Suggestions on How to Annotate Texts

Questions, notes, and literary terms to help students analyze and annotate texts

For some of my students whose teachers ask them to annotate the texts they’re reading, I put together this brief overview of some important elements to focus on during the process of analyzing and reflecting on literature. This list may be useful to students doing literary analysis in any form, particularly analysis of a prose work like a novel, novella, short story, or play. (PDF version)

Questions to ask yourself as you read

  • What events in the story are important plot developments?
  • How are the events a vehicle for the expression of theme, revelation of character, etc.?
  • How does the setting relate to the presentation of character, plot, etc.?
  • What conflicts occur among (or within) the characters, how do they develop over the course of the story, and how are they resolved?
  • What is the form of the story—what genre does it belong to, and what can that tell you about its style, meaning, and messages?
  • How does the story make you feel, and why? (connection to tone, mood, atmosphere, theme, etc.)
  • What points (themes, messages) is the author trying to express?
  • How does the point of view affect your perception of the story?
  • What things in the story have a symbolic meaning?
  • What thoughts do you have about the characters in the story—what do their words and actions (and the narrator’s descriptions) reveal about them?
  • What changes do the characters go through?
  • What plan or meaning can you see in the way the author chose to structure the story?
  • What subtext can you infer from the narration—i.e., what seems to be going on “beneath the surface” of the story that influences or determines the characters’ words, actions, and interactions? (What is suggested, but not directly stated, about their desires or conflicts or about the author’s tone or message? Is there anything strange that doesn’t seem to make sense if taken at face value?)
  • What predictions might you make about what will happen later in the story?
  • What important questions do you have that you would like to discuss in class?

Elements to look for and analyze

Plot: Sequence of causally connected events

  • Important developments
  • Foreshadowing
  • Vehicle for other story elements (see related question above)
  • Major divisions: rising action, climax, falling action, etc.

Conflict: Struggle between opposing forces that usually forms the basis of the plot

  • Person vs. self
  • Person vs. person
  • Person vs. society
  • Person vs. nature

Characters: People (or animals) who play a role in the plot

  • Personality, values, desires, goals, fears, problems, conflicts
  • Changes over time: development, evolution (growth) or devolution (deterioration)
  • Relationships with other characters
  • Narrator’s/author’s portrayal of characters—What agenda (e.g., biases for or against) might the author and narrator have in how they present the characters?

Narration: The telling of the story, usually reflecting a specific perspective

  • Point of view (e.g., first person, third person limited)
  • Tense in which the story is told
  • Diction: word choice (style/tone and connotations of words)
  • Syntax: the phrasing or sentence structure
  • Sentence length, flow from sentence to sentence: choppy, quick, repetitive, long, slow, poetic?
  • Tone: the narrator’s (or author’s) attitude toward people, events, issues—dominant emotion
  • Mood: the emotions of the characters, especially as revealed through their interactions
  • Atmosphere: the feeling created by the description of the scene
  • Use of figurative language: metaphor, simile, personification, etc.
  • Distinction between the author and the narrator

Imagery and Symbolism: Significant images and objects

  • Objects that seem to have a special significance or connection to plot or theme or that appear frequently
  • Imagery that helps convey theme, atmosphere, etc.

Theme: Central message, concern, purpose

  • Key ideas, repeated ideas
  • Lessons or points the story seems to express or teach

Other Resources

Consult these resources for more information about the terms used on this page and related literary analysis concepts.

Basic Literary Terms: My Quizlet glossary of simplified definitions, suitable for studying in flash card form, for 53 of the most important literary terms for students to be familiar with, including common rhetorical devices, basic elements of literature, and major literary genres.

Virtual Salt: Useful definitions and clear examples of a great variety of rhetorical devices and literary terms.

A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples: A more concise but less thorough list than Virtual Salt’s.

AP Literary Terms: A comprehensive list of concisely defined literary terms and rhetorical devices specifically designed for AP English students.

PDF version
© 2007 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.