Guidelines for interpreting narrative

The principal goal of a formal analysis

It is important to stress from the outset that your goal in producing a convincing and meaningful analysis of a narrative should never be merely to compile a dry list of the formal devices which that narrative employs. Instead, your aim should always be to elucidate the intricate relationship between what a narrative says and does on the one hand and how it says and does those things on the other.

If you observe, for instance, that the narrative you are studying uses a very basic language, consists only of flat characters and contains a small selection of events that repeat time and time again, you should not simply dismiss that narrative as badly written or boring, but consider if and how these formal features relate to the main themes of the narrative. If, for instance, the story is about the monotony of modern life, these narrative techniques are likely to be entirely appropriate and highly effective in conveying a sense of what it feels like to live a routine, unchanging and uneventful life. If, by contrast, the story is about the joys and variety of human existence, such a style would instantly set up a tension between form and content which could just as powerfully play just as effectively play a part in generating the narrative’s overall effect (making, for instance, its apparent claim that life is wondrous seem comic, deluded, tragic or something that must be striven for in the face of the nullifying obstacles society places in the way of individual human fulfilment).

Stage 1: gather your tools before you start to read

Before you start to read and interpret the narrative you intend to analyse, you should ensure you a) are able to take notes, and b) have access to a dictionary. How and where you take those notes is up to you – in the margins of the text you are reading or in a separate notebook or computer document. What is important is that you do take notes as you read. If you have already been set the topic you are to write about, you should highlight relevant passages and note down preliminary ideas and questions as you go along. Otherwise, if you are reading the narrative for the first time without a specific purpose, try to keep a record of those features of both form and content that catch your attention. Are there, for instances, any passages in the book that take you off your guard, by showing (say) a character in an entirely new light or moving the plot in an entirely unexpected direction? Such moments of ‘surprise’ or ‘recognition’ – often referred to as ‘twists’ – are, after all, often held to be key elements in any successful narrative.

As with any other work of literature you are analysing, you should also make sure you have access to a good dictionary at all times. It is important you look up any words you do not know and that you check their provenance (i.e. their history and the kinds of contexts in which they tend to be used. Are they, for instance, common words or unusual, formal or informal, foreign or native to English, and so on?).

Stage 2: establish an overarching preliminary response to the narrative

Once you have finished reading the narrative, you should look back over the notes you have made under way and try to sum them up in a short overall assessment of the narrative. Above all, you should identify

  1. what you in general ‘take away’ from the narrative (have you learnt something, for instance? has it encouraged you to feel differently about a particular kind of person, place or topic?)
  2. what you think are its main themes
  3. what you think about the style in which it is written (what, for instance, do you think are the main characteristics of that style? Do you find it effective in conveying the narrative’s main themes and shaping our response to them?)

This overview will then provide you with a basis upon which you can proceed to build a more detailed and nuanced analysis. By working through the individual elements that comprise the narrative (which is the next stage in this process), you can consider how each of them contributes to the overall work the narrative carries out. You can also test out the validity of some of your preliminary assumptions about and responses to the narrative by seeing if they are really supported by the results of a more careful analysis.

Stage 3: analyse each of the formal elements the narrative employs and assess the contribution they make to its overall effect

You have now reached the stage where you should break the narrative down into its component elements so that you can see how its individual parts work. As you do this, it is vital you remember that the purpose of doing this is to enable you to see how those individual features contribute to the narrative as a whole. To state, for instance, that a particular narrative has an extradiegetic narrator who makes frequent use of repetition and flashforwards means next to nothing in and of itself; this observation only becomes valuable when you can show how these featuresmake it possible for the narrative to carry out the work and achieve the effects you wish to ascribe to it.

As we saw in the unit Elements of narrative, the principal components of narrative are plotauthors, narrators and focalizers; audiencecharactersstoryworld; and ideology. We recommend you read the sections on each of those elements in turn and assess how each of them contributes to the particular narrative you are analysing. The list below contains shortcuts to some of the specific exercises you can find in those sections:


Exercises: Structures of time in individual sentences and passages

Exercises: Time in plot and story (order)

Exercises: Time in plot and story (duration)

Exercises: Time in plot and story (frequency)

Exercises: Reading plot for its genre

Exercises: Reading plots in the light of grand narratives

Authors, narrators and focalizers

Exercises: Interrogating the narrator




Exercises: Looking into space

Stage 4: organise your ideas and observations into a coherent argument

By this stage of the process, you should have a pretty good understanding both of how the narrative works and of what you think it says. Your task now is to present your findings and demonstrate the intimate relationship between what the narrative says and does and how it says and does it in the form of a coherent argument.

Just as all narratives are different, however, so too will the topics you cover and the order in which you structure your discussion of those topics differ from your analysis of one narrative to the next. The challenge, then, is to identify a selection of key claims you wish to make about the narrative and to gather together all the themes and formal features of that narrative which support that claim. (Everybody has their own way of organising their materials in this way: some make lists, for instance, whereas others use mind maps).

Let us take as an example, then, John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’. A reasonable structure for an analysis of this story might go as follows:

Principal claim

This story illustrates how empty and illusory is the lifestyle and values of the American Dream.

Support this claim by: first, identifying the aspects of the American Dream that appear in the story (such as the desire for wealth, the importance of working hard and being self-sufficient, and so on); and then illustrating how those aspects are presented from a critical viewpoint in the story. This second part will involve considering how the story employs plot, narration, focalization, creation of a storyworld, and so on to make available a way of viewing the main protagonist’s American Dream lifestyle that is more critical than the one he himself holds and, indeed, shows his own perspective to be entirely delusional.


No matter how you structure your discussion, it is at any rate vital that you adhere to the following list of dos and don’ts:

  • DO interpret everything you observe and make sure that whatever you say about a narrative’s use of individual formal devices is relevant for your understanding of the narrative as a whole
  • DO NOT divide your essay up into two parts, one that considers form and the other that considers content. Form and content should ALWAYS be treated together (as in the example above)
  • DO NOT discuss the narrative’s uses of plot, narration, characterisation and so on entirely separately from one another. Your essay should be divided by claim and topic (as in the example above) and you should discuss all the formal properties that contribute to the topic you are addressing together (again, as in the example above)

Stage 5: evaluate your analysis of the narrative as a whole by close reading a selection of short passages from it

The best way of testing the validity of the claims you wish to make about the narrative as a whole is to test them on a selection of short passages from that narrative. If, for instance, you claim that the whole narrative is focalized from just one character’s perspective or that it does not contain any flashbacks, but then you come across a particular passage that does one of these two things (or both), then evidently you will have to adapt your general claims and your overall interpretation.

Selecting one or more short passages for a particularly close analysis, meanwhile, can also help you see how the individual elements of a narrative work in combination to produce the effects that they do.

We would recommend you choose at least two passages to analyse in detail: one which is evidently important for the particular aspect of the narrative you intend to discuss; and one chosen entirely at random.

Stage 6: checklist

Before you hand in your analysis, you should ensure it provides a direct answer to all four of these questions:

  • What is the narrative saying or doing?
  • How is it saying or doing it?
  • Why is it saying or doing it? (i.e. what is the narrative’s purpose or agenda?)
  • Why is it saying or doing it in this way? (i.e. why has the author chosen to present their material in narrative form, and why have they chosen to present it in the form of this narrative in particular?)


This completes the narrative module on LiCOR. You may return either to the front page of this narrative or to the LiCOR homepage.