Writing Perfect Literary Analysis: Outline, Essay Structure

1 Ask Questions

When you’re assigned a literary essay in class, your teacher will often provide you with a list of writing prompts. Lucky
you! Now all you have to do is choose one. Do yourself a favor and pick a topic that interests you.

You’ll have a
much better (not to mention easier) time if you start off with something you enjoy thinking about. If you are asked
to come up with a topic by yourself, though, you might start to feel a little panicked.

2
Collect Evidence

Once you know what question you want to answer, it’s time to scour the book for things that will help you answer the question.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to say yet—right now you’re just collecting ideas and material and letting
it all percolate.

Here’s a brief summary of the various parts that compose each and every work of literature. These are the elements that you
will analyze in your essay, and which you will offer as evidence to support your arguments.

4
Develop and Organize Arguments

When you’ve examined all the evidence you’ve collected and know how you want to answer the question, it’s time to write your thesis statement. A thesis is a claim about a work of literature that needs to be supported by evidence and arguments.

  • Arguable.

    The Great Gatsby describes New York society in the 1920s” isn’t a thesis—it’s a fact.

  • Provable through textual evidence.

    Hamlet is a confusing but ultimately very well-written play” is a weak thesis because it offers the writer’s personal opinion about the book. Yes, it’s arguable, but it’s not a claim that can be proved or supported with examples taken from the play itself.

  • Surprising.

    “Both George and Lenny change a great deal in Of Mice and Men” is a weak thesis because it’s obvious. A really strong thesis will argue for a reading of the text that is not immediately apparent.

  • Specific.

    “Dr. Frankenstein’s monster tells us a lot about the human condition” is almost a really great thesis statement, but it’s still too vague. What does the writer mean by “a lot”? How does the monster tell us so much about the human condition?

The reasons and examples that support your thesis will form the middle paragraphs of your essay. Since you can’t really
write your thesis statement until you know how you’ll structure your argument, you’ll probably end up working on
steps 3 and 4 at the same time.

There’s no single method of argumentation that will work in every context. One essay prompt might ask you to compare
and contrast two characters, while another asks you to trace an image through a given work of literature.

These questions
require different kinds of answers and therefore different kinds of arguments. Below, we’ll discuss three common
kinds of essay prompts and some strategies for constructing a solid, well-argued case.

Once you’ve written your introduction, you’ll take the arguments you developed in step 4 and turn them into your body
paragraphs. The organization of this middle section of your essay will largely be determined by the argumentative
strategy you use, but no matter how you arrange your thoughts, your body paragraphs need to do the following:

  • Begin with a strong topic sentence.

    Topic sentences are like signs on a highway: they tell the reader where
    they are and where they’re going. A good topic sentence not only alerts readers to what issue will be discussed
    in the following paragraph but also gives them a sense of what argument will be made about that issue. “Rumor
    and gossip play an important role in
    The Crucible” isn’t a strong topic sentence because it doesn’t tell us very much. “The community’s constant gossiping creates
    an environment that allows false accusations to flourish” is a much stronger topic sentence— it not only tells
    us what the paragraph will discuss (gossip) but how the paragraph will discuss the topic (by showing how gossip
    creates a set of conditions that leads to the play’s climactic action).

  • Fully and completely develop a single thought.

    Don’t skip around in your paragraph or try to stuff in too
    much material. Body paragraphs are like bricks: each individual one needs to be strong and sturdy or the entire
    structure will collapse. Make sure you have really proven your point before moving on to the next one.

  • Use transitions effectively.

    Good literary essay writers know that each paragraph must be clearly and strongly
    linked to the material around it. Think of each paragraph as a response to the one that precedes it. Use transition
    words and phrases such as however, similarly, on the contrary, therefore, and furthermore to indicate what kind
    of response you’re making.

5
Write the Introduction

Your introduction sets up the entire essay. It’s where you present your topic and articulate the particular issues and
questions you’ll be addressing. It’s also where you, as the writer, introduce yourself to your readers.

An introduction can vary in length depending on the overall length of the essay, but in a traditional five-paragraph
essay it should be no longer than one paragraph. However long it is, your introduction needs to:

  • Provide any necessary context.

    Your introduction should situate the reader and let him or her know what to expect. What book are you discussing? Which characters? What topic will you be addressing?

  • Answer the “So what?” question.

    Why is this topic important, and why is your particular position on the topic
    noteworthy? Ideally, your introduction should pique the reader’s interest by suggesting how your argument is
    surprising or otherwise counterintuitive. Literary essays make unexpected connections and reveal less-than-obvious
    truths.

  • Present your thesis.

    This usually happens at or very near the end of your introduction.

  • Indicate the shape of the essay to come.

