Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lit Annotation Guide

Literature Annotation Guide Version 1.5

Content Summary

After doing a first reading for each Act of the 'Crucible' or each short story (as the case may be), write a short one paragraph summary answering the following questions:

1) What is happening? (Plot)
2) To whom is it happening? Who is carrying out the actions? (Characters and actions)
3) Why is it happening? (Motivations of characters, causes of events and actions, general cause/effect analysis)
4) When is it happening? (Setting/time)
5) Where is it happening? (Setting)
6) How is it happening? (Mood/atmosphere, what emotions are being evoked? What is the tone of the writing?)

An example of content summary (for a scene in Waiting for Godot) can be found on pg. 174 of “Mastering Practical Criticism” (see the bibliography). You can update your content annotation as you do the critical annotation later.

Annotation for Critical Analysis

After establishing a basic understanding of the text, do an in-depth annotation for the different literary elements, namely: characterization, plot, point-of-view, setting, mood/tone/atmosphere, symbolism and theme. You may have to go through the text 4-5 times to fully annotate it for these different aspects. Also note that they are interlinked and may affect each other.

In essence, you have to detect what is being conveyed about the characters, setting, mood and so on, and how this is being conveyed. Scribble down the what and the how next to the relevant portions. Be as thorough as possible and let nothing escape your careful reading. Draw reasonable inferences from every aspect of the text, linking how to what in every possible way. Act on the reasonable assumption that nothing in a literary work is there by accident. Be a perfectionist and be obsessed.

Think of your text like a wet towel from which you must squeeze out every iota of meaning.

There are four reasons for such painstaking work:

1) Deepen your insight into the text
2) Improve your critical reading skills for all literary texts
3) Improve your literature exam grades by preparing for the different types of analytical questions
4) Improve your grades for the unseen assessment through the improvement of your critical reading skills

Application of Dialectics

While scrutinizing the text carefully, ask yourself the following questions from the list below. Questions relevant specifically to drama are marked with (D). Questions relevant specifically to short stories are marked with (SS).

When answering these questions, be open to contradictions, i.e. when formulating an initial thesis to any of the questions, be aware of the elements that support it, and the evidence that support its antithesis (this could be its logical opposite, or its opposite in a less rigorous sense). For instance, if you are considering whether Macbeth is ‘an evil man’ (we assume you have a reasonable definition for that), you should also consider the antithesis: ‘Macbeth is not an evil man”. Through your balanced evaluation of the available evidence, you might well arrive at a synthesis that includes the original statements and yet transcends their narrowness: “Macbeth is by nature a good person, but he was corrupted by external forces and his own ambition.”

To sum up:

Initial thesis: Macbeth is an evil man
Antithesis: Macbeth is not an evil man
Synthesis—your new thesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but external forces and his own ambition corrupted him.

Incidentally, this movement of informal dialectic is an excellent way to continually refine your thesis during essay re-drafting. It is also a good way to further develop the implied thesis in an assessment question (e.g. “Macbeth is a tragic hero”. Discuss). For instance, you can continue refining your latest synthesis:

Thesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but external forces and his own ambition corrupted him.
Antithesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but external forces and his ambition did not corrupt him
Synthesis: Macbeth is by nature a good person, but he chooses to allow external forces and his own ambition to corrupt him.

Remember that the more features/portions of the text you could account for, the more convincing your interpretation will be. Therefore, it is worthwhile to continually refine your thesis till it could best account for all the relevant evidence. Do remember that even with an excellent thesis (created after rounds of syntheses), a good analytical essay should still consider its antithesis—if only to refute it soundly.

Note: Questions involving conflict are relevant to every literary element and are included below. As Heraclitius puts it, “War is the father of all [literary] things”.

For convenience sake, gender-inclusive language has not been consistently used.


Conflict and Opposition

1) What are the central conflicts/tensions/dilemmas/inconsistencies/problems that the characters face? Are these conflicts within them (internal conflict of values/thoughts/actions/beliefs) or between them (relationship)? Or is the individual in conflict with external forces (e.g. society, culture, ideologies, technology, environment, time, fate, God and so on)?
2) Are the characters mainly reacting to their inner/outer circumstances and to each other, or are they more proactive in shaping circumstances and outcomes? How much freedom and power do the characters have in shaping their destinies?
3) Do some characters have obviously more power than others? How does this affect their relationship? Does the dominance pattern shift over time, and if so, how?

Character Traits

Infer the character’s gender, age, social class, level of education, intelligence, mood (its different variations), personality (choleric, sanguine, melancholic, detached/stoical, introverted, extroverted etc.), motivations, abilities and character (in the sense of moral grounding, values and personal creed--what he believes) by asking the following questions:


1) What does a character say about himself? What do other characters say about him? What does the narrator say about the characters? How far can we trust such disclosure?
2) What does the content of the dialogue reveal about the characters?
3) How does the character say what he says? What does the character’s dialect, accent, tone and diction (choice of words—formal, neutral, informal) reveal about him?
4) Which characters tend to dominate their respective dialogues? What does that reveal about the different characters?


