How to interpret fiction

An introduction

Theme Setting Characters Plot Point of View
Style Tone Hints Vocabulary Sources


The theme is the core of meaning in the story. If we 'dive' under the surface of the story and find what we believe is the writer's real intention, what the story is really about, we are probably getting close to the theme. Whenever we are to interpret a piece of text, a novel, shortstory, a poem, etc., we must read it carefully, often several times, and then ask ourselves - What is this really about? What is the author's real intention with this text? Does the text have any general message, a 'deeper' meaning, indicating something 'beyond'? If you are not able to give a good answer to this, you shouldn't go ahead interpreting the text. If you do - you'll just end up with a bag full of empty words and phrases.
In Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' we meet two farm hands, George and Lenni, and follow them through their life and problems at a Californian ranch. Just writing a story about these two guys was obviously not Steinbeck's main idea. He was rather motivated by the daily life of mid-western farm hands in general to introduce one (or several) plot(s) to illuminate the theme.
What is 'Of Mice and Men' really about, then? What is the theme?
One suggestion might be that the story is really about some kind of dream. Perhaps it is really about the 'American Dream' - or - perhaps about the kind of dream that we all must have in order to survive, the kind of dream which never (or seldom) comes true??
Or - perhaps you find the theme of the story to be something else ?! The novel 'Animal Farm' by George Orwell may just be read as an exciting story about some animals taking over a farm. Period !
If you, however, start asking the questions mentioned above, you are trying to find the theme of the novel. This might give answers like:
Animal Farm is the description and criticism of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and how political ideals collapse, giving way to tyranny, written by a disillusioned Socialist.
Animal Farm is about revolutions in general + the broken promises, etc. mentioned above.
The theme of Animal Farm is to show how absolute power eventually corrupts people.
Etc. etc.

Obviously, the search for a decent theme will have to involve you in a process of abstraction. The theme is usually expected to be something very general which you should try to present as concentrated as possible. Do also remember that a theme should represent the entire piece of text, not only one (or a few) part(s) of it.
In your search for the theme you should try to make an approach through the main plot.
Does the plot account for a more unlimited and general understanding?
In Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' the plot is the growing conflict between the children on the abandoned island with the Third World War as a kind of background. It is easily understood that Golding wants to tell the reader someting more than just an exciting story about some kids on an island. Perhaps this story is really about more general and serious aspects of human life? Could it be a story about the dark sides of human minds, and the struggle between good and evil forces within every one of us?
If so, how is this revealed through the characters, the setting, the plot, etc. ?
This is the way to work! Try to suggest one or several themes, and check out whether it is supported by the other tools the writer has used.
Please, do remember one very important thing!!!
Every reader has the right to suggest and defend his/her own personal theme. There doesn't exist any key answer to the question about the theme. Of course it is convenient to apply the theme you might get, e.g. from your teacher, but be aware of the fact that your teacher does not have any kind of exclusive right to decide what the theme might be.
The really important thing is that you are able to find support for your suggestion throughout the story/poem. Don't worry, be happy! - and think about the process of interpretation as a kind of intellectual crossword. Then it will prove to be both funny, interesting and rewarding.


The setting of a narrative or a dramatic work is the general locale and the historical time, the place and time, in which it occurs.
In short: Where and When the story takes place
The general setting of Macbeth, for example, is medieval Scotland, and the setting for the scene in which Macbeth comes upon the witches is a blasted heath.
Changes of the setting throughout the story might be important. Try to find the relevance this might have to your interpretation.
In 'Lord of the Flies' the setting is dramatically changed as the children set fire to the vegetation of the island. This will obviously turn the paradise island with its abundance of food into a wasteland. Is this a warning from the author about what will happen with our earth if we are not able to defeat the dark, destructive forces within ourselves?


Characters are the invented, imaginary persons in a dramatic or narrative work, which are given human qualities and behaviour. What should you find out about the character(s)???

  1. Who do you think is (are) the central character(s) ?
  2. What are the relationships between the characters ?
  3. Do any of the characters function as a contrast to another ?
  4. Are the characters mainly static ones, or do they develop significantly?
    How are the characters revealed to us?
    How do we 'know' and 'understand' the characters?
    1. Through the reactions of other characters ?
    2. By their own speech ?
    3. By their actions ?
    4. By revelations of their own thoughts and feelings (through the author's statement, introspection, interior monologue, stream-of consciousness).
    5. Through description of externals (e.g. their physical appearance).
    6. Through symbolic elements like meaningful names and physical characteristics, setting, etc.)

