Formal Properties of Literature

When I talk about the “formal properties” of literature, what am I talking about?

“Form” means “shape.” But writing doesn’t literally have a shape. Rather, when we talk about its shape or form, we’re emphasizing how it’s written rather than what it says. Think of a car: cars come in lots of shapes and sizes, but they all do more or less the same thing—get you from point A to point B. On the other hand, they emphasize different aspects of that basic task. Do you want speed? Dependability? Room for cargo? Safety? Flashy looks? Comfort? Head and leg room? All these elements and more can be combined in dozens of different ways to produce a different driving experience.

Similarly, all literature does similar things (tell a story, describe something) but in very different ways. Some people even say that there are only a few stories in the world, and the only difference is in how they’re told. When you describe the way something is written as opposed to the meaning or information it conveys, you’re talking about its formal properties.

Here’s a really simple approach to formal analysis: Ask yourself, what choice did the author have here? What other ways might this be said? Any time you can find another way to say the same thing, you’ve identified some sort of formal property—a description of how it is written.

Simply put, choice equals style. And style is a formal property of literature.

Please note, however, that the distinction between what and how is just a useful tool, not a hard-and-fast reality. Really they’re just different aspects of the same thing. After all, you can always find another way to say something. That means everything is a formal property, just as much as it is part of the content. It’s a matter of how you look at a piece of writing, what questions you ask about it, not a matter of the writing itself.

Consider this example. First, a passage from the King James translation of the book of Ecclesiastes:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Now, a different version of the same text, by the writer George Orwell:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.
(“Politics and the English Language”).

Are these really the “same”? The first is full of poetry (first-person point of view, concrete imagery, parallel structures, sonorous list, dramatic conclusion, etc.). The second is full of bureaucratic jargon. To what extent is this mere window dressing? To what extent does it change the meaning?

What if the “meaning” includes how it makes us feel?

The whole idea of literary analysis is that literature tries to make us feel, not just think or know or understand. The way it is written affects how we feel. And that means the way it is written is part of the meaning.

Here’s another example—two poems that in some way say the “same” thing, but the way they say it is radically different—so much so that the meaning itself changes.

Roses are red,
violets are blue,
sugar is sweet
and so are you.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

So, what are the things we look at in a piece of writing when we want to focus on how it’s written rather than on what it’s saying? There are many more than I can list here, so I’ll just discuss a few of the most important ones. It’ll be easier to keep track of them if we organize them somehow, and the simplest way that I can think of is in terms of size: from the individual word to the entire book or story. Here’s a list of some basic formal properties of a work of fiction, organized roughly according to the size of the element being analyzed. (Don’t get too hung up on the size issue; it’s just a handy way of listing these things.)

As time permits, I will add terms that relate specifically to other genres, such as plays and poetry. For now, I’ll just mention a few.

In drama, besides the things mentioned here, we can also look at staging, which includes many elements, such as:

In poetry most of the terms here apply, although the ones having to do with plot and narrative structure are less important because most modern poetry is not strictly about telling a story. At the same time, much attention is given to the sound of the language, and there is a host of terms that describe different aspects of that sound:

Small

Word choice (aka diction): Is it casual or formal? Colorful or plain? Blunt or subtle? Concrete or abstract? The types of words the author uses give the piece its characteristic tone, which influences how we experience the work, even when we’re not consciously aware of it. (See the Bible example above for an illustration.)

Sentence structure: Are the sentences short and choppy or long and flowing? Repetitive or varied? Simple, compound or complex? Standard order or rearranged in various ways? Consider how these sentences reverse the usual English word order (I have italicized and underlined parts that appear out of the order we would expect, at least in modern English):

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds

Standard word order would have the sentences read like this: “Let me not admit impediments to the marriage of true minds. Love which alters when it finds alteration is not love”—which is hideous, but it illustrates the point.

The Bible example also illustrates sentence structure. Even though both versions consist of one long sentence, the way the sentences are structured is quite different (simple one-word subjects with a string of parallel prepositional phrases as opposed to a series of complex subjects and objects).

Dialogue: Like any other piece of writing, the dialogue (what the characters say directly) will have its characteristic word choice and sentence structure, which will tell you a lot about the character: Is he or she down to earth? Well educated? Evasive? Funny?

