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Analyzing Theme Development in a Text: Characters, Setting & Plot

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  • 0:01 Hammering a Theme
  • 0:52 Example: The Ugly Duckling
  • 2:17 How It All Fits Together
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Once you can identify the plot, setting, characters, and theme of a story, there's still more to consider. In this lesson, you'll get a sense of how all four of those terms function together to have an effect on the reader.

Hammering a Theme

So, you probably already know what a theme is; it's an important idea about life that the author is trying to express. And, you're also most likely familiar with characters, who are the people in the story. If I quizzed you about plot, you'd be ready to tell me that it's the sequence of events that happen in a story, and, likewise, if I wanted to know about the setting, you'd tell me that it's where and when a story takes place.

All that stuff is pretty rinky-dink. The real trick is figuring out how all those things fit together, particularly how the theme relates to characters, setting and plot. I think of it this way - if the theme is the nail, then characters, setting and plot are the hammer. How does that work? That's what I'm going to teach you in this lesson!

Example: The Ugly Duckling

Let's start by looking closely at a classic teenage tale of growing up and fitting in. I'm talking about that timeless story, The Ugly Duckling. For those of you who forgot to bring your picture books, I'll recap it for you. Mama Duck has a bunch of eggs, and they all hatch. Out pop a crew of sweet ducklings - all except for one gruesome little dude who gets aptly named the Ugly Duckling. The cute baby ducks have it easy, but T.U.D. gets bullied and picked on. He tries to fly off with a group of gorgeous swans, but his wings aren't strong enough, and he gets left behind.

Flash forward to a long, cold winter near a frozen pond. T.U.D. has grown up, and he's decided to end it all. He'll throw himself at a flock of beautiful swans and let them beat him up instead of spending another year alone. He's prepared to die for his ugliness, but the swans welcome him as one of their own, and what do you know? It turns out our boy was a beautiful swan all along! From this story, children everywhere learn an important life lesson - baby swans are super ugly. Well, that and the idea that we shouldn't judge people on appearances, because the ugliest person may mature into a beautiful swan, metaphorically speaking.

How It All Fits Together

Now that you have the theme, let's look at how characters, setting and plot all work together to support it. What you learn from this story will generally hold true for other stories as well. The characters in the story are the Ugly Duckling, the barnyard animals and the swans. It's important that the Ugly Duckling sees the swans early in the story because that establishes the idea that swans are beautiful and the exact opposite of the Ugly Duckling.

You see, if they're on the complete other end of the spectrum, that makes his transformation even more special. Everyone likes a story with a huge transformation, like rags to riches, because there's such a big change to move from one to the other. No one cares about a middle class kid who finds twenty bucks because there's no real change there.

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