Elements of literature a study book for students and teachers

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By Julius Kaboyo

This book is good for both secondary and University students. It contains most important literary elements of Poetry, Drama, and Fiction as the main genres of literature. The book is well researched from re-known authors and websites and the information adapted to suit your interest.


Literary Elements are the tools that the write uses to create a good work. These elements some of them belong to poetry, Novel and Drama. Below is a list of Literary Elements, or the parts of a story, poem or play. When you examine and analyze your literary work for class presentation, ask the following questions. They will help you find the literary elements of your story.

How to carefully read a poem
What kind of language is used in poetry?

  • A poet seeks the most meaningful words- “Diction”

  • Poets use sounds deliberately to enhance the message of the poem. Some of the sound devices employed by the poet include: rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance and consonace.

  • A poet uses words that are the most suggestive, expressive, and precise for the poet’s purpose. The words in poetry say more than they mean on the surface.

And what IS the poet’s purpose?

  • This is a hard question to answer because it differs from poet to poet.

  • Poetry communicates feelings and experiences rather than objective facts.

  • Poetry “says more and talks less” than other forms of expression that is to say it’s condensed.

  • It does this by using a number of language resources – “POETIC DEVICES/Figurateive language”

How then, do you respond to a poem?

  • You need to understand and react to its special language and structure. The way the poem is structured on the paper says a lot about the meaning. Some poems are in shapes or hearts, crosses, roads etc.

  • It is a good idea to read a poem several times and aloud at least once. In an examination, you can imagine how the poem would sound if read a loud because you are not supposed to speak.

  • It is often helpful to write a prose paraphrase of a poem to help you clarify and simplify the author’s ideas and language. Try to write in your own words what each stanza mean to you and finally the whole poem’s meaning in your own words.

1. Read the poem aloud at least once, following the punctuation for phrasing.

  • Commas, semicolons, periods, and other marks of punctuation tell you where to pause!

  • Poets do not expect the reader to pause at the end of each line! Some lines are end stopped and require pausing at the end and others are enjamble/run on which means the reader must continue reading until he/she meets the punctuation.

  • Some times the whole poem or stanza is made up of one sentence only having an end mark (fullstop, exclamation, question mark) at the end of the stanza or whole poem.

  • Punctuation also helps the reader to determine the tone of the poem. Most poems with short sentences have a serious tone, mood and attitude.

  1. Respond thoughtfully to key words and references.

  • Many words have both denotative and connotative meanings. Some poems are straight forward and the reader should not look for hidden meanings and this kind of language is what is called denotative(Dictionary meaning)

  • Connotative meaning carries emotional associations most especially with the readers’ knowledge of the world. There are often two levels of meanings that is the surface meaning and the deeper meaning which the reader must find out.

  1. Write a paraphrase of any lines that need clarification or simplification.

  • A paraphrase helps a reader respond more fully to the poem and to understand imagery and figurative language this part requires critical thinking and analysis to try to figure out the meaning.

  • Paraphrazing also puts inverted word order into normal word order. Some times the poet employs poetic license and uses words that are his own invention. These words should be understood in context and put in the readers’ own words.

  1. Your own response to the poem, write a statement clarifying its central idea or meaning.

  • Try to state this idea in one or two sentences. In this way you can use your own reactions as a means of exploring the poet’s message. If you have not got the general idea (subject matter), then it will be hard for you to understand the rest of the poem.


The “WHAT” of the poem

Subject Matter, Themes and Ideas

What is the poem generally about?

What are the major and minor ideas in the poem?

What is the poet’s attitude towards the message?

The “HOW” of the poem


How does the poet communicate his/her ideas (poetic devices used)


Diction-conotative and denotative, similes, metaphors, personification, irony, paradoxc, allusion, allegory etc


-stanzas, lineation, punctuation,


Rhyme, Rhythm, alliteration, Assonance, consonance, Onomatopaoia

• Know the text really well and answer the question properly. This requires knowledge of the plot of the story, major and minor characters; their motives, actions and feeling, the setting of the text; physical, historical, time of day (morning, afternoon, evening, night) and the narrative techniques employed by the author such as symbolism, allegory, allusion etc.
• Write a plan. This is a very important part of any essay that students most often don’t pay attention to. It is said, “If you don’t plan, you plan to fail” there are several ways of planning depending on the question. For instance if you want to write an essay on cause and effect, you can use the diagram below:




• Structure your essay using an introduction, several body paragraphs and a conclusion. An introduction could be generally about the novel or text briefly stating the main idea, setting and author

Example of an introduction of an extract from Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Novel Things Fall Apart was written by A Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. The novel is set in both the pre-colonial and colonial periods in Nigeria in the villages of Umuofia and Mbanta and tells the story of.......... The story also deals with / depicts / deals with, describes................. In this Novel, we are told about / learn about …………… as discussed below;

Example of concusion

To conclude, To sum up, In conclusion, this novel clearly reveals to us the............................................. We learn........................................................