Paragraph structure: Are the paragraphs short and choppy or long and flowing? Repetitive or varied? Are they all the same length or are some long and flowing, others short and choppy? Or long and choppy, short and flowing? How does the author use paragraphs to organize the story? As with words and sentences, the way the author structures paragraphs will have an impact on how we experience what we read, regardless of the content.

Metaphor and Imagery

When you are looking at the “small” elements (word, sentence and paragraph) you also have to look at another aspect of the writing that affects the way we experience it. There is a set of related concepts that are very useful in this area. Two of the most basic are metaphor and imagery.

Metaphor

Webster’s defines metaphor this way: “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly: figurative language.”

More simply, a metaphor is a statement that identifies one thing with another in order to emphasize certain features of the first.

For example: If I say “Seattle is a swamp,” I don’t mean that literally. Depending on the context, I might mean a couple of different things:

Three important points emerge from this example.

  1. Metaphor is figurative. By “figurative” I mean it’s not a literal comparison or identification, and as such, it appeals as much to your imagination as to your literal or analytical side. From an analytical standpoint you might think it’s silly to compare Seattle to a swamp, but with a good metaphor your imagination knows what is meant even if your analytical side doesn’t get it.
  2. In part because they are figurative, metaphors are always open to interpretation. Good ones typically suggest multiple meanings, which is one reason writers like them so much. This is one of the chief features that distinguishes literature from other types of writing. Where much writing—for example, legal and technical writing—strives to eliminate all but one possible interpretation to avoid confusion, literature thrives on ambiguity.

    This is not to say that it is imprecise. On the contrary, it can be very precise, often by being ambiguous. How? Simply because the things that literature is concerned with—human emotion, the conflicts and stresses we struggle with, the ways we give our lives meaning—are complex and contradictory. In order to describe them accurately it is necessary to convey multiple meanings simultaneously.

    An obvious example: some things are both tragic and hilarious simultaneously. A good metaphor can convey this and more in a single image, whereas analytical writing might require whole paragraphs or pages, and still not catch all the subtlety and nuance that the metaphor did.
  3. Metaphors are fun to play with: They appeal to your imagination, they’re open to interpretation, the comparisons can be really outrageous and surprising, and for other reasons. Once you’ve figured out that you can convey very precise but complex and even contradictory feelings and ideas through metaphor, you can start fooling around with them regardless of whether they convey anything true or meaningful about life. Often the pleasure of a piece of literature lies in the author’s inventiveness with metaphor and other games of language, not what it tells us about the real world or our lives. Like a car that’s flashy, or can go faster than you’ll ever need to go, it has an appeal that is distinct from its plain, practical purpose of telling a story or conveying information.

When we look at metaphor we’re paying attention to the content (what is the metaphor telling us) but we’re also paying attention to how that content is expressed.

For one thing, just using metaphor at all is a choice—and remember, any time the author could have done things differently, you’re looking at a formal property, a feature of how the work is written. On top of that, there’s the particular metaphor the author has chosen. Why that and not another? Again, a choice.

Think of it this way. You could always be literal about it rather than using metaphor. You could always say,

Or, you could use a different metaphor:

“Seattle is a maze” might give you the idea that “Seattle will suck you in and you’ll never get out,” but it will also suggest other meanings. So whenever you use metaphor you’re doing more than just conveying basic information—and it’s always a choice.

Here’s another way to think about it: Metaphor affects how we feel when we read; it has an aesthetic and emotional function as well as an informational one. These make metaphor part of the work’s formal properties.

(If you’re curious about the distinction between metaphor and simile, click here.)

Imagery

This term is broader than metaphor. I use it to refer to the various concrete, physical details a writer provides, as well as to the metaphors. Anything you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch is included.

A pattern of recurring images is one of the most common and effective techniques used in literature (and film) to create a desired effect—sadness, humor, fear, recognition, whatever. These images can be located in the actual physical world being described (a tree, a house, a nose, a dress) or they can be used metaphorically—that is, in a non-literal way (“friendship is a lighthouse” or “his eyes were like rocks”).

I’ve already talked about imagery in discussing metaphor, so here I just want to mention some points about non-metaphorical imagery. It may take you a while to notice these things. They are so obvious that they are hidden in plain sight. But the fact is that an author makes choices when describing something as simple as an article of clothing or a piece of furniture. For example, does the description include:

You can also ask about how the description is written. Does the description consist mostly of nouns or adjectives?

