Tone and Theme: the Keys to Literary Analysis

All books say something. Even bad books say something. In order to be well-read and able to evaluate a book, you need to know what the author is trying to say to you through his work. What is the main theme of the story? What is its tone? How does it end, and what does the sequence of events say about the writer’s view of the world? All books say something, but good books tell us how to become wiser, better people. They change our view on something, or help us see things in a clearer light. They help us appreciate the beauty in the world and stand firm against evil.

So how can you tell what an author is trying to say? Most books follow a simple pattern: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement/Resolution. A book’s plot can be drawn as a rough mountain, with Climax being the highest point in the peak, and the Introduction and Denouement as the lowest points. The Rising Action leads us gradually from the ground to the peak of the mountain, and the Falling Action gradually leads us back down to the ground. So reading a book is sort of like taking a virtual hike through unfamiliar terrain. We don’t know where we are going or how the author is going to take us there. All we can be sure of is that we are going someplace. Where we are going on our “hike” is the theme, or what the author is trying to convey to his reader.

Authors scatter clues all throughout the book. A good way to predict how a story will end is to look at the major themes and overall tone of the book. If you attune your mind to be conscious of these components of storytelling, you will be well on your way to uncovering the author’s meaning. Tone varies greatly in books. It is basically the outlook the author takes on as a narrator or main character. Some books have a sunny, happy-go-lucky outlook on the world as viewed through the window of the book, while others are dark and moody, and some seem almost depressing.

Discover what sort of tone the author is using, and then combine this with the knowledge of how the book ends. Does the good guy win, or does the villain have the final say? Is the main character back to where he started before—although probably more mature and wiser from his journey—or is he in a totally different place mentally and physically? How has he changed for better or worse emotionally and psychologically? Sometimes the author’s message is delivered through irony, where what he is actually saying is quite the opposite of what the book appears to say. Many dystopian books are dark with depressing endings, but they are really warnings of what happens to society when all the honor and integrity is stripped away. They can provide a fair amount of hope for the good can happen when people step up and take responsibility.

The layers of meaning in any one story can vary throughout time, and even from person to person. This is especially easy to see using movie remakes as an example. An older movie about monsters or dinosaurs running wild can be a metaphor for the global unrest and dangerous ideologies prevalent in its era. However, if it is remade or spawns a sequel only a few years later, the threat could stand for something totally different: the rise of terrorism or the changing markets. This is why understand the blank space – the culture and society from which the book came – is so important. Good authors write to provide enjoyment to readers and to convey a message to those who can look beneath the surface.

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