How to Get More from Your Reading, Part IV: Examine the Elements

Fiction and nonfiction have different elements that make up the unique content of the text.  If you know what they are, these elements can be helpful tools for analysis. Some of these elements apply to both fiction and nonfiction, especially nonfiction works that tell a story, such as a biography.

Plot: The classic plot contains components such as exposition, climax, dénouement, and conclusion.  Knowing the parts of the story helps you understand to what purpose certain information is being provided.  It also helps you see the narrative arc of the story.

Character: There are many different character types.  Two useful categories are flat and round, to describe those characters that are limited to few personality traits or are multifaceted and richly developed.  There are also static and dynamic characters, based on whether or not they change throughout the story.  Characters can be foils for each other.  There are also different types of heroes, including the currently popular anti-hero.  Instead of using the term “hero” for the main characters, it’s more specific to discuss the protagonists and antagonists.  Methods of characterization apply to both fiction and nonfiction, as nonfiction characters can be portrayed in many different lights.  Think about a biography that is slanderous and might portray its subject in a negative light, or an autobiography where the author extols too much of his or own virtues instead of allowing for some weaknesses.

Setting:  The story’s location and point in time can play a large role in the development of the characters and storyline.  Using my previous example, Gone with the Wind, The Civil War creates conditions that send the characters in new directions and challenge them to grow.  The setting can also set the tone for the story.  Different settings can change the interpretations of the events of the story.  What might be an acceptable practice in the middle of the jungle might not work so well in a story set in an urban landscape.

Point of View: The narrator can employ different points of view, which might be from a first, second (very rare), or third person perspective.  Narrators can be unreliable or unreliable.  They can be objective or biased.  They might have an omniscient perspective or be limited to the single view of one character, who may or may not play a role in the story being told.

Symbolism: Authors employ symbols to hold extra meanings within the story.  Some symbols are common and easy to spot, such as a Confederate Flag symbolizing the South.  But others are more obscure, such as a plant representing a woman’s emotional state (several famous short stories have employed this particular symbol, which is why I chose it).  Christian symbols can be fun to spot, especially renewals that might represent Christ’s resurrection or sacrifices that represent Jesus’ death.   

Theme: I touched on theme in the last post.  In sum, a theme is an overarching statement made either directly or indirectly that can be summarized in a sentence and universally applied, outside the context of that story.  There are minor and major themes woven throughout stories, and they often contain very value laden messages, worthy of analysis.

Style: Every story and work of nonfiction has its own unique style.  Tone contributes to the overall style of a story.  Also, word choice and sentence structure are key aspects.  Often writers will use a consistent style in most of their works, but there will be unique elements to each specific story.

Organization: Nonfiction relies on a wider variety of organizational techniques to present the information.  There are chapters and sub-chapters.  The book might employ graphics, such as charts or diagrams.  Nonfiction books often include more front and back matter, resources that compliment the text.  But fiction books can also uniquely organize their material, with scene shifts in the middle of a chapter or stories divided into different volumes or “books.”

Information: Another element, key to nonfiction, is the different types and methods of delivering information.  How accurate is the information? Is it timely? What kinds of arguments does the author use? Do they rely more on logic?  Or, the does the author use more emotionally resonant appeals? Another way of creating arguments is to rely on other authorities to make points.  Is the information detailed, or is it an overview?

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