Then, of course, there’s the question of what the author chooses to describe:

There is an almost infinite number of choices here—and, as I said, choice equals style. These, too, are part of the formal properties of the work.

Medium

Once you start talking about elements larger than paragraphs you get into issues of structure and pattern. In the “medium” range of a good story or novel, there are a number of elements to think about, but I’m just going to talk about a couple.

Motif

This term has a number of definitions, but as I’ll be using it here, it means an element that repeats throughout the story, and in so doing carries additional significance beyond its literal meaning. Motifs can take different forms:

How motifs work: An image or other element that repeats acquires greater significance from the repetition. You recognize it when it pops up again and you associate it with what was happening the last time you saw it. The changes in the story—say, someone close to the main character has died—cast a new light on the repeated image, while seeing that image again also makes you see the changed situation differently, because it recalls the way things were earlier in the story. Thus, the death might take on added poignancy because the repeated image recalls a time when the main character’s friend was alive. The more such associations and contextual shifts the motif accumulates, the more powerful it can become.

Symbol

Images can do more than simply acquire significance from repetition and context. Often they are used to represent important ideas or values. These are abstractions that the image makes concrete, visible, tangible. When they’re used in this way they are referred to as symbols. Like metaphors, symbols are typically ambiguous, open to interpretation. Thus, a symbol may represent “death,” but what does that mean exactly? A good story will usually throw different lights on the question, so there’s no simple answer. Death might be a tragedy for one person, justice for another and relief or rest for a third. Symbols can appear once in a story or repeatedly; if they are repeated, they are motifs and symbols at the same time.

Symbols are a major element in how literature works. They bridge the concrete, everyday world of lived experience and the larger meanings the author makes of that experience. By associating abstract ideas with concrete images, they allow those deeper meanings to reach a part of our minds that lives in the physical world, which abstract ideas cannot reach. This means that they also appeal to a part of our minds—the unconscious part—that we aren’t necessarily aware of at all when we read, but that accounts for some of our most powerful reactions: why we get angry at one character and admire another, why we are frightened or excited or happy when we read. A good author can manipulate these reactions, and a big part of the way authors do this is through the use of symbolism. One important difference between merely reading a story and interpreting it is that interpretation makes us aware of this use of symbols.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of symbolism in literature, because it is so common and so powerful. It is, however, possible to over-interpret a particular piece of writing. Not every detail is a symbol. Don’t go off on a tangent, finding brilliant, creative interpretations of some image that doesn’t deserve it. Some things to look for when trying to decide if an image is a symbol include:

Pattern

Patterns—of imagery, word choice, sentence structure, etc.—characterize larger chunks of the text. The key point to remember here is that patterns are formed by repetition. (The term “motif” is just a specialized term for describing a pattern of repetition of a particular element.) If the author consistently uses long, complex sentences, that’s a pattern—and the pattern is a formal property of the work as a whole, not just a particular passage. Identifying patterns is a key task in describing and analyzing the formal properties of a text. Again, this is a matter of authorial choice.

All of the “small” elements I’ve described can be repeated to create a pattern:

Larger elements such as characters and events can repeat as well.

Big

At this level we get into stuff that looks, at first glance, much more like “what” than “how”—content, not form. I hope to show you that these, too, are actually formal elements, choices in how the story is told. But as I said at the beginning, “form” and “content,” or “how” and “what,” are really two aspects of the same thing. We are separating them here strictly for purposes of analysis and explanation.

Plot: This is the pattern or shape of the overall story, the series of events—in other words, “what happens.” The plot in traditional novels can usually be represented in simplified form as an uneven triangle: rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. (This is a simplified version of an idea that dates back to Aristotle).

Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement

Rising action: The part of the story that builds or leads up to the climax; the early development. Some people include an earlier section, called “exposition,” where the problem or situation is first explained.

Climax: The turning point or point of highest interest in a story. This is the point at which the most important part of the action (whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or all of the above) takes place and the final outcome becomes inevitable.

Falling action: Also called resolution, this term refers to what follows from the climax, bringing the story to its conclusion or denouement. Falling action can take up whole chapters, or a single paragraph, depending on the pace of the work as a whole.

Denouement: [day-noo-MAHNT, from a French word meaning “unraveling” or “untying (a knot).”] The conclusion of the story, in which the falling action is brought to a close and the outcome of the climax is revealed.

