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Fundamentals of Literature: A Study Guide

Although there are many ways of studying literature in the homeschool, all of them should, to some extent, involve discussions of fundamental concepts such as conflict, character, theme, structure, point of view, and moral tone.  Whether one uses a textbook, reads novels, stories, and poems, or focuses on writing, understanding these fundamentals is essential to understanding literature.

The most thorough discussion of these topics that I have found for teens is in the Bob Jones University Press (BJUP)  literature texts, which we have used off and on throughout the years.  Currently one of my girls is using them and the other has just asked to switch to Omnibus, an excellent series of guides to world thought that assumes much of this basic knowledge.

To help us review the basics of Fundamentals of Literature* I prepared this study guide. Of course, it is possible to use the study guide either with or without this textIn either case, I hope it will help your teen study a wide range of literature, learn to read with discernment, and prepare for the SAT, college, or university.


There are three main types (although more than one can be occurring at a time)

  1. Man versus man
  2. Man versus himself
  3. Man versus a power greater than himself (nature, God)

The protagonist is the leading character in a story

The antagonist is the character, group of characters, or concept that opposes the protagonist

Literature can provide a resolution for man’s struggles, echoing the Bible, or not, echoing man’s despair without God.


Types of characters:

  1. Round, i.e. multifaceted
  2. Flat, i.e. one-dimensional
  3. Dynamic, i.e. changing throughout the story
  4. Static, i.e. unchanging

Character is revealed through

  1. what the person says,
  2. what others say about him/her, and
  3. what he/she does

This information can be presented either directly by exposition, description, or dialogue, or indirectly through action.


Understanding theme is the main goal of literary interpretation.

A moral is a simple statement that teaches a simple truth.

A theme is a recurring idea or central insight that is mirrored in the story’s conflict and characters, i.e. a one or two sentence summary supported by the conflict, characters, and resolution of the story.

A theme can be revealed

  1. explicitly by stating it outright,
  2. implicitly by subtly weaving it into the elements of the story, or
  3. by a combination of the two.


Careful structure allows the message to be communicated effectively, with clarity and intensity.

Structure of narratives

The plot is a series of events arranged to produce a sense of movement toward a specific goal and is often composed of the following elements.

  1. Exposition—introduces setting, characters, and situation
  2. Inciting moment—event that sets the conflict in motion
  3. Rising action—complications are introduced, events are foreshadowed, and suspense is built up
  4. Crisis—moment of greatest suspense, the turning point of the story
  5. Falling action—details of the story come together
  6. Final moment of suspense before the denouement when all the complications are unravelled (in a tragedy people often die, in a comedy misconceptions can be resolved, in a romance the couple gets together)

Structure of poetry (see also Matt Whitling’s Grammar of Poetry for grades 5 and up)

Meter—regular arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables

Verse forms

  1. Rhymed verse that has both rhyme and regular meter
  2. Blank verse—no rhyme, and each line has the same rhythm, usually iambic pentameter (five sets of unstressed, then stressed syllables)
  3. Free verse—neither regular rhythm nor rhyme

Stanza forms, a division of a poem based on thought, meter, or rhyme

  • Couplet (2 lines long)
  • Triplet (3 lines long)
  • Quatrain (4 lines long)
  • Quintet (5 lines long)
  • Sestet (6 lines long)
  • Septet (7 lines long)
  • Octave (8 lines long)

Heroic couplet—a rhyming couplet (2 lines) expressing a complete thought in iambic pentameter rhythm

Ballad—a narrative poem originally meant to be performed, often written in quatrains (4 line stanzas) with two sets of rhymes per stanza

Sonnet—a 14 line lyric (i.e. expressing personal emotions in first person form) poem

  • Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, composed of an octave (8 line) and a sestet (6 line) stanza
    • Octave is a distinct unit of thought with rhyme scheme, abbaabba
    • Sestet is another unit of thought with two possible rhyme schemes, cdecde or cdcdcd
  • English or Shakespearean sonnet, composed of one thought presented in three quatrains (4 lines stanzas) and a concluding couplet with rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg

Limerick—strictly structured form used for humorous poetry

  • five lines (quintet)
    • Lines 1, 2, 5 have 3 feet
    • Lines 3, 4 have 2 feet
  • anapestic meter (i.e. each foot includes 2 unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one)

Haiku—Japanese form of poetry used to present a vivid picture for heart or mind, usually serious or solemn

  • Three lines (triplet)
    • Lines 1, 3 have 5 syllables
    • Line 2 has 7 syllables

In shape poetry the words are arranged on the page to form a specific picture related to the meaning of the poem

Point of View

—viewpoint from which the author tells his story

  1. Omniscient—the story is told in the third person (he, she), and the narrator knows all about everything in the story, including each character’s thoughts.
  2. Limited omniscient—the story is told in the third person (he, she), but the narrator knows the thoughts of only one character.
  3. First person—the story is told in the first person (I, me) and the narrator speaks as one of the characters, without any knowledge of what others think.

Moral Tone

—the overriding philosophy of a work, involving all its elements, that makes it an influence for good or evil in our lives.  Without a positive moral tone, a work can be harmful even if it has literary merit.

Note that a work can present evil without being evil, and a work can present good while still being evil.  In fact, G. K. Chesterton believed that if a book does not have a wicked character in it, then it is a wicked book (Omnibus 1, ix).

Positive moral tone involves evil being presented as evil and good as good, wisdom as wisdom and foolishness as foolishness, virtue as virtue and vice as vice.  To determine moral tone it is helpful to answer these questions:

  1. Are the characters that we sympathize with noble? Conversely, are we led to dislike the evil characters or to admire them?
  2. Does the story cause us to desire virtue and reject vice?
  3. Does the story’s resolution reward goodness or wisdom and punish evil or foolishness?
  4. Does the theme or message agree or conflict with God’s truth? If it conflicts, how does it, and where is its flaw?

Identifying the moral tone protects us from absorbing harmful ideas, which is a significant danger when people read the brilliant but ungodly thinkers of the world.   This also points to a duty and opportunity for parents, especially homeschooling parents, and I have found Nancy Wilson’s Reading with Purpose to be helpful.

T.S. Eliot sums it all up in these words, “It is our business as readers of literature to know what we like.  It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like.” from “Religion and Literature” in Essays Ancient and Modern.

*This study guide is based on BJUP’s Fundamentals of Literature, 2002 edition, nominally a grade 9 text, though similar concepts are taught in most other basic literature texts.  To understand the concepts thoroughly from the point of view of the text, I recommend you read the introduction to each chapter.  If you are looking for direct applications of these concepts, Fundamentals of Literature applies them carefully, from a Christian point of view, to a wide range of interesting works of literature. Of course, our study guide can be useful whether or not you use BJUP’s Fundamentals of Literature; you can find explanations and applications of these concepts in any other literature text or online.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+ where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read.

This article may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook, Finishing Strong ,Raising Homemakers.


  1. Thank you for this and for the book recommendation. I am about to add the book to my list. As an ex-medic who runs a book club for home educated children, I am keen to read all I can to encourage discussion and critical analysis of books.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, Reading with Purpose is a great little book, especially if you are leading a book club. Enjoy!

  2. Sunshine says:

    This is amazing. Thanks Annie Kate!

    1. Annie Kate says:

      You are welcome, Sunshine! I’ve wanted to write all this out for years, and now that it’s done I’m so thankful to have all this information in one spot! I’m glad I could share it with you.

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