What this handout is about
This handout describes some steps for planning and writing papers about literary texts. For additional information on writing about drama and poetry specifically, please see the Writing Center’s handouts on writing about drama and on writing poetry explications.
Demystifying the process
Writing an analysis of a piece of literature can be a mystifying process. First, literary analyses (or papers that offer an interpretation of literary texts) rely on the assumption that stories, poems, and plays must mean something. How do such texts mean something? If an author wanted to convey a meaning, wouldn’t she be much better off writing an essay just telling us what she meant?
It’s pretty easy to see how at least some stories, for example, convey clear meanings or morals. Just think about a parable like the prodigal son or a nursery tale about “crying wolf.” Stories like these are reduced down to the bare elements, giving us just enough detail to lead us to their main points, and because they are relatively easy to understand and tend to stick in our memories, they’re often used in some kinds of education.
But if the meanings were always as clear as they are in parables, who would really need to write a paper analyzing them? Interpretations of literature would not be interesting if the meanings of these texts were clear to everyone who reads them. Thankfully (or perhaps regrettably, depending on your perspective) the texts we’re asked to interpret in our classes are a good bit more complicated than most parables. They frequently use characters, settings, syntax, formal elements, and actions to illustrate issues that have no easy resolution. They show different sides of a problem, and they can raise new questions. In short, the literary texts we read in class have meanings that are arguable and complicated, and it’s our job to sort them out.
It might seem that these texts do have specific meanings, and the instructor has already decided what those meanings are. But even the most well-informed professor rarely arrives at conclusions that someone else wouldn’t disagree with. In fact, most professors are aware that their interpretations are debatable and actually love a good argument. But let’s not go to the other extreme. To say that there is no one answer is not to say that anything we decide to say about a literary text is valid, interesting, or valuable. Interpretations of literature are often opinions, but not all opinions are equal.
So what makes a valid and interesting opinion? A good interpretation of fiction will:
- avoid the obvious (in other words, it won’t argue a conclusion that most readers could reach on their own from a general knowledge of the story)
- support its main points with strong evidence from the story
- use careful reasoning to explain how that evidence relates to the main points of the interpretation.
The following steps are intended as a guide through the difficult process of writing an interpretive paper that meets these criteria. Writing tends to be a highly individual task, so adapt these suggestions to fit your own habits and inclinations.
Writing a paper on fiction in 9 steps
1. Become familiar with the text
There’s no substitute for a good general knowledge of your text. A good paper inevitably begins with the writer having a solid understanding of the work that she interprets. Being able to have the whole book, short story, poem, or play in your head—at least in a general way—when you begin thinking through ideas will be a great help and will actually allow you to write the paper more quickly in the long run. It’s even a good idea to spend some time just thinking about the text. Flip back through the book and consider what interests you about this piece of writing—what seemed strange, new, or important?
2. Explore potential topics
Perhaps your instructor has given you a list of topics to choose, or perhaps you have been asked to create your own. Either way, you’ll need to generate ideas to use in the paper—even with an assigned topic, you’ll have to develop your own interpretation. Let’s assume for now that you are choosing your own topic.
After reading your text, a topic may just jump out at you, or you may have recognized a pattern or identified a problem that you’d like to think about in more detail. What is a pattern or a problem?
A pattern can be the recurrence of certain kinds of imagery, vocabulary, formal elements (like rhyme and meter), or events. Usually, repetition of particular aspects tends to render those elements more conspicuous. Let’s say I’m writing a paper on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In the course of reading that book, I keep noticing the author’s use of biblical imagery: Victor Frankenstein anticipates that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (52) while the monster is not sure whether to consider himself as an Adam or a Satan. These details might help me interpret the way characters think about themselves and about each other, as well as allow me to infer what the author might have wanted her reader to think by using the Bible as a frame of reference. On another subject, I also notice that the book repeatedly refers to types of education. The story mentions books that its characters read and the different contexts in which learning takes place.
A problem, on the other hand, is something that bugs you or that doesn’t seem to add up. For example, a character might act in some way that’s unaccountable, a narrator may leave out what we think is important information (or may focus on something that seems trivial), or a narrator or character may offer an explanation that doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Not all problems lead in interesting directions, but some definitely do and even seem to be important parts of the text. In the novel Frankenstein, Victor works day and night to achieve his goal of bringing life to the dead, but once he realizes his goal, he is immediately repulsed by his creation and runs away. Why? Is there something wrong with his creation, something wrong with his goal in the first place, or something wrong with Victor himself? The book doesn’t give us a clear answer but seems to invite us to interpret this problem.