    Your reader should finish reading your introduction with a good
    sense of the scope of your essay as well as the path you’ll take toward proving your thesis. You don’t need to
    spell out every step, but you do need to suggest the organizational pattern you’ll be using.

Your introduction should not:

  • Be vague.

    Beware of the two killer words in literary analysis: interesting and important. Of course the work,
    question, or example is interesting and important—that’s why you’re writing about it!

  • Open with any grandiose assertions.

    Many student readers think that beginning their essays with a flamboyant
    statement such as, “Since the dawn of time, writers have been fascinated with the topic of free will,” makes
    them sound important and commanding. You know what? It actually sounds pretty amateurish.

  • Wildly praise the work.

    Another typical mistake student writers make is extolling the work or author. Your
    teacher doesn’t need to be told that “Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest writer in the English language.” You
    can mention a work’s reputation in passing—by referring to
    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “Mark Twain’s enduring classic,” for example—but don’t make a point
    of bringing it up unless that reputation is key to your argument.

  • Go off-topic.

    Keep your introduction streamlined and to the point. Don’t feel the need to throw in all kinds
    of bells and whistles in order to impress your reader—just get to the point as quickly as you can, without skimping
    on any of the required steps.

Just as you used the introduction to ground your readers in the topic before providing your thesis, you’ll use the conclusion
to quickly summarize the specifics learned thus far and then hint at the broader implications of your topic. A good
conclusion will:

  • Do more than simply restate the thesis.

    If your thesis argued that
    The Catcher in the Rye can be read as a Christian allegory, don’t simply end your essay by saying, “And that is why
    The Catcher in the Rye can be read as a Christian allegory.” If you’ve constructed your arguments well, this
    kind of statement will just be redundant.

  • Synthesize the arguments, not summarize them.

    Similarly, don’t repeat the details of your body paragraphs
    in your conclusion. The reader has already read your essay, and chances are it’s not so long that they’ve forgotten
    all your points by now.

  • Revisit the “So what?” question.

    In your introduction, you made a case for why your topic and position are
    important. You should close your essay with the same sort of gesture. What do your readers know now that they
    didn’t know before? How will that knowledge help them better appreciate or understand the work overall?

  • Move from the specific to the general.

    Your essay has most likely treated a very specific element of the
    work—a single character, a small set of images, or a particular passage. In your conclusion, try to show how
    this narrow discussion has wider implications for the work overall. If your essay on
    To Kill a Mockingbird focused on the character of Boo Radley, for example, you might want to include a bit
    in your conclusion about how he fits into the novel’s larger message about childhood, innocence, or family life.

  • Stay relevant.

    Your conclusion should suggest new directions of thought, but it shouldn’t be treated as an
    opportunity to pad your essay with all the extra, interesting ideas you came up with during your brainstorming
    sessions but couldn’t fit into the essay proper. Don’t attempt to stuff in unrelated queries or too many abstract
    thoughts.

  • Avoid making overblown closing statements.

    A conclusion should open up your highly specific, focused discussion,
    but it should do so without drawing a sweeping lesson about life or human nature. Making such observations may
    be part of the point of reading, but it’s almost always a mistake in essays, where these observations tend to
    sound overly dramatic or simply silly.

Do more than simply restate the thesis.

Why is this topic important, and why is your particular position on the topic
noteworthy? Ideally, your introduction should pique the reader’s interest by suggesting how your argument is
surprising or otherwise counterintuitive. Literary essays make unexpected connections and reveal less-than-obvious
truths.

Your reader should finish reading your introduction with a good
sense of the scope of your essay as well as the path you’ll take toward proving your thesis. You don’t need to
spell out every step, but you do need to suggest the organizational pattern you’ll be using.

If your thesis argued that
The Catcher in the Rye can be read as a Christian allegory, don’t simply end your essay by saying, “And that is why
The Catcher in the Rye can be read as a Christian allegory.

Similarly, don’t repeat the details of your body paragraphs
in your conclusion. The reader has already read your essay, and chances are it’s not so long that they’ve forgotten
all your points by now.

In your introduction, you made a case for why your topic and position are
important. You should close your essay with the same sort of gesture. What do your readers know now that they
didn’t know before? How will that knowledge help them better appreciate or understand the work overall?

Your essay has most likely treated a very specific element of the
work—a single character, a small set of images, or a particular passage. In your conclusion, try to show how
this narrow discussion has wider implications for the work overall.

If your essay on
To Kill a Mockingbird focused on the character of Boo Radley, for example, you might want to include a bit
in your conclusion about how he fits into the novel’s larger message about childhood, innocence, or family life.

Avoid making overblown closing statements.

