Writing about literature used to scare the heck out of me. I really couldn’t wrap my mind around analyzing a novel. You have the story. You have the characters. But so what? I had no idea what to write.
Luckily, a brilliant professor I had as an undergrad taught me how to analyze a novel in an essay. I taught this process in the university and as a tutor for many years. It’s simple, and it works. And in this tutorial, I’ll show it to you. So, let’s go!
Writing an essay about a novel or any work of fiction is a 6-step process. Steps 1-3 are the analysis part. Steps 4-6 are the writing part.
Step 1. Create a list of elements of the novel
Ask yourself, “What are the elements of this book?”
Well, here is a list of elements present in any work of fiction, any novel:
Here is a table of literary elements along with their descriptions.
|Story||The entire dramatic account of events, from beginning to end|
|Plot||The way dramatic events are arranged in the story|
|Characters||A list of main and secondary characters|
|Themes||Ideas the novel is about, such as love, murder, patriotism, etc.|
|Metaphors||Literary devices in which the author uses a familiar word or phrase to apply to another concept to which it is not literally applicable. E.g. “Life is war.”|
|Similes||Literary devices in which the author likens something to something else to illustrate a point. E.g. “People are like clouds in the sky.”|
|Symbols||Images used to represent an idea. E.g. A red flag is a symbol of blood.|
|Takeaways||Lessons you’ve learned from the book|
|Mythology||Mythological elements in the story, such as archetypes, symbols, and motifs|
|Setting||Where, when, and under what circumstances the action takes place. E.g. “War and Peace takes place in 19th century Russia and centers around the Russian-French war of 1812.”|
In this step, you simply pick 3-6 elements from the list I just gave you and arrange them as bullet points. You just want to make sure you pick elements that you are most familiar or comfortable with.
For example, you can create the following list:
This is just for you to capture the possibilities of what you can write about. It’s a very simple and quick step because I already gave you a list of elements.
Step 2. Pick 3 elements you are most comfortable with
In this step, we’ll use what I call The Power of Three. You don’t need more than three elements to write an excellent essay about a novel or a book.
Just pick three from the list you just created with which you are most familiar or that you understand the best. These will correspond to three sections in your essay.
If you’re an English major, you’ll be a lot more familiar with the term “metaphor” than if you major in Accounting.
But even if you’re a Math major, you are at least probably already familiar with what a story or a character is. And you’ve probably had a takeaway or a lesson from stories you’ve read or seen on screen.
Just pick what you can relate to most readily and easily.
For example, you can pick Characters, Symbols, and Takeaways. Great!
You Can Also Pick Examples of an Element
Let’s say that you are really unfamiliar with most of the elements. In that case, you can just pick one and then list three examples of it.
For example, you can pick the element of Characters. And now all you need to do is choose three of the most memorable characters. You can do this with many of the elements of a novel.
You can pick three themes, such as Romance, Envy, and Adultery.
You can pick three symbols, such as a rose, a ring, and a boat. These can represent love, marriage, and departure.
Okay, great job picking your elements or examples of them.
For the rest of this tutorial, I chose to write about a novel by Fedor Dostoyevskiy, The Brothers Karamazov. This will be our example.
It is one of the greatest novels ever written. And it’s a mystery novel, too, which makes it fun.
So now, let’s choose either three elements of this novel or three examples of an element. I find that one of the easiest ways to do this is to pick one element – Characters – and three examples of it.
In other words, I’m picking three characters. And the entire essay will be about these three characters.
Now, you may ask, if I write only about the characters, am I really writing an essay about the novel?
And the answer is, Yes. Because you can’t write about everything at once. You must pick something. Pick your battles.
And by doing that, you will have plenty of opportunities to make a statement about the whole novel. Does that make sense?
Just trust the process, and it will all become clear in the next steps.
Let’s pick the three brothers – Alexei, Dmitriy, and Ivan.
And don’t worry – I won’t assume that you have read the book. And I won’t spoil it for you if you’re planning to.
So we have the three brothers. We’re ready to move on to the next step.
Step 3. Identify a relationship among these elements
In this step, you want to think about how these three elements that you picked are related to one another.
In this particular case, the three brothers are obviously related because they are brothers. But I want you to dig deeper and see if there is perhaps a theme in the novel that may be connecting the elements.
And, yes, I am using another element – theme – just to help me think about the book. Be creative and use whatever is available to you. It just so happens that religion is a very strong theme in this novel.
What do the three brothers have in common?
- They have the same father.
- Each one has a romantic interest (meaning, a beloved woman).
- All three have some kind of a relationship with God.
These are three ways in which the brothers are related to one another. All we need is one type of a relationship among them to write this essay.
This is a religious novel, and yes, some of the characters will be linked to a form of a divinity. In this case, the religion is Christianity.
Note: there are many ways in which you can play with elements of a novel and examples of them. Here’s a detailed video I made about this process:
Let’s see if we can pick the best relationship of those we just enumerated.
They all have the same father.
This relationship is only factual. It is not very interesting in any way. So we move on to the next one.
They all have women they love.
Each brother has a romantic interest, to use a literary term. We can examine each of the brothers as a lover.
Who is the most fervent lover? Who is perhaps more distant and closed? This is an interesting connecting relationship to explore.
One of them is the most passionate about his woman, but so is another one – I won’t say who so I don’t spoil the novel for you. The third brother seems rather intellectual about his love interest.
