The Art of Literary Writing...

Literary features...

...are the things you will spend a great deal of time discussing throughout your Literature course. They are, ultimately, the components that define the books you read as literary texts, as opposed to - say - ones that are purely transactional or informational: a letter to your head teacher, or the instructional manual for a new phone, for example.

Part 2, as you will hopefully know very well, is very much the section of the course in which your sensitivity to the ART of literary works needs to be brought into sharp focus. As you read, study and then find yourself being assessed on the texts studied for this section, you will spend significant time exploring the means through which literary writers use specific tools in order to generate meaning.

Here, for example, is the English literary critic, Terry Eagleton, talking about the opening to a poem written by an author who frequently makes an appearance in Part 2: John Keats:

'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'.

From Ode to Autumn, by John Keats

What strikes one about the line is the sheer opulence of its sound-texture. It is as scrupulously orchestrated as a symphonic chord, full of rustling 's' sounds and murmuring 'ms'. Everything is sibilant and mellifluous, with scarcely any hard of sharp consonants. The 'fs' of 'fruitfulness' might seem an exception, but is is softened by the 'r' which is pronounced along with it. There is a rich tapestry of sound here, full of parallelisms and subtle variations. The 'm' of 'mists' is reflected in the 'm' of 'mellow', the 'f' of 'of' is echoed in the 'f' of 'fruitfulness', the 's' sounds of 'mists' is picked up again in the 'ness' of 'fruitfulness', while the 'e' of 'Season', the 'i' of 'mists' and the 'e' of 'mellow' form an intricate pattern of sameness and difference.

The sheer packedness of the line also arrests the eye. It manages to cram in as many syllables as it can without it becoming cloying or sickly sweet. This sensuous richness is meant to evoke the ripeness of autumn, so the language seems to become part of what it speaks of.

From How to Read Literature, Terry Eagleton (Yale, 2013), p. 26

Notice here how his first paragraph is very much exploratory and analytical in its feel - making sense of the way the music of the words operates in a technical capacity. Then, in the second paragraph, he goes on to make some comment on its effect or impact - where skills of interpretation​ come to the fore. These 'thinking' strands:

  • Comprehension/understanding
  • Analysis
  • Interpretation

Are the ones you should get used to implementing all the way through the course, but with reference to Part 2 particularly. Indeed, it is when you stop thinking that there is some kind of underlying meaning, some kind of ultimate message, or one main 'point' that you need to try and decode or find, that you will start operating in the right way. Literary analysis is, in many ways, simply an exploration of the way in which a text invites you to think or to feel. The more rigorous you go about this process, and the more self-aware and sensitive you become about how texts work their magic, then the more likely you are to do well.

Key 'Literary Features'

There are of course hundreds, if not thousands of terms used to describe the way in which literary writing works, and you will undoubtedly learn a considerable number of them as you study your texts. Below is a list of the more important, or certainly ones that you will be likely to use most often. Clicking on the icon in the right hand column will provide you with an example and/or explanation of what they mean.

Term Example Explanation

"In the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo"

The way/s in which literary texts make use of the sounds of particular words to reinforce meaning. More detailed terms might include rhyme, alliteration, assonance or euphony

"Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

The writer's choice of words; the meaning of vocabulary being used. It is also worth thing about the kind of words e.g. nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs.


"I came; I saw; I conquered"

The length and structure of sentences.

"The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead blue and malignantly agleam They looked unnaturally white."

The way writers make use of diction that appeals specifically to our senses. This does not mean only visual; other types of imagery include olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch) and auditory (hearing)

"As my cab pulled off FDR drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of the lane and sloped in fast right across our bows. We banked, and hit a deep welt or grapple ridge in the road: to the sound of a rifle-shot the cab roof ducked down and smacked me on the core of my head..."

A way of describing one particular thing in terms of something else, without making the comparison explicit. The most exciting metaphors are often when two, usually completely disconnected objects or ideas, are brought together.

"I suck an inch off my pint and light up a snout. There's maybe three of four early birds apart from me, and the place don't look its best. Chilly, whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space. There's a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, full of specks. Makes you think of a church."

The attitude the speaker or writer expresses towards his or her subject e.g. formal, informal, comic, serious, sarcastic, reflective, bitter.

Shakespeare makes frequent use of recurring motifs; think of the motif of blood in Macbeth, references to 'nothing' in King Lear or music in many of the later plays.

A recurring idea, symbol, object of image within a text. Motifs often contribute towards the expression of a theme or idea.

The ideas explored by particular texts are of course almost infinite. Attitudes towards love, nature, war, duty and fate are examples of the more common areas of interest in literary works.

A particular idea or concept that the work explores. Themes can be presented explicitly or implicitly. N.B it is important not to confuse theme with subject. The subject of a poem might be love, but its theme is the nature of unrequited love. War may be a subject, but a theme the inhumanity of war.

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