The plot of a novel usually means the tensions which are the 'fuel' of the story. This might often involve some kind of conflict.
The chief character of a work is called the protagonist or hero, and if pitted against an important opponent, that character is called an antagonist. Hamlet is the protagonist, and King Claudius is the antagonist in Shakespeare's play, and the relation between them is one of conflict, thereby constituting a plot.
Many, but far from all, plots deal with a conflict.
In addition to the conflict between individuals, there may be the conflict of a protagonist against fate, or against the circumstances that stand between him and a goal he has set himself; and in some works, the conflict is between opposing desires or values in a character's own mind.
In 'Animal Farm' the plot might be seen as the conflict and tensions between the conservatives' desire to keep everything the way it is, and the radical animals' revolutionary activities aimed at creating a new and better world.
When discussing the main plot of Animal Farm, one should consider seven main turning-points:

  1. The Rebellion
  2. The Battle of the Cowshed
  3. The expulsion of Snowball
  4. The mock confessions and mock trials of Napoleon
  5. The Battle of the Windmill
  6. The betrayal of Boxer
  7. The party at the end
All these elements of the plot represent a 'closed circle', and indicate clearly that the animals do gradually return to the same poor life they had when Jones was the boss. (Ref. 'Theme')
Subplots are sequences of events that are more or less distinct from the main plot.
Plot curve is comparable to the Norwegian term 'spenningskurve', a diagram of the rising/falling pattern of the plot(s). Indicating plot curves will enable you to keep the main line(s) of development in focus throughout a long novel, as well as simplifying your analysis of structure.
Plot development :
  1. Exposition - an outline of characters and setting, preparing you for the conflict
  2. Complication - the building up of the conflict
  3. Climax - the highest point of tension, the event(s) where the fate of the characters and the outcome of the story are decided
  4. Denouement - the resolution, the playing-out of the action, finishing the story off by showing the consequences of the climax for the main characters.
Beware of the fact that you don't always find all the ingredients in the 'receipe' above. Some stories might for example start in medias res and are therefore without any exposition.

Point of View

In general - The position from which something is viewed (very often biased)

In fiction every narative has to have a narrator! Pretty obvious, isn't it?
Point of view refers to the way in which a narrator approaches his material (characters, action, setting, etc.) and his audience.
Whose eyes do we see the story through, whose minds do we enter, and whose thoughts and emotions do we share?
The writers choice of point of view is extremely important, as it to a large extent actually decides how the reader is to experience and comprehend the characters, action, etc.
These are the most used points of view:

  • First-person-central: The central character tells the story in the I-form
  • First-person-peripherial: One of the minor characters tells the story in the I-form
  • Third-person-limited: The author refers to all characters in the third person, and we enter the mind(s) of only one or a few of the characters
  • Third-person-omniscient: Here we enter the minds of all the important characters (in the 3rd person)
  • Third-person-objective: Here we are not allowed to enter into the minds of any of the characters; as in drama we see the characters and events from the outside and must infer thoughts and feelings on the basis of these facts alone
Useful questions you may ask to find the right point of view:
Who speaks? Is the narrator (a) an imaginary omniscient observer ? (third person narrator) or (b) a character in the story?? (first-person narrator)
If (a), does the narrator address the reader and comment on events (intrusive narrator) or does he observe impartially and without intruding his opinions? Does he just 'tell' the story or 'show it', letting events speak for themselves? (3rd pers. objective)
Does the narrator limit or focus knowledge through any particular character or characters (limited point of view)?

To avoid misunderstandings, Norwegian readers should compare the set of English points of view with the Norwegian one.


By the term 'style' in fiction, we mean the author's manner of using language. When concidering the 'style' we might check:

  • Vocabulary and idiom (common/idiosyncratic, dialect, tecnical terms, abstract/concrete words)
  • Parts of speech (a high relative frequency of:
    • nouns -> formal, archaic, solemn, stiff
    • verbs -> lively, filled with action
    • adjectives -> decorated, descriptive, emotional (the 'painting')
  • Sentence structure Does the author use a lot of subordinate clauses (hypotaxis -> often more difficult to read, formal, abstact, sophisticated, not widely used in speech), or does he avoid this, relying instead on the use of main clauses (parataxis -> easily comprehended, informal, concrete, widely used in common speech)?
  • Figures of speech (the use of similes, metaphors, paradox, irony, rhetorical questions, etc.)
You should also try to determine how consistently an author uses one kind of style throughout one book or short story.
Furthermore, it is very important to determine whether the style in any way echoes or illustrates the content (meaning/theme).


This term is used to indicate the author's emotional attitude as presented in the story. It may be ironic, romantic, mysterious, impassioned, serious, etc.
The tone can be determined by a consideration of the facts presented in the story and the details picked out to describe them, and even more importantly, by the style.