If nothing immediately strikes you as interesting or no patterns or problems jump out at you, don’t worry. Just start making a list of whatever you remember from your reading, regardless of how insignificant it may seem to you now. Consider an image that stuck with you, a character’s peculiar behavior or comments, a word choice that you found interesting, the unusual way the narrator describes an event, or the author’s placement of an action in an odd context.
There’s a good chance that some of these intriguing moments and oddities will relate to other points in the text, eventually revealing some kind of pattern and giving you potential topics for your paper. Also keep in mind that if you found something peculiar in the text you’re writing about, chances are good that other people will have been perplexed by these moments as well and will be interested to see how you make sense of it all. It’s even a good idea to test your ideas out on a friend, a classmate, or an instructor since talking about your ideas will help you develop them and push them beyond obvious interpretations of the text. And it’s only by pushing those ideas that you can write a paper that raises interesting issues or problems and that offers creative interpretations related to those issues.
3. Select a topic with a lot of evidence
If you’re selecting from a number of possible topics, narrow down your list by identifying how much evidence or how many specific details you could use to investigate each potential issue. Do this step just off the top of your head. Keep in mind that persuasive papers rely on ample evidence and that having a lot of details to choose from can also make your paper easier to write.
It might be helpful at this point to jot down all the elements of the text that have some bearing on the two or three topics that seem most promising. This can give you a more visual sense of how much evidence you will have to work with on each potential topic. It’s during this activity that having a good knowledge of your text will come in handy and save you a lot of time. Don’t launch into a topic without considering all the options first because you may end up with a topic that seemed promising initially but that only leads to a dead end.
4. Write out a working thesis
Based on the evidence that relates to your topic—and what you anticipate you might say about those pieces of evidence—come up with a working thesis. Don’t spend a lot of time composing this statement at this stage since it will probably change. A changing thesis statement is a good sign that you’re starting to say more interesting and complex things on your subject. (Our Thesis Statements handout provides an example of a developing thesis statement for a literary analysis assignment.) At this point in my Frankenstein project, I’ve become interested in ideas on education that seem to appear pretty regularly, and I have a general sense that aspects of Victor’s education lead to tragedy. Without considering things too deeply, I’ll just write something like “Victor Frankenstein’s tragic ambition was fueled by a faulty education.”
5. Make an extended list of evidence
Once you have a working topic in mind, skim back over the text and make a more comprehensive list of the details that relate to your point. For my paper about education in Frankenstein, I’ll want to take notes on what Victor Frankenstein reads at home, where he goes to school and why, what he studies at school, what others think about those studies, etc. And even though I’m primarily interested in Victor’s education, at this stage in the writing, I’m also interested in moments of education in the novel that don’t directly involve this character. These other examples might provide a context or some useful contrasts that could illuminate my evidence relating to Victor. With this goal in mind, I’ll also take notes on how the monster educates himself, what he reads, and what he learns from those he watches. As you make your notes keep track of page numbers so you can quickly find the passages in your book again and so you can easily document quoted passages when you write without having to fish back through the book.
At this point, you want to include anything, anything, that might be useful, and you also want to avoid the temptation to arrive at definite conclusions about your topic. Remember that one of the qualities that makes for a good interpretation is that it avoids the obvious. You want to develop complex ideas, and the best way to do that is to keep your ideas flexible until you’ve considered the evidence carefully. A good gauge of complexity is whether you feel you understand more about your topic than you did when you began (and even just reaching a higher state of confusion is a good indicator that you’re treating your topic in a complex way).
If, for example, you are jotting down your ideas about Frankenstein, you can focus on the observations from the narrator or things that certain characters say or do. These elements are certainly important. It might help you come up with more evidence if you also take into account some of the broader components that go into making fiction, things like plot, point of view, character, setting, and symbols.
Plot is the string of events that go into the narrative. Think of this as the “who did what to whom” part of the story. Plots can be significant in themselves since chances are pretty good that some action in the story will relate to your main idea. For my paper on education in Frankenstein, I’m interested in Victor’s going to the University of Ingolstadt to realize his father’s wish that Victor attend school where he could learn about another culture. Plots can also allow you to make connections between the story you’re interpreting and some other stories, and those connections might be useful in your interpretation. For example, the plot of Frankenstein, which involves a man who desires to bring life to the dead and creates a monster in the process, bears some similarity to the ancient Greek story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun on his wax wings. Both tell the story of a character who reaches too ambitiously after knowledge and suffers dire consequences.
