LITERARY TERMS & THEMATIC ELEMENTS
EILAND'S ONLINE ENGLISH CLASSES
Essays have different forms, depending on the class level, question asked, and the
method required for answering it. These approaches to writing an essay are commonly called
"MODES" and each has a particular strength and use. Some of the following terms are
also used to describe the way an author gets his or her message across to the reader (see
Literary Terms, Poetry Terms, Drama Terms).
Below are the most common modes you are likely to be asked to use, or are going to be helpful
to you when it is your decision as to which approach you wish to take.
- ABSTRACT: A summary of a document, speech or statement (see BRIEF, PRECIS,
- ALLEGORY: An extended symbol, sometimes a whole story, such as a tale of a
journey symbolizing the main character's entire life. For example, "A Worn Path"
by Eudora Welty is an allegory for Phoenix Jackson's life, as well as for the experience of
African Americans in the United States (see SYMBOLISM presentation).
- ANALOGY: The method of explaining a complex, unknown concept by comparing it to
a simpler or more well-known concept; for instance, in "My Love Is Like A Rare Wine,"
the author would use the adjectives that apply to the wine to describe his love, such as
rarity, good taste, intoxicating effect, and so on. A good analogy clarifies. A weak
analogy tends to skew the perception of the unfamiliar object by comparing it to another item
that is not really analogous...this is often a matter of opinion. For example, if America's
battle with drugs is a "War," then are drug criminals POW's? (see ALLEGORY).
- ANECDOTE: A paper that includes a brief story (Narrative) to explain or exemplify
a bigger point, such as a story about being late to school to illustrate the need for better
- ARGUMENT: Any essay in which an opinion or stance on an issue is taken. Argument
does not refer to disagreement per se; it is the development of a logical presentation of an
issue, whether one presents both sides or just the side he or she favors.
- BOOK REPORT: Usually a summary of plot, this is the simplest form of analysis of a
- BRIEF: A condensed outline of an argument, focusing on one side. A brief is
usually used to summarize the major points, with little detail. It can also refer to a
summary or outline of any work (see ABSTRACT, PRECIS, SUMMARY, SYNOPSIS).
- CAUSE AND EFFECT: The focus in this type of paper is to show the relationship
(causal relationship) between one EVENT and another, one event creating or contributing to
the existence of the other.
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- CLASSIFICATION & DIVISION: This type of paper breaks up a large, complex item into smaller,
usually mutually exclusive parts, for instance the stages of the life of an insect, types of
motorcycles, or positions on a baseball team.
- COMPARISON/CONTRAST: The focus in this type of paper is to show the differences and
similarities between one item and another. Comparison implies overall similarity, while
contrast implies overall difference.
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- CRITICAL ANALYSIS: This is a paper that requires discussion of a work from
various critical points of view, usually narrowly defined (see CRITICAL APPROACHES
presentation). The purpose is to look beyond the thematic analysis...this requires a
response from the reader (see THEMATIC APPROACHES, LITERARY ANALYSIS).
- DEDUCTION: This type of paper focuses on drawing logical conclusions based on predetermined criteria called premises and balancing them against the evidence within a work or an argument. Deductive essays are designed to illustrate the knowledge of terminology or specific subject, and they are analytical in focus and scope. They are not intended to be based on personal opinion.
- DEFINITION: This paper is an extended definition of a concept or thing, usually
with several examples and extensive detail.
- EXPLANATION: Simply enough, this is an informal description or process, often
addressed to the intended recipient.
- FICTION: A narrative that is not based on actual occurrences (see NARRATIVE, NON-FICTION).
- LITERARY ANALYSIS: This type of critical essay is common in transfer classes and focuses
on fiction, where simple plot retelling or reviewing of story is not enough. Literary
analysis usually focuses on a thematic approach to explain the relevance of a work. It is not
an evaluation as to whether one liked or disliked a work (see THEMATIC APPROACHES
presentation, BOOK REPORT, REVIEW).
- NARRATIVE: This is a story that is itself the main point. It is the main type of
fiction (see ANECDOTE, FICTION, NON-FICTION).
- NON-FICTION: A work that is not a narrative (i.e. a speech, a report or analysis)
or a story that is factual...as opposed to an untrue story (see FICTION, NARRATIVE).
- PRECIS: (pray-see) This is a short, concise explanation of the findings of a
scientific report, usually placed at the beginning of such reports, which are found in
scientific journals (see ABSTRACT, BRIEF, SUMMARY, SYNOPSIS).
- PROCESS: This type of essay shows the steps required to complete a task, from s
imple recipes to complex computer programs. The important factor here is organization and
attention to detail, as one's essay should allow a reader to successfully complete the task
described in the essay.
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- RESEARCH PAPER: This is a generalized term that refers to any paper that
requires the student to look up information, rather than merely giving one's own
unsupported opinion. Since the validity of the work is based on support, the identification
of those sources is critical (see QUOTING YOUR SOURCES
- REVIEW: This is a paper that is a critique of a work based more on personal
response than critical criteria, much like Siskel and Ebert's television show. In other
words, the paper focuses on how much a work is liked or disliked, rather than a detached
critical analysis (see LITERARY CRITICISM).
- SUMMARY: A comprehensive, condensed version of a story or any written work,
hitting on the major points of the work. It is often used as the conclusion of a work in
that it reiterates the main points. (see ABSTRACT, BRIEF, PRECIS, SYNOPSIS)
- SYNOPSIS: A shortened version of a longer work. It is longer than a summary or
a precis, usually glossing over minor details and events (see ABSTRACT, BRIEF, PRECIS,
- THEME: A work that follows a particular mode, such as the work types listed in
- THESIS: A work in which a specific point is supported with examples and detail.
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© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: March 30, 2000