The first thing to notice about plot is that you can tell a story in a different order. So one formal property of any work of fiction is its structure, which has a number of elements, but one of the main ones is just that—the order in which events are told. For example, a story might start at the climax, the point of highest excitement, then go back and fill in what led up to the climax, and then show you what happens after the climax. Others begin with the wrapping up, or denouement, and tell everything as a flashback.

Of course there are even more complicated ways of doing things, limited only by your imagination. The 2000 movie Memento was told backwards, starting from the climax and working backwards to the very beginning. The 1963 novel Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar, is designed to be read in many different ways, not in one set order—a precursor of hypertext written 25 years before the Internet.

But even when a story that starts at the beginning goes straight through to the end, that’s a choice the author has made. It is a formal property of the work, and it has an effect on how we experience the story.

In short: The order in which the events are narrated is a choice made by the author and, as such, constitutes another formal property of the work.

Another formal element relating to plot is the question of how much time and attention is devoted to each of these elements. Traditional novels in the 19th century had a very long rising action, falling action, and denouement, relative to the climax. More contemporary works tend to have shorter rising action and sometimes no denouement at all. Such works are very compressed, with lots of attention focused on the climax. These choices are also formal properties of the work.

Even at the basic level of “what happened” there are choices, formal properties that an author can manipulate for esthetic purposes. This is one place where the distinction between “what” and “how” begins to break down. Even the choice of what story to tell is, in some sense, a formal question. Say an author wants to tell a story about a war. Does she write about a soldier who spends years on the front lines, or does she write about a child whose parents were killed by a bomb? These are also choices and, as such, formal properties of the work.

The key point here is that stories themselves are choices. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the author is “just telling what happened.” The author is making it up, and good authors put the pieces together deliberately.

Character: Character refers to the centers of action in a story—the elements around which the story revolves, whose energy and choices make it move. Usually these are people, though they can be other things too—animals, spirits, aliens, talking trees, whatever.

Like plot, character is an element of what the story is about that also has to do with how it is told. To begin with, while some characters might be considered essential to a story, many are not—the minor characters that flesh out the story and throw a different light on the main events. The choice to put such characters into a story—how many, what kind, how much to emphasize them, etc.—is a choice and so it’s a formal property of the work. The author can use such characters to emphasize hidden aspects of the story, to undercut what we might be inclined to think or feel if we just saw it from the main character’s perspective, to add another dimension to the story, and so on.

But in fact, even the main characters can be considered formal elements. Consider your basic murder mystery. The plot is relatively straightforward: someone is murdered, and someone else has to figure out who did it. But who is the main character? Usually it’s the person who solves the crime. But it could just as easily be a family member of the victim, an observer who isn’t directly involved, or the victim himself, speaking from beyond the grave. And in some murder mysteries the main character is the murderer.

What’s more, in any story there are many choices the author must make about the main character: age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, physical appearance, inner psychology, speech patterns, style of dress, and so on and on. Since stories are all about people, any change in such features means a change in the story itself.

Think about a typical mystery. Say the main character is the person who solves the mystery. Will it be a man or a woman? Young or old? White, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander...? Gay, straight, bisexual? Able-bodied or disabled? What will he or she be like as a person? Suppose it’s a married man with a family. He might be a proud, solitary, rather flinty character with really only one friend, not even close to his wife or children. These choices shape the story. What if instead he were a weak, frightened man who only acts as he does because he fears being punished? Again, this is a choice: a formal property of the work.

Technically, you could say that the basic sequence of events is the “same,” but the effect will be totally different as a result of such choices. This is a clear instance of where form and content, “how” and “what,” are simply two sides of the same thing. You have to consider both aspects if you want to fully understand how literature works.

Setting: where and when the story takes place. It can be a single room or an entire universe, a single day or a century.

To use the example of the mystery again, suppose it happens mostly in a single room. Part of the effect here might be to make us feel confined, closed in, perhaps the way the victim felt, maybe how the murderer feels, maybe how the person solving the mystery feels, maybe all three at once. Then at some point suppose the author opens the door, so to speak, and lets us out into the wider world. How would we react? Relief, like taking a breath of fresh air? Fear of the unknown? These choices affect how we experience the story and as such are yet more formal properties of the work.

To sum up

Every element described here represents a choice that will affect how we experience the story. And that’s why the “how” and the “what” are really two aspects of the same thing: after all, “how we experience the story” is the story, and that is determined just as much by how it’s written as by what it says.