What to Write About


Remember that a poem, play or a novel is not real life – it is the result of a series of choices made by the writer.  Characters are not real people, they are created by the writers and the writer is in charge of everything that every character does, no matter how natural and real they may seem.  What has the writer chosen to do and what are the effects of those choices?  This is the basic question that you should be asking when writing your essays.


When writing your essay, there are, broadly speaking, five areas which you can write about:


CHARACTER & RELATIONSHIPS: how are certain characters presented: by description, by implication, through their actions or thoughts, or by a mixture of techniques?  How does the writer persuade us to like/sympathise with some characters and dislike others? How do the characters develop, change and grow as the text develops? Why do they change, or not, in the way that they do? How are their relationships with other characters developed? How does the writer present these developing relationships to us? Why do the relationships develop in this way? How well does the reader get to know the characters and how credible are they? How do the characters relate to the themes of the text?


MOTIFS & SYMBOLS: are there any noticeable motifs or symbols in the text? How do they work? How does the author use them; to emphasise a theme, a character, an element of the plot, to stand for an idea, what? Do the meanings of motifs or symbols change and develop with the story? Do they have key moments? When is that key moment? Why would the writer choose to have it there?


NARRATIVE STYLE: what style has the writer used when creating their text, you might consider some of the following aspects:

1.       Narrative Voice - from whose point of view is the story told?  Does this change?  How reliable is the narrative voice?  If there are several narrators are they equally reliable or unreliable?  Is there one main protagonist or several main characters? 


2.       Setting - this includes cultural as well as geographical and historical setting. In a World Literature essay this is particularly important as one of the purposes of studying works from other countries is to make students aware of differences in cultural attitudes. The actions of the characters in Chronicle of a Death Foretold have to be seen in the light of Latin American society, not modern California.  What effect does the setting have on story, character or theme?


3.       Structure - is there a linear or chronological development of the plot or are there flashbacks or foreshadowing? Is the work divided into distinct parts or can it be viewed as a whole? Is the plot circular?  Are there sub-plots? How important/effective is the ending? Has everything been revealed by the end or are there many unanswered questions – if so does this matter? What period of time has been covered – long or short? Are there patterns of tension and relief?


4.       Lit features -  such as imagery, syntax etc. can all be used to show how a writer has conveyed his ideas.


THEMES: what are the themes that the writer is trying to convey? What is the writer trying to say about the human condition? Is the writer trying to make a philosophical point? How are these themes created? How does the writer present them? How do themes link to other elements of the text such as characters, motifs and narrative style?


READINGS: strictly speaking this is not an element of a novel but rather a perspective or attitude that you take when reading a novel. All novels have a dominant reading – i.e. the reading that the writer probably intended – however, it is possible to ‘read against the grain’ and try to see how the text can be interpreted differently if we approach it from a different, or subversive, perspective. Often this will involve you taking some of the assumptions or points that the writer has made and turning them on their heads. The most common ways of reading a text are feminist, Marxist, existentialist, psychoanalytic and post-colonial … but there are many others. Remember that, as with any thesis, when reading a text from a given perspective you do not have to find it valid: good essays evaluate their thesis just like a good experiment does and sometimes you may conclude that a particular reading / thesis / theory is not valid.


Examiner Comment!

You could compare the openings / endings of two texts, the introduction of two characters, two murder scenes. What ever it is the focus must be equally relevant to both texts. Remember interesting students look at differences not just similarities and the most interesting students look at differences within something that looks like a similarity. Both Charlotte Bronte and Ibsen show how women’s lives were restricted in nineteenth century Europe but HOW they choose to do so is very different and this is what you must realise and write about.  At the same time you must be wary of making facile or simple judgements based on standards in your own culture.  A good essay should show that you have increased your understanding and tolerance of other cultures.