Your plot could also have similarities to whole groups of other stories, all having conventional or easily recognizable plots. These types of stories are often called genres. Some popular genres within fiction include the gothic, the romance, the detective story, the bildungsroman (this is just a German term for a novel that is centered around the development of its main characters), and the novel of manners (a novel that focuses on the behavior and foibles of a particular class or social group). These categories are often helpful in characterizing a piece of writing, but this approach has its limitations. Many novels don’t fit nicely into one genre, and others seem to borrow a bit from a variety of different categories; the same can be said for other forms of literature, like poetry and drama. For example, given my working thesis on education, I am more interested in Victor’s development than in relating Frankenstein to the gothic genre, so I might decide to treat the novel as a bildungsroman.
And just to complicate matters that much more, it’s important to take into account not only the larger genre(s) a literary piece fits within (like the bildungsroman and the gothic) but also the form(s) utilized in that piece. For example, a story might be told in a series of letters (this is called an epistolary form), in a sequence of journal entries, or in a combination of forms (Frankenstein is actually told as a journal included within a letter).
These matters of form can also introduce questions of point of view, that is, who is telling the story and what do they or don’t they know. Is the tale told by an omniscient or all-knowing narrator who doesn’t interact in the events, or is it presented by one of the characters within the story? Can the reader trust that person to give an objective account, or does that narrator color the story with her own biases and interests?
Character refers to the qualities assigned to the individual figures in the plot. Consider why the author assigns certain qualities to a character or characters and how any such qualities might relate to your topic. For example, a discussion of Victor Frankenstein’s education might take into account aspects of his character that appear to be developed (or underdeveloped) by the particular kind of education he undertakes. Victor tends to be ambitious, even compulsive about his studies, and I might be able to argue that his tendency to be extravagant leads him to devote his own education to writers who asserted grand, if questionable, conclusions.
Setting is the environment in which all of the actions take place. What is the time period, the location, the time of day, the season, the weather, the type of room or building? What is the general mood, and who is present? All of these elements can reflect on the story’s events, and though the setting of a story tends to be less conspicuous than plot and character, setting still colors everything that’s said and done within its context. If Victor Frankenstein does all of his experiments in “a solitary chamber, or rather a cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a staircase” (53), we might conclude that there is something anti-social, isolated, and stale, maybe even unnatural, about his project and his way of learning.
Obviously, if you consider all of these elements, you’ll probably have too much evidence to fit effectively into one paper. In this example using the novel Frankenstein, your goal is merely to consider each of these aspects of fiction and include only those that are most relevant to your topic and most interesting to your reader. A good interpretive paper does not need to cover all elements of the story—plot, genre, narrative form, character, and setting. In fact, a paper that did try to say something about all of these elements would be unfocused. You might find that most of your topic could be supported, for instance, by a consideration of character alone. That’s fine. For my Frankenstein paper, I’m finding that my evidence largely has to do with the setting, evidence that could lead to some interesting conclusions that my reader probably hasn’t recognized on her own.
6. Select your evidence
Once you’ve made your expanded list of evidence, decide which supporting details are the strongest. First, select the facts which bear the closest relation to your thesis statement. Second, choose the pieces of evidence you’ll be able to say the most about. Readers tend to be more dazzled with your interpretations of evidence than with a lot of quotes from the book. It would be useful to refer to Victor Frankenstein’s youthful reading in alchemy, but my reader will be more impressed by some analysis of how the writings of the alchemists—who pursued magical principles of chemistry and physics—reflect the ambition of his own goals. Select the details that will allow you to show off your own reasoning skills and allow you to help the reader see the story in a way he or she may not have seen it before.
7. Refine your thesis
Now it’s time to go back to your working thesis and refine it so that it reflects your new understanding of your topic. This step and the previous step (selecting evidence) are actually best done at the same time, since selecting your evidence and defining the focus of your paper depend upon each other. Don’t forget to consider the scope of your project: how long is the paper supposed to be, and what can you reasonably cover in a paper of that length? In rethinking the issue of education in Frankenstein, I realize that I can narrow my topic in a number of ways: I could focus on education and culture (Victor’s education abroad), education in the sciences as opposed to the humanities (the monster reads Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch), or differences in learning environments (e.g. independent study, university study, family reading). Since I think I found some interesting evidence in the settings that I can interpret in a way that will get my reader’s attention, I’ll take this last option and refine my working thesis about Victor’s faulty education to something like this:
“Victor Frankenstein’s education in unnaturally isolated environments fosters his tragic ambition.”
