by a CBA publisher, so that I could get a broader scope of the different types of stories in this genre—and to get a good handle on the competitive titles for what I’m writing. I’m about 15–20 pages in (so far have only had time to read when waiting at the dentist’s office and doctor’s office in the past few days), and while I haven’t started writing notes yet, I have been underlining some places where there’s great characterization, description of the setting, and turns of phrase I really like. One of the most interesting things about it is that it starts out reading more like a journal or memoir (written in First Person), but even though there’s a lot of telling in those first pages, it’s still interesting reading because he’s developing the setting and, through describing growing up in Harmony, developing the character.

Okay, on to more questions (I know, you’ve been biting your nails just waiting for another list!) . . .

This time, let’s focus on the literary stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a category romance, a sci-fi thriller, or a historical epic, every story contains literary elements—it’s up to you to know what the elements are so that you can recognize them. We’ve hit on one or two of them a little bit in earlier posts, but now we’ll get into specifics.

Theme: I was in college before I really got a grasp on what “theme” meant when analyzing literature. At its most basic level, theme is the message of the story—not the subject matter, but the “leave behind” or “moral of the story.” The example that Wikipedia (linked on the title) gives is that the subject matter of Green Eggs and Ham is that green eggs and ham “are worth eating, no matter the location,” while the theme is “having an open mind.” Theme can be intentional or unintentional by the author. I know that I, personally, do not set out to write a story with a specific theme; rather, as I write, a theme emerges, usually spiritual, usually something that I personally am dealing with at the time. Examples:

  • The Wizard of Oz: No matter how far you roam, there’s no place like home.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Love is more important than wealth or social status and can overcome all obstacles.
  • The Star Wars saga: Everyone deserves a chance at redemption.

Imagery: What kind of images are called to mind when reading this book? Are they concrete (descriptions of characters/settings) or figurative (feelings, emotions, ideas)?

Figurative Language: This is the author’s way of turning a phrase to convey meaning. If well done, you may not even notice they’re there, unless you train yourself to notice them. However, if they’re not natural to the author’s writing style, they will stand out like a goose in a hen-house.

  • Metaphor: comparing two very different things by substituting one for the other or saying one is the other. (“The fog comes on little cat feet . . .”)
  • Simile: comparing two things using like or as. (“My love is like a red, red rose . . .”)
  • Allegory or Parable: This was Jesus’ preferred method of getting a message across. On the surface, it says one thing, but when you dig deeper, you find there’s a hidden meaning. Or, in other words, something concrete used to explain something symbolic or thematic or amorphous.
  • Analogy: This is very similar to metaphor and allegory—it’s the way of using a concrete idea to explain something difficult (such as comparing the first three chapters of the book to a first date).
  • Personification: attributing human attributes to non-human objects. (“The rain wept down the windowpanes . . .”)
  • Synecdoche: “A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).”
  • Paradox: a statement or idea that seems contradictory upon first blush, but may actually be true. The oxymoron is an example of paradox. (A deafening silence, a painful joy).
  • Hyperbole/Overstatement: intentional exaggeration. (“He finally picked up, but not until the phone rang five million times.”)
  • Understatement: to purposely downplay something to illustrate its significance or importance or grandeur.
  • Irony: Saying one thing but meaning the opposite. (Such as the the use of the phrase, “How nice,” when the speaker means “Ewww, that’s awful.”) Using contradictory ideas to portray what the author really means.

Alliteration: Unless you’re very new to my blog, you know how much I like alliteration. I fell in love with this literary device when I was in high school and first learned to put a name to it. There’s simply something satisfying and sonorous about using words that start with the same sound. It’s become such an integral part of the way I write, that most times, I don’t even realize I’ve done it until I go back and re-read my work aloud. Yes, my example in this paragraph sounds forced, because it was just to convey the meaning. But when done well, it flows and you might not even realize it’s there.

Connotation: Most words have both a denotation (the literal definition) and a connotation (the implied or understood meaning). For example: GOLD. The denotative meaning is a yellow, malleable, heavy metal element (Au on the periodic table). The connotative meaning can be anything from luxurious wealth to gaudy bling. Used literarily, the author could write that the woman “slithered” into the room. It doesn’t mean she literally got down on her belly and moved like a snake. It gives the connotation that she is snakelike in her movements, possibly in her intentions.

Unreliable Narrator: This is not found as much in modern literature as in classics. Henry James was a master at using the unreliable narrator. This is the method of writing such that the reader believes everything as the POV character sees it, only to realize later on (perhaps at the climax, perhaps sooner) that everything they’ve learned through that character’s POV isn’t real or true. This is the character who views the world through rose-colored glasses, the character who has an agenda, or the character who is going crazy but thinks she’s completely sane. A great example of an unreliable narrator is in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Again, not all of these are going to be present in everything you read. But familiarizing yourself with these will allow you greater insight into the author’s approach to writing, as well as helping you expand your own writing vocabulary.

  1. Tuesday, December 4, 2007 2:03 pm

    Good point that every story has literary elements. I love interesting turns of phrase, etc. I still haven’t had the courage to mark up a book yet. I know which one I want to do, but it makes me cringe 🙂


  2. Tuesday, December 4, 2007 3:54 pm

    How’s this for an idea: If you don’t want to mark up a new book that you just paid $10-12 for, wait about six months and buy it used for about one penny from an Amazon Marketplace vendor (you know, that button over on the side of the page that says “Other Buying Options”). If you buy one that’s already been broken in (look for those that are in “fair” or “good” condition, not “new” or “like new”), you probably won’t have as many qualms about marking it up!


  3. Tuesday, December 4, 2007 8:29 pm

    Loved this post. These things I can look for easily! And The Yellow Wallpaper is an amazing story!


  4. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Tuesday, October 11, 2016 7:50 pm

    I remember taking a short story class in college as an elective. I remember the professor’s books and how marked up they were…across the top, in the margins, across the bottom. It was an interesting class and I enjoyed it only because I was able to read for fun. Even though there was some writing and a lot of discussion, the discussions were amazing. 🙂 I probably didn’t realize at the time but we were critically evaluating the short stories!



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