Form and content are dependent of each other. The presentation of content (in literature) is dependent on the employment of form for the achievement of the desired effect. Content refers to what an author desires to say or write, while form refers to how s/he chooses to write or say it. Scholars have argued for a long time, over which, between form and content has more importance in literature. However, in the recent past, the argument has shifted from, trying to prove which, between form and content deserves more credit with regards to effective presentation of literary works, to determining the extent to which both form and content contribute to the success of a given piece of literature.
In the next part of this account, both concepts (form and content) have been discussed in detail and examples of each in use have also been given. In an attempt to prove the intimate relationship between form and content in the attainment of literary success, examples that cut across the different genres of literature have been put forth.
Form is best described as the way a piece of literature is presented. It has to do with the physical appeal of a piece of art, to the eye of the reader. Considering that literature has much to do with communication through symbols as much as words to convey meaning, the shape or that an author ‘curves’ as s/he develops his or her piece of work cannot be ignored. Form is interpreted differently, with consideration of the different literary genres of literature which exist. In considering prose, the form used by an author is analyzed by examining how he has divided/partitioned his or her literary work.
An author of prose fiction can divide his literary piece of work into chapters or parts. To the informed reader, the divisions in a work of prose fiction are not mere partitions, but are purposefully intended by the author to convey meaning. For example, the author – Chinua Achebe in his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), has divided the contents of his story into various parts, where each of the parts contributes to the coherence in meaning of the entire storyline. By the end of each part in the book we see a turn of events in the life of the main character – Okonkwo.
The first part of the novel accounts for Okonkwo’s rise to fame and prosperity within his community. He succeeds in casting a shadow over his late fathers’ tainted legacy by achieving success and gaining the respect of his clansmen.
In the second part of the novel, the author records Okonkwos’ fall from grace. He is sent to exile for killing a fellow kinsman. He spends seven years in his motherland (his lad of exile), after which he returns to Umuofia.
The final part of the novel records Okonkwos’ return to Umuofia, and his inability to bring himself to terms with the changes that have taken place in the village: this part further marks the end of Okonkwo’s life through committing suicide. The narration of events in the novel in a sequential manner creates rhythm, which is one of the important aspects of form.
In drama form also plays an important role in the presentation of content. Considering that plays are created for performance, form plays an integral role in conveying meaning. The division of a play into Acts, Scenes and even Parts creates a rhythmic pattern and constitutes its form. The different partitions of a dramatic work equally contribute in building on the content delivered by the author. In a play, the divisions represent occurrences that are apart from each other in space and time. In addition, form in drama is achieved through the choice of an appropriate ‘sub-genre of drama’ to present the content of the play. The choice of an appropriate sub-genre, for example tragedy or comedy, creates much effect as the play is performed to an audience. Thus, through the consideration of form in drama, one is able to mentally construct events as they would occur in real life situations. The play – Aminata (1988) by Francis Imbuga is divided into parts and scenes, all of which equally contribute to the overall meaning realised in the play. Another play – The Successor, by the same author is divided into Acts and scenes, which are purposefully intended by the author in his development of the plays’ story-line.
It is perhaps in poetry that form plays the most important role of conveying meaning through content. There are a number of ways of analyzing the use of form in poetry. One can analyse form in poetry in terms of rhythm, lines and the pattern formed by the entire poem. Another way of looking at form in poetry is establishing its mode (type of poem), some of which are: sonnets, Haikus, Sestina and even Blank Verse. In addition, one can examine the observable shape of the eye, and which appeals to the eye of the reader. The shape created by the poet is normally related to the message that he wishes to convey through the poem. An example of such can be drawn from George Herberts’ poem – ‘Easter Wings’ (1633).
Content, as earlier on described, refers to what is expressed in a literary piece of work. It necessarily constitutes of the message which the author wishes to pass on to an audience. The message communicated by an author in a literary piece of writing most often constitutes of themes. The content of a literary piece of work is usually a composition of the author (from the authors’ mind).
In dramatic works, content is expressed in terms of the words used by characters and the responses they get from their fellow characters. Further, a dramatist may fashion a character such that they talk about themselves. The writer may also opt to inform the audience of a play about a certain character. It is thus clear that characters are the most important channel through which a dramatist establishes communication with an audience.
In prose, content is mainly presented through narration, vivid descriptions and creation of assumptions is frequently used. Content is presented in a continuous and logical occurrence of events. Whereas non-fiction prose presents content as it is (reality), fiction prose utilizes imagery to draw a near-to-reality picture of the topic addressed.
In poetry, content is presented in a shortened manner. Shortened language is the main way of presenting content in poetry. Themes are fully developed and a poet puts much effort in communicating his message in a clear and concise manner. The words used are clearly chosen in an attempt by the author to communicate his intended message.
It is thus clearly evident that form cannot be separated from content if literature is to perform its functions fully and effectively. Form and content, as tools of coming up with literature, complement each other in numerous ways in the process of creating literary works.