So, romantic interest is a good candidate for a connecting relationship. Let’s explore the next connection candidate.
They all relate to God in one way or another.
Let’s see if we can put the brothers’ relationships with God in some sort of an order. Well, Alexei is a monk in learning. He lives at the monastery and studies Christianity. He is the closest to God.
Dmitriy is a believer, but he is more distant from God due to his passionate affair with his woman. He loses his head many times and does things that are ungodly, according to the author. So, although he is a believer, he is more distant from God than is Alexei.
Finally, Ivan is a self-proclaimed atheist. Therefore, he is the farthest away from God.
It looks like we got ourselves a nice sequence, or progression, which we can probably use to write this essay about this novel.
What is the sequence? The sequence is:
Alexei is the closest to God, Dmitriy is second closest, and Ivan is pretty far away.
It looks like we have a pattern here.
If we look at the brothers in the book and watch their emotions closely, we’ll come to the conclusion that they go from blissful to very emotionally unstable to downright miserable to the point of insanity.
Here’s the conclusion we must make:
The closer the character’s relationship with God, the happier he is, and the farther away he is from God, the more miserable he appears to be.
Wow. This is quite a conclusion. It looks like we have just uncovered one of Dostoyevskiy’s main arguments in this novel, if not the main point he is trying to make.
Now that we’ve identified our three elements (examples) and a strong connecting relationship among them, we can move on to Step 4.
Step 4. Take a stand and write your thesis statement
Now we’re ready to formulate our thesis statement. It consists of two parts:
- Your Thesis (your main argument)
- Your Outline of Support (how you plan to support your main point)
By now, we have everything we need to write a very clear and strong thesis statement.
First, let’s state our thesis as clearly and succinctly as possible, based on what we already know:
“In his novel Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevskiy describes a world in which happiness is directly proportional to proximity to God. The closer to God a character is, the happier and more emotionally stable he is, and vice versa.”
See how clear this is? And most importantly, this is clear not only to the reader, but also to you as the writer. Now you know exactly what statement you will be supporting in the body of the essay.
Are we finished with the thesis statement? Not yet. The second part consists of your supporting points. And again, we have everything we need to write it. Let’s do it.
“Alexei’s state of mind is ultimately blissful, because he is a true and observant believer. Dmitriy’s faith is upstaged by his passion for a woman, and he suffers a lot as a result. Ivan’s renunciation of God makes him the unhappiest of the brothers and eventually leads him to insanity.”
Guess what – we have just written our complete thesis statement. And it’s also our whole first paragraph.
We are ready for Step 5.
Step 5. Write the body of the essay
Again, just like in the previous step, you have everything you need to structure and write out the body of this essay.
How many main sections will this essay have? Because we are writing about three brothers, it only makes sense that our essay will have three main sections.
Each section may have one or more paragraphs. So, here’s an important question to consider:
How many words or pages do you have to write?
Let’s say your teacher or professor wants you to write 2,000 words on this topic. Then, here is your strategic breakdown:
- Thesis Statement (first paragraph) = 100 words
- Conclusion (last paragraph) = 100 words
- Body of the Essay = 1,800 words
Let me show you how easy it is to subdivide the body of the essay into sections and subsections.
We already know that we have three sections. And we need 1,800 words total for the body. This leads us to 600 words per main section (meaning, per brother).
Can we subdivide further? Yes, we can. And we should.
When discussing each of the brothers, we connect two subjects: his relationship with God AND his psychological state. That’s how we make those connections.
So, we should simply subdivide each section of 600 words into two subsections of 300 words each. And now all we need to do is to write each part as if it were a standalone 300-word essay.
Does this make sense? See how simple and clear this is?
Writing Your Paragraphs
Writing good paragraphs is a topic for an entire article of its own. It is a science and an art.
In essence, you start your paragraph with a good lead sentence in which you make one point. Then, you provide reasons, explanations, and examples to support it.
Here is an article I wrote on how to write great paragraphs.
Once you’ve written the body of the essay, one last step remains.
Step 6. Add an introduction and a conclusion
Introductions and conclusions are those little parts of an essay that your teachers and professors will want you to write.
In our example, we already have a full opening paragraph going. It’s our thesis statement.
To write an introduction, all you need to do is add one or two sentences above the thesis statement.
Here is our thesis statement:
“In his novel Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevskiy describes a world in which happiness is directly proportional to proximity to God. The closer to God a character is, the happier and more emotionally stable he is, and vice versa. Alexei’s state of mind is ultimately blissful, because he is a true and observant believer. Dmitriy’s faith is upstaged by his passion for a woman, and he suffers a lot as a result. Ivan’s renunciation of God makes him the unhappiest of the brothers and eventually leads him to insanity.”
As you can see, it is a complete paragraph that doesn’t lack anything. But because we need to have an introduction, here is a sentence with which we can open this paragraph:
“Dostoyevskiy is a great Russian novelist who explores the theme of religion in many of his books.”
And then just proceed with the rest of the paragraph. Read this sentence followed by the thesis statement, and you see that it works great. And it took me about 30 seconds to write this introductory sentence.
You can write conclusions in several different ways. But the most time-proven way is to simply restate your thesis.
If you write your thesis statement the way I teach, you will have a really strong opening paragraph that can be easily reworded to craft a good conclusion.
Here is an article I wrote (which includes a video) on how to write conclusions.
You’ve made it to the end, and now you know exactly how to write an essay about a novel or any work of fiction!