A conclusion should open up your highly specific, focused discussion,
but it should do so without drawing a sweeping lesson about life or human nature. Making such observations may
be part of the point of reading, but it’s almost always a mistake in essays, where these observations tend to
sound overly dramatic or simply silly.

Bad questions

“What happens to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?”

“What do the other characters in Julius Caesar think about Caesar?”

“How does Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter remind me of my sister?”

Be vague.

Beware of the two killer words in literary analysis: interesting and important. Of course the work,
question, or example is interesting and important—that’s why you’re writing about it!

Fully and completely develop a single thought.

Is there a phrase that the main character uses constantly or an image that repeats
throughout the book? If you can figure out how that pattern weaves through the work and what the significance of
that pattern is, you’ve almost got your entire essay mapped out.

Great works of literature are complex; great literary essays recognize
and explain those complexities. Maybe the title
Happy Days totally disagrees with the book’s subject matter (hungry orphans dying in the woods).

Maybe the main
character acts one way around his family and a completely different way around his friends and associates. If you
can find a way to explain a work’s contradictory elements, you’ve got the seeds of a great essay.

At this point, you don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to say about your topic; you just need a place to begin your
exploration. You can help direct your reading and brainstorming by formulating your topic as a question, which you’ll
then try to answer in your essay.

The best questions invite critical debates and discussions, not just a rehashing
of the summary. Remember, you’re looking for something you can prove or argue based on evidence you find in the text.

Finally, remember to keep the scope of your question in mind: is this a topic you can adequately address within the
word or page limit you’ve been given? Conversely, is this a topic big enough to fill the required length?

The Great Gatsby describes New York society in the 1920s” isn’t a thesis—it’s a fact.

Hamlet is a confusing but ultimately very well-written play” is a weak thesis because it offers the writer’s personal opinion about the book. Yes, it’s arguable, but it’s not a claim that can be proved or supported with examples taken from the play itself.

Your introduction should situate the reader and let him or her know what to expect. What book are you discussing? Which characters? What topic will you be addressing?

Many student readers think that beginning their essays with a flamboyant
statement such as, “Since the dawn of time, writers have been fascinated with the topic of free will,” makes
them sound important and commanding. You know what? It actually sounds pretty amateurish.

Topic sentences are like signs on a highway: they tell the reader where
they are and where they’re going. A good topic sentence not only alerts readers to what issue will be discussed
in the following paragraph but also gives them a sense of what argument will be made about that issue.

“Rumor
and gossip play an important role in
The Crucible” isn’t a strong topic sentence because it doesn’t tell us very much. “The community’s constant gossiping creates
an environment that allows false accusations to flourish” is a much stronger topic sentence— it not only tells
us what the paragraph will discuss (gossip) but how the paragraph will discuss the topic (by showing how gossip
creates a set of conditions that leads to the play’s climactic action).

Don’t skip around in your paragraph or try to stuff in too
much material. Body paragraphs are like bricks: each individual one needs to be strong and sturdy or the entire
structure will collapse. Make sure you have really proven your point before moving on to the next one.

Your conclusion should suggest new directions of thought, but it shouldn’t be treated as an
opportunity to pad your essay with all the extra, interesting ideas you came up with during your brainstorming
sessions but couldn’t fit into the essay proper. Don’t attempt to stuff in unrelated queries or too many abstract
thoughts.

Character

The people who act and are acted upon in a literary work. The main character of a work is known as the
protagonist

Collect evidence

Collect facts, expressions, other evidence to make a reasonable conclusion in your analysis. You should have enough material to be persuasive in your conclusions. Make the notes while reading. You should also learn some information about the author, it will help you to understand his intentions and thoughts better.

Compare and contrast

Compare and contrast the characters of Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Chances are you’ve written this kind of essay before. In an academic literary context, you’ll organize your arguments
the same way you would in any other class. You can either go
subject by subject or
point by point.

In the former, you’ll discuss one character first and then the second. In the latter, you’ll
choose several traits (attitude toward life, social status, images and metaphors associated with the character) and
devote a paragraph to each.

You may want to use a mix of these two approaches—for example, you may want to spend
a paragraph apiece broadly sketching Huck’s and Jim’s personalities before transitioning into a paragraph or two
that describes a few key points of comparison.

This can be a highly effective strategy if you want to make a counterintuitive
argument—that, despite seeming to be totally different, the two objects being compared are actually similar in a
very important way (or vice versa).

Conclusion

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Conflict

The central tension in the work. In most cases, the protagonist wants something, while opposing forces (
antagonists
) hinder the protagonist’s progress.

Debate

Is the society depicted in 1984 good for its citizens?

In this kind of essay, you’re being asked to debate a moral, ethical, or aesthetic issue regarding the work. You might
be asked to judge a character or group of characters (
Is Caesar responsible for his own demise?

