Elements of Narrative

One of the starting points for interpreting and writing about imaginative works is to analyze the elements of narration. Here are some questions that may lead you to consider how the various elements are working in a particular text.

Themes--the central meaning of a text

What is this work about? What evidence can you provide to reveal this is so? How is theme expressed through character or action, scenes or language, the social and material conditions within the text? What issues or ideas are raised? About individuals and their emotional, private or political lives? About social or racial justice? Are the ideas limited to members of the group represented by the characters (age, class, race, nationality, dominant culture)? Are these ideas applicable to general conditions of life? What values are embodied in the idea?


How are ideas in the work expressed by character? What actions bring out important traits of the character? Is this character realistically depicted? If not, is the character supposed to represent an idea, belief, or value system? How is the character described? Why is this important? To what extent do the traits and the characterís actions permit you to judge him/her? Is the character consistent or inconsistent? Believable or not? Dimensional or stereotypical? Has the character changed in any way from the beginning of the narrative? How?

Plot and Structure--selection and arrangement of incidents that give a story focus. How and why do certain events happen.

PLOT: Are there characters that come into conflict with each other? Or is the plot driven by internal motivation and/or outward circumstances? If the conflict stems from contrasting values or idea, what are these and how are they brought out? What dilemma does the protagonist deal with? How does she deal with it? What obstacles do the characters overcome? Do they realize their goals? Is there resolution in the end?

Structure: Is the work told in flashback or does it proceed chronologically? What effect do flashbacks have? Are there different narrative threads or interlocking narratives used? Are there stories within stories? How do they reverberate, highlight, respond to themes in the main narrative? Is there a climax, a high point of the story, that leads to resolution? Where does the tension lie in the story? Between characters? Between conflicting perspectives? Between contrasting values? Does the work withhold any crucial details until the end? How does the work end? Open-ended or closed?

Setting--cultural, social, physical context of story's action.

Types of settings: natural world: weather and climate, geography, animal life, seasons and conditions. Objects of human construction and manufacture: personal effects, interiors and exteriors, possessions, buildings. Historical and cultural conditions: perceptions and values of society, assumptions, prevalent ideas or trends. How does setting influence character? Create mood? What cultural, religious, and political conditions are assumed? How do objects take on importance and symbolic meaning? How important are sound or silences? How do weather conditions highlight themes?

Point of View--who is telling the story and how does that affect how it is told

Is one character telling the story? Or are there multiple perspectives? Does the narrator disclose anything about him/herself that he/she doesnít know through actions or mannerisms or dialogue? Is there an authorial voice? One that is separate from the character's point of view? One that is different in language or tone, that jars or intrudes into the narrative? Does the point of view shift at all? Do we get to see the interior lives of one or all of the characters? Or do we rely on their actions, responses, and dialogue to understand them? What is the speakerís level of language? Does the speaker or narrator explain things to the listener? Is there a voice over in the film? Is the point of view constructed toward making you think a certain way? Or does it allow for reader interpretation?

Tone--how writers and directors reveal attitudes or feelings through their use of elements. Writer uses techniques and modes of presentation such as humor and irony. Look at dialogue to find suggestions for the authorís attitude towards his/her characters. What parts of the work are funny? What kind of humor is being used? Satire or slapstick? Is there humor based on miscommunication or incongruity? What ironies do you find in the story? Is the irony connected to philosophies of marriage, family, society, politics, religion? How do the characters come across to you? If you donít like one, why not? What about them is giving you a negative impression?

Symbolism (visual and verbal)--the ways that writers use language to express complex ideas via imagery--the use of the senses to evoke ideas through mental picture, and figurative language--use of language that is connotative, that alludes to some other meaning than what it is. Examples are metaphors and similes, allusions and references. What objects or images in the works are symbolic and why? What meanings do they have? What types of imagery prevail and why? Imagery of imprisonment or of freedom. Are references made that you donít understand?