The most serious mistake that you can make is simply to paraphrase the plot of the text, which means that you are just 'retelling' the story in your own words. This is never what you are expected to do at upper secondary/university level.
What we are interested in is interpretation and discussion of different aspects of the work. If you are supposed to discuss the theme of the story, your analysis must focus on the aspects of the story which obviously have to do about that. You should then refer to the text (and what happens there) to examplify and prove your arguments.
It is really undesirable to suggest any pattern for the interpretation of literature! If you, however, feel a bit inexperienced, you might try to discuss the story you are supposed to interpret in this way:

  1. Introduction - A short presentation of the author, etc
  2. Presentation of the story. A kind of brief 'surface-level' outline. The theme should be presented.
  3. Setting
  4. Plot
  5. Point of View + Character
  6. Style + Tone
  7. Theme
  8. Conclusion - Personal and/or general reflections as to the relevance of the theme


  • 'Abstract' means separated from what is real or concrete. A 'flower' is concrete, but 'beauty' is abstract.
  • 'Abstraction' is here the visionary idea(s), the idea of a quality apart from the 'surface-level' of the text.
  • Revealing; making known of something secret or hidden
  • The examination of a character's own thoughts and feelings.
Interior monologue
  • An attempt to convey in words the process of consciousness or thought (as a means of narrating a story).
  • See stream of consciousness!
Stream-of consciousness
  • A common narrative technique in the modern novel: the attempt to convey all the contents of a character's mind - memory, sense perceptions, feelings, intuitions, thoughts, - in relation to the stream of experience as it passes by, often at random.
    The term stream of consciousness was coined by William James in Principles of Psychology (1890). Some critics distinguish between 'stream of consciousness' and 'interior monologue', preferring to use the latter to refer to the strict attempt to reproduce the flow of consciousness in a character's mind, without intervention by the author, and perhaps even without grammar or logical development.
    In practice the terms are usually interchangeable!
    To simplify we might just say that we 'dive' into a character's mind and read his/her thoughts and feelings in the same order and in the same manner as they appear to the character. Why not test it on yourself?
    Look out of the window and write down all your thoughts and feelings just as they appear to you. You must agree that it might be quite a lot of strange impulses, etc. that cross your mind. The written result you finally find on your paper is a stream of consciousness. It's really as simple as that!
Narrator The person who is telling the story. Comprehend
  • Understand fully
  • Having infinite knowledge. Being able to be everywhere and inside all the characters.
  • Way of thinking or behaving that is peculiar to a person
  • Phrase or sentence whose meaning is not obvious through knowledge to the individual meanings of the constituent words, but must be learnt as a whole (e.g. 'it's raining cats and dogs').
    An example of how meaningless it can be to translate idioms directly from one language to another might be a translation of a Norwegian idiom into English:
    'It's time for a breath in the hill'
    In Norway this would mean that the speaker wanted a pause, a rest, or something similar.
    In England this translation would have been without meaning.
  • Very old. Used only for special purposes. Especially in poetry you might occationally run into archaic terms and expressions.
Subordinate clauses
  • Norwegian = 'Leddsetninger'
    Clauses which are syntactical parts of other clauses.
    'He had to walk home because the bus didn't arrive'
    The green part is the subordinate clause (which actually has the function of an adverb in the main clause because it explains the cause why 'he had to walk home')
    Legal language and the language of politicians does usually have lots of subordinate clauses. The former because legal language will be designed to cover all eventualities of a certain matter, while evil tounges claim that the heavy use of subordinate clauses by politicians is to avoid direct answers to tricky questions.
Hypotaxis Parataxis
  • The opposite of hypotaxis. The different clauses are equally independent and not parts of other clauses.
    James decided to stay. Jane wanted to leave.
    James decided to stay and Jane wanted to leave.
    Both the green and the brown clauses are main clauses. They do not depend on each other, and they do not have any kind of function within another clause.
  • When one thing is said to be like another. Similes always contain the words 'like' or 'as'.
    Contrary to a 'metaphor' a simile keeps the comparison explicit (clear / obvious). If you just take away the 'like' or 'as' you very often have a metaphor.
    'The soldier was like a lion in battle' (simile) is turned into a metaphor like this: 'The soldier was a lion in battle'
Metaphors Paradox
  • An apparantly self-contradictory statement, or one which seems in conflict with all logic and opinion.
    'Death, thou shalt die' (Donne - 'Death, Be Not Proud')
  • 'April is the cruellest month' (T.S. Eliot - 'The Waste Land')
  • Saying one thing while you mean another (often the opposite!).
Rhetorical questions
  • A question asked not for the sake of enquiry, but for emphasis. The writer or speaker expects his/her audience to be totally convinced about the appropriate reply, - or there is no need for any reply.

  • Erik Kielland-Lund, The University of Oslo
  • 'A Dictionary of Literary Terms' by Martin Gray, York Handbooks
  • 'A Glossary of Literary Terms' by M.H. Abrams, Rhineheart English Pamphlets
  • 'Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English' by Hornby, Oxford

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