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Critiquing an Author's Use of Literary Elements

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Literature is a major form of entertainment, but a true analysis must carefully consider the use of literary elements to craft the story. This lesson outlines how to critique the literary elements of a piece of literature.

Literary Elements

Fictional works contain story elements, which are the features that make up the foundation of any story. Many of these elements, like plot, character and setting, are noted subconsciously by the reader without a second thought. However, whether or not the story is effective depends highly on those story elements.

When examining literary elements, you can form a critique, which is an assessment or evaluation of the piece. But how do you critique the author's use of literary elements? In order to do so, you need to look critically at how the author uses each element and how it contributes to the overall affect or purpose of the piece. This lesson gives some advice for critiquing how some literary elements are used.

Plot

The first story element to analyze is the plot, or the series of events in a story. The actions of characters, their responses, and any other incidents are all parts of the plot. Authors manipulate the plot for many reasons, including creating suspense, building tension, and emphasizing character differences. The type and order of events are often manipulated to create certain effects on the reader.

To critique the plot decide if the plot enhances the story and helps the author achieve his overall goal. This is known as author's purpose, which is the reason for writing. If the author's purpose was to entertain the reader with a romantic story, did it work? Did you feel involved in whether or not the couple fell in love? Did the love seem realistic? On the other hand, was there too much action to focus on the love aspect? Sometimes certain events of the plot can actually distract from the underlying purpose.

Overall, you need to closely examine the events in the story to see if the author has accomplished his goal. Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself when critiquing the use of plot.

  • Do the events add to the mood?
  • Do the events inhibit the author's goal from being reached?
  • Did the order of events seem odd or out of place?

Character

A second literary element to critique is the use of characters, which are the people, animals or objects on which the story centers. Often authors create characters to represent something in particular. For example, main characters are usually dynamic, which means they change or grow in some way. Dynamic characters make the reader invested in the story. On the other hand, static characters show only one trait and do not change. Usually, authors use these characters to show contrast from the main character.

To critique the use of characters, you need to correctly identify the dynamic and static characters. To do so, ask yourself which characters show only one or two traits. For instance, in Jack London's novel The Call of the Wild, the character of Hal is a cruel and arrogant sled dog owner. He shows only those traits and does not change, even in the face of certain death. If you can easily identify what a static character represents, like in this novel, then the author has done a nice job of using characters to make a point.

Once Hal meets his doom, we meet another character, John Thornton, who is Hal's opposite in every way. The multitude of traits Thornton possesses are emphasized after experiencing the static ones of Hal. However, if static characters don't' show clear traits or are unrealistic, then the story will seem flat and uninteresting. The same goes for if the main characters are not dynamic. London effectively used static and dynamic characters to draw upon the reader's frustrations and sympathies.

If you are still stuck on critiquing the author's use of characters, ask yourself one simple question:

  • Do you care about the characters?

Yes, it sounds simple, but it's a great indication of if the author has created meaningful characters. If you cry when one dies, or have tears of joy at the happy ending, then you truly care. Feeling empathy towards the characters means the author has done his job and used characters to accomplish whatever goal he had.

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