1) What does the characters’ actions and responses reveal? Are there any inconsistencies between actions and words, or between different actions?
2) What do the movements, stillness and visual elements orchestrated by the stage directions reveal about the characters? (D)

Descriptions and Setting (more relevant to short stories)

1) What does the imagery, figurative language and other descriptive devices reveal about the characters?

Character Evaluation

1) Which are the main characters and which are the minor ones? Who are the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) (this will gel with your conflict annotations above)?
2) Who are the ancillary characters (note especially the foil and the choric figure/commentator) and what functions do they serve?
3) Are the characters round or flat, dynamic or static?
4) Does your impression of the character changes over time? Is it a gradual revelation of what is already there, or a true dynamic change in the character?
5) Are any characters stereotypical? What functions do they serve?
6) Are the characters conceived realistically or non-realistically—do the elements of characterization tend towards realistic or nonrealistic drama? (D)

Personal Response

1) How far do you find the characters and their actions to be plausible and believable? Why?
2) Which characters evoke your sympathy and which your antipathy? Why is that so? How does your emotional reactions affect your evaluation of the central conflicts?


Conflict and Resolution

1) Are the conflicts/complications in the story (include those you have analyzed above) resolved? If so, how?
2) At the end, are the characters successful or unsuccessful, satisfied or dissatisfied, changed or unchanged, enlightened or still ignorant?
3) Do you find the resolution(s) satisfactory? Why, or why not?


1) Can you identify the conventional structure of exposition, complication, climax and resolution in the story/drama?
2) If the story/drama has departed significantly from the conventional structure, how has it done so and what purpose do these departures serve?
3) What variations in chronological order appear in the story (e.g. gaps in time sequence, flashbacks or selective recollection)? What effects do these serve?
4) Is the structure of the plot more typical of realistic or nonrealistic drama? Why? Consider also the effects produced by this choice of structure (D).
5) Note the tragic and comic conventions present and consider their effects. If the dramatist has deliberately subverted these conventions (especially for modern drama), consider the reasons and effects (D).

Cause and Effect

1) Are the events of the storyline natural consequences of, or at least consistent with the characteristics, thoughts, motivations and actions of the characters? (A character-driven storyline)
2) Which characters or which relationships/conflict between characters play pivotal roles in initiating or causing the events (especially the main events) of the work? Analyze in detail these causes and effects.
3) Or do chance and random coincidence play the most significant role in shaping events?
4) Or do social forces and/or culture determine the storyline?
5) Or is it fate, God or some inscrutable force (divine or not)?
6) Do you find the story plausible and believable? Why, or why not?

Plot Devices

1) Is the plot predictable? Why is this so? (For instance, is the predictability achieved through skilful foreshadowing, a linear/stereotypical plot, or because you are aware of the conventions of the genre (tragic heroes usually do not live past the end of the story)?)
2) Or does the plot rely on suspense and surprise? How does it play with the reader’s expectations (e.g. through the use of red herrings) and does the storyline upset these expectations in the end?
3) To what degree do you find the storyline interesting? Why so? As conflict typically arouses curiosity, doubt, tension and generate interest, could you link the interest value of the story/drama to its conflicts?

Point of View (usually relevant only to short stories)

First Person Point of View

1) What situation prompts the narrator to tell the story?
2) What does the narrator reveals about himself either through direct disclosure, the reactions of other characters or the story itself?
3) What does the narrator’s style reveal about him (formal, informal, intimate etc.)?
4) Are actions, speeches, explanations and descriptions made fully or sparsely, and what effects are produced? Do readers feel close or distant to the characters?
5) Does the narrator change and is he aware of it?
6) To what degree is the narrator involved in the action? Is he someone who makes things happen proactively, or who mainly reacts passively? Or is he merely only an observer and witness (a minor participant)?
7) How self-conscious is the narrator—does he make himself the center of admiration, humor or even opprobrium?
8) What attitude does the narrator show towards the other characters? Does he clearly seek to evoke sympathy or antipathy towards the other characters?
9) How reliable is the narrator? How much authority does he possess and how deeply does he understand the situation? Does the narrator seem to have anything to hide? Is the story used for self-justification or exoneration? Can he be trusted with his criticism or description of other characters?
10) What effect does an unreliable narrator have on the story?

Second Person Point of View

1) What special situation prompts the narrator to address the reader/audience directly? What effect does this have on the story/drama?
2) All the questions above.

Third Person Point of View

1) Is the narrator third person objective/dramatic (who only reports what can be seen or heard, e.g. dialogue), third person omniscient (reports relevant thoughts and experiences in addition to objective occurrences) or limited third person/limited omniscient (who mainly focuses on the thoughts and feelings of a major character)?
2) How does this choice of narration affect the story?
3) All the questions above in First Person Point of View.