• Use paragraphs with clear topic sentences to mark the progression of your argument. Remember ‘new paragraph = new point’. A good example of a clear topic sentence is: ‘The consequences of hatred are explored in Romeo and Juliet’ when………

• Use correct spelling and ensure you always spell book titles, characters’ names or authors’ names correctly; for example, ‘Thing Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe. When writing a title, every key word begins with a capital letter and the title is in inverted commas.
• Put direct quotations in inverted commas; for example: Othello defends Desdemona’s loyalty to Brabantio, swearing ‘my life upon her faith’. This is very important when quoting the exact words said by the character in a novel or text.
• Display your knowledge of the text by selecting relevant references to support your views. For example, if you choose to focus on the Romeo and Juliet’s fate of dying, you might emphasize scenes where they talk about death such as the prologue, the balcony scene, Romeo’s dream while in Mantua.
• Work out your own point of view on key elements such as characters, narrators, plot, etc. Demonstrate your own undertanding and opinions especially with question that require you to comment. Sometimes you will have to differ from the author if you can find evidance in the novel or text to support your side.
• Keep to topic. Use concession words to help you keep to the topic such as; also, inaddition, further more, besides, apart from etc.
• Acknowledge the difference between genres; for example, play, fiction or poetry. For example, when discussing a play , refer to ‘scenes’, ‘acts’, ‘stage directions’, etc.

NOTE: The skills above are very essential for a student who wants to get good grades in a literature paper. Failure to follow them makes a student get low grades as his/her work will lack originality and deep understanding of the text which the examiners always look for in your essay. Students should endevour to quote and if they cannot do it let them paraphrase correctly the information to illustrate their points.

Students should also be very carefull with names of characters as some names are quite similar and can easily be used interchangably by a student. For exampe ‘Jero’ in “The Trials of Brother Jero” by Wole Soyinka and ‘Jere’ in “Betrayal in the city” by Francis Imbuga.

Generally students should demonstate clear understanding of the genre they are handling and its content both stylistic and content as examinations are set basing on this. An examination question will either require a candidate to discuss the language and style of the author or meaning; theme, subject matter, relevance of the title, personal opinions about the text among others.

A poem differs from other genres of literature due to the following characteristics:

The structure of a poem refers to its external features which can help the reader to arrive at its meaning. These features are explained in details below:

Line: The line is essential to the understanding of poetry, marking an important visual difference from prose. Poetry is arranged into a series of units that do not necessarily match to sentences, but rather to a series of metrical feet. Generally, but not always, the line is printed as one single line on the page. If it occupies more than one line, the remaining part is usually indented to indicate that it is a continuation.
In traditional verse forms, the length of each line is determined by convention, but in modern poetry the poet has more liberty for choice. This kind of poem which does not follow the conventional rule of length of a line is called free verse. Here the poet uses poetic license to express his/her ideas.
Enjambment/ run on lines: This is the continuation of the idea therefore the line doest end but instead continues. For example;
Why should it be Africa,

where children starve amidst food,

people die evil deaths without cause,

war wipes out entire communities and commodities

and causes panic inside our intestines--

leading to miscarriages that discourage

our courage?
This is the first staza of a poem “Why Africa” by Kaboyo Julius. In this stanza the sentense ends with a question mark at the end of the stanza since it is the same idea the author is exploring in the whole stanza. If the first line had ended with a full stop, the second would have no meaning.

Enjamblement is sometimes done with the title, which in effect becomes the first line of the poem. In this case the line is not marked by end marks like fullstops, question marks, exclamation marks, but line are broken down so that the idea is understood after reading the corresponding line.
Stanza: A division of a poem created by arranging the lines into a unit, often repeated in the same pattern of meter and rhyme throughout the poem; a unit of poetic lines (a “paragraph” within the poem). The stanzas within a poem are separated by blank lines.

What offense have we committed?

We are born prematurely,

Wailing in agony, blind and mute, Stanza one

Hearing that which we can't comprehend,

Visualizing that which we cannot see,

Guilty of sins not committed.

Why then do we live?
We sprout amidst thorns,

Our bodies pierced to pieces;

Wander around the world, Stanza two

Yet find no nest in which to rest.

We hatch on the naked ground-

Vulnerable to heaven’s fires and sea breezes.

We try to get acclimatised,

But only suffer more.

Why then live?

We die violent deaths

And bequeath to our offspring our blood.

So the lineage continues: Stanza three

Murder, prostitution, defecating babies in dustbins-

And then pretentious repentance.

Since our birth is an ordeal ordained for us,

Why live?
Stanzas in modern poetry, such as free verse, often do not have lines that are all of the same length and meter, nor even the same number of lines in each stanza. Stanzas created by such irregular line groupings are often dictated by meaning, as in paragraphs of prose.
Stanzas are usually used to mark divisions of thought in a poem, and so they function somewhat as paragraphs do. For example in the above poem, “This Life” by Kaboyo Julius, the first stanza is about birth of a baby, the second stanza the problems people go through while growing and the last stanza is majorly about death for the whole unit-Life.
In some poems, each stanza has the same pattern; in others, each stanza is different. In some poems, when a new stanza begins, it means a new idea is being introduced. Some words can help us to know if it’s a new idea of the previous such as ‘but’, ‘then’, ‘and’ etc.

Some of the best known of the regular stanza patterns are the…

Couplet = a two line stanza

Triplet (Tercet) = a three line stanza

Quatrain = a four line stanza

Quintet = a five line stanza

Sestet (Sextet) = a six line stanza

Septet = a seven line stanza

Octave = an eight line stanza

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