) or the work itself (
IsJane Eyrea feminist novel?). For this kind of essay, there are two important points to keep in mind. First, don’t simply
base your arguments on your personal feelings and reactions.

Every literary essay expects you to read and analyze
the work, so search for evidence in the text. What do characters in
1984 have to say about the government of Oceania?

What images does Orwell use that might give you a hint about
his attitude toward the government? As in any debate, you also need to make sure that you define all the necessary
terms before you begin to argue your case.

Second, remember that strong literary essays make contrary and surprising arguments. Try to think outside the box. In
the
1984 example above, it seems like the obvious answer would be no, the totalitarian society depicted in Orwell’s
novel is
not good for its citizens.

But can you think of any arguments for the opposite side? Even if your final assertion
is that the novel depicts a cruel, repressive, and therefore harmful society, acknowledging and responding to the
counterargument will strengthen your overall case.

Typical Structure of Literary Analysis Essay

A literary analysis essay is a type of essay which includes an argumentative analysis of a piece of literature. In this kind of essay, the author examines the book, novel, play, etc. analyzing the idea, plot, characters, tone, writing style, devices which the writer uses to narrate his story.

This assignment encourages the student to think about the questions “how this book was written?”, “why this novel was created by the author?”. Explaining in your essay all author’s choices and points of view, you can answer all these questions.

There is no single typical set of paragraphs which your literary analysis essay should contain. It depends on the type of the writing piece, a field in which it is written and requirements of your teacher.

Here you can find the common list of points which you should talk about in your essay despite the type of literature:

In some cases, it is important to include interpretation of denotation or images if they are important for the understanding of the main ideas.

As any other assignment, this type of task requires some preparations, careful meticulous work. However, having a good plan you can make the process easier and more fun. Find here the common plan consisting of five steps, follow them and make your writing assignment excellent.

A typical literary analysis essay always has an introduction, body part, conclusion.

1) The introduction is the first paragraph in your literary analysis. You should start it creatively in order to gain your reader’s interest. It is a short part but it has to catch an attention of your audience, use all your writing talent. You can read about how to become a talented and successful essay writer here.

2) Body Part. Right after introduction, move on to the main part of your writing — body paragraphs which will represent your ideas about analyzed book, novel, poem; explanation, statements, evidence that can support your statements.

3) Conclusion. It is the last but not the least part of your analysis, make it perfect. You should show here in which way your literary analysis connected to the book as a whole, how it reflects the plot, ideas of the author.

As touched upon earlier, a literary analysis is, in essence, an essay that delves deeper into a work of literature; examining and evaluating the various plot twists, character traits, events and setting in hopes of gaining a better insight into the message the author intended to deliver.

The method used to create a textual analysis will differ only slightly, depending on the type of work being analyzed. For the most part, you will break down the literary work into various components in order to develop a better understanding of the work in its entirety.

An analysis paper, for example, that was based on a piece of poetry might require you to explore various types of imagery used in the poem, or even the relationship between the content and the form of the piece used.

A play, on the other hand, may require you to analyze and explain the connection between the subplot and the primary plot, or it may even make sense for you to delve into specific character traits of the main characters and how their flaws might be revealed at various intervals in the play.

Analyzing a novel or short story is a little more interesting given the fact that you have much more to work with. You may, for example, identify and explore a particular theme (like a character’s inability to form strong bonds after experiencing a tragic childhood) and outline how the author depicts that theme based on the point of view or direction that the story goes.

By way of definition, a literary analysis is:

The practice or process or closely examining sections of literary writing to uncover how they relate to or affect the work as a whole. Structured literary analysis focuses predominately on the theme, plot, setting, character(s) and several other literary devices used by the author to create the true meaning of their work.

A literary or critical analysis follows the same format as most other essays, given that it requires an introduction, a thesis statement, the body and lastly an analysis conclusion.

Use the following guideline to help you better structure your analysis essay:

INTRODUCTION: Start by forming the context of your critique.

  • Remember to include the full name of the author, the title of the piece that you will be analyzing and any supplementary information that will be helpful to strengthen your thesis and following thematic statements.
  • Clearly deliver your thematic statement or statements. A thematic statement is the overall concept or main idea as it relates to life that the author is attempting to deliver. (This is the ‘why’)
  • End your introduction with your thesis statement. Your thesis statement should include the who, what, why and Remember to include parts of the question that you intend to answer.

In summation, the introduction should include:

WHO: The full name of the author
WHAT: The response to the question
HOW: The manner in which meaning is shown
WHY: How the meaning relates to life or what the true message that author wants to deliver is

THE BODY: (A minimum of two paragraphs, more is better)

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