Nature of Setting

As a general guide, pay careful attention to the following:

-Weather, seasons, times of the day
-Details about nature and general flora/fauna
-Sounds, music and silence
-Details of houses and buildings
-Descriptions of objects
-Presence and nature of numinous/supernatural forces
-Political conditions
-Socio-cultural conditions
-Economic conditions
-Level of technology and civilization
-Historical setting

1) Are the settings mainly indoor or outdoor or a combination of both?
2) Is the setting used as a framing or enclosing device?
3) Do you have a strong sense of the time, place and socio-cultural context in which the story or drama is set? If the setting is prominent, at which point(s) has the author made it clear and how is it achieved? If not, why do you think this is so and what are the effects produced?
4) Is the setting realistic and does it establish increased plausibility through verisimilitude?
5) Does the setting change significantly in the story? And what effects does this produce?

Setting and Other Literary Elements

1) How does the setting contribute to our understanding of the characters? Does the environment exert an obvious influence (positive or negative) on the characters? Does the way the characters respond to the setting or its changes indicate their strengths and weaknesses?
2) What is the relation of the setting with the plot? (You can link this to the questions on Conflict).
3) Are there any special objects that are clearly important to the characterization, plot or theme of the story/drama?
4) What does the stage props, sets, lighting, makeup and costumes reveal about the characters? (D)

Conflict (this will enrich your analysis for the questions above)

1) How does the setting contribute to the central conflicts of the story/drama?
2) What are the contradictory elements within the environment itself (e.g. social, cultural, natural, divine, historical forces in conflict)? Or are the characters in conflict with the environment (social or natural)? And how do these conflicts contribute to the plot, theme, atmosphere and characterization?


To detect the tone of the story/drama, it is best to read selected portions, or even the whole work, out loud. Think about how and in what tone of voice you would use, and you would have a good clue about the emotions evoked (the mood/atmosphere) by the work at that point. Also be aware of the denotative and connotative meanings of words.

1) What feelings do the different portions of the works convey?
2) How are these feelings conveyed? Through dialogue, rhythm, diction, style, descriptions, setting, actions etc.? Always be sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of literary works, as literature is never only about colorless ideas, actions or beings.
3) If the story is comic, how are the comic effects produced? What elements of plot, characterization, setting and so on are particularly comic?
4) If the story is tragic and poignant, how are these effects produced? What elements of plot, characterization, setting and so on are particularly saddening and poignant? (Do not mix this up with the tragic conventions of drama).
5) How strongly did you respond to the story? What elements in the story elicit your concern, indignation, fearfulness, anguish, amusement or admiration?


Sometimes the author can use an ironic tone or create clearly ironic situations for various purposes. Do note that ironic elements are very common in literature. Be aware of the following types of irony and analyze their effects on mood, characterization, setting, plot and so on:

-Verbal irony (e.g. understatement, hyperbole, double entendre)
- Situational irony (in addition to conventional situational irony, note its two special variants: cosmic irony and dramatic irony)
-Socratic irony (seldom used in literary works)


1) Are any actions or setting or character symbolic in some way? If so, symbolic of what (ideas, conditions, feelings etc.)?
2) Are the symbol(s) cultural?
3) Are the symbol(s) contextual? If so, how systematic and consistent is the pattern of symbolism?
4) What effect is produced by the symbolism of the story or drama? Does it powerfully evoke its themes, or does it enrich/impact its plot, characterization and setting in any way?
5) How do the different symbol(s) relate to each other to affect the story/drama?
6) What are the allusions in the works? Do they relate to religious scriptures, myths, other literary works, art in general or other things?
7) How clearly does the work point towards an allegorical reading? How consistently and pervasively does the story embody the allegory—the entire work or just one part?


1) What are the main ideas evoked by the story or drama? Could they be categorized in any way (e.g. ethical, religious, political, economic, psychological issues)? What are the implicit persuasive points of the story (the implied ‘theses’ of the work, to put it crudely)?

Remember that simplistic one-word themes are insufficient. Do not merely write that a particular story is about ‘love’; instead, write that it is about how ‘love can be irresistible and irrational—stirring up the best and worst in human beings.’ Have a concrete claim that could be supported by a cogent and interesting argument.

2) How are the main ideas of the work evoked? Through dialogue, comments by the narrator, symbolism, setting, plot or perhaps the work as a whole? Are there any suggestive pattern or repetition of scenes, images, words and so on that help evoke this theme?
3) How balanced is the story/drama in presenting these ideas? If a particular idea is strongly presented, are there any qualifications or antitheses presented explicitly or implicitly?
4) How convincing is the story/drama in making its implied persuasive point (if any)? Did the work convey its ideas powerfully and memorably?
5) How universal are the ideas? Do they apply to humanity in general (as in a comment about the human condition) or to a more restricted group?
6) How timeless are the ideas? Or are they outdated conceptions with no relevance to the world today?


Jacobs, Roberts and Edgar V. Roberts. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Barnet, Sylvan. William E. Cain. A Short Guide to Writing about Literature. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

Miller, Lindy. Practical Criticism. New York: Palgrave, 2001.