8. Organize your evidence
Once you have a clear thesis you can go back to your list of selected evidence and group all the similar details together. The ideas that tie these clusters of evidence together can then become the claims that you’ll make in your paper. As you begin thinking about what claims you can make (i.e. what kinds of conclusions you can reach) keep in mind that they should not only relate to all the evidence but also clearly support your thesis. Once you’re satisfied with the way you’ve grouped your evidence and with the way that your claims relate to your thesis, you can begin to consider the most logical way to organize each of those claims. To support my thesis about Frankenstein, I’ve decided to group my evidence chronologically. I’ll start with Victor’s education at home, then discuss his learning at the University, and finally address his own experiments. This arrangement will let me show that Victor was always prone to isolation in his education and that this tendency gets stronger as he becomes more ambitious.
There are certainly other organizational options that might work better depending on the type of points I want to stress. I could organize a discussion of education by the various forms of education found in the novel (for example, education through reading, through classrooms, and through observation), by specific characters (education for Victor, the monster, and Victor’s bride, Elizabeth), or by the effects of various types of education (those with harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects).
9. Interpret your evidence
Avoid the temptation to load your paper with evidence from your text. To get your readers’ interest, you need to draw their attention to elements of the story that they wouldn’t necessarily notice or understand on their own. Each time you use a specific reference to your story, be sure to explain the significance of that evidence in your own words. If you’re quoting passages without interpreting them, you’re not demonstrating your reasoning skills or helping the reader. Our handout on Paragraph Development can offer some guidance in this process; it provides a “5 Step Process to Paragraph Development” that prompts writers to explain, or interpret, each piece of evidence they include in a paragraph. In most cases, interpreting your evidence merely involves putting into your paper what is already in your head. Remember that we, as readers, are lazy—all of us. We don’t want to have to figure out a writer’s reasoning for ourselves; we want all the thinking to be done for us in the paper.
The previous nine steps are intended to give you a sense of the tasks usually involved in writing a good interpretive paper. What follows are just some additional hints that might help you find an interesting topic and maybe even make the process a little more enjoyable.
Make your thesis relevant to your readers
You’ll be able to keep your readers’ attention more easily if you show how your argument relates to something that concerns or interests them. Can you tell your reader something relevant about the context of the text you’re interpreting, about the human condition, or about broader questions? Avoid writing a paper that identifies a pattern in a story but doesn’t quite explain why that pattern leads to an interesting interpretation. Identifying the biblical references in Frankenstein might provide a good start to a paper—Mary Shelley does use a lot of biblical allusions—but a good paper must also tell the reader how those references are meaningful. Your thesis should be able to answer the brutal question “so what?”
For example, you can ask yourself how the topic you’ve selected connects to a larger category of concern. Think broadly. Literature scholars have identified connections between literature and the following: economics, family dynamics, education, religion, mortality, law, politics, sexuality, history, psychology, the environment, technology, animality, citizenship, and migration, among others. For readers, these concerns are also crosscut race, class and gender, which makes these intersecting categories dependable sources of interest. For example, if you’ve traced instances of water imagery in a novel, a next step may be to look at how that imagery is used in the text to imply something about, for instance, femininity and/or race.
Don’t assume that as long as you address one of these issues, your paper will be interesting. As mentioned in step 2, you need to address these big topics in a complex way. Avoid going into a topic with a preconceived notion of what you’ll find. Be prepared to challenge your own ideas about what gender, race, or class mean in a particular text.
Select a topic of interest to you
Though you may feel like you have to select a topic that sounds like something your instructor would be interested in, don’t overlook the fact that you’ll be more invested in your paper and probably get more out of it if you make the topic something pertinent to yourself. Pick a topic that might allow you to learn about yourself and what you find important. At the same time, your argument will be most persuasive if it’s built on the evidence you find in the text (as mentioned in step 5).
Make your thesis specific
The effort to be more specific almost always leads to a thesis that will get your reader’s attention, and it also separates you from the crowd as someone who challenges ideas and looks into topics more deeply. A paper about education in general in Frankenstein will probably not get my reader’s attention as much as a more specific topic about the impact of the learning environment on the main character. My readers may have already thought to some extent about ideas of education in the novel, if they have read it, but the chance that they have thought through something more specific like the educational environment is slimmer.
A note about genre and form
While this handout has used the example of a novel, Frankenstein, to help illustrate how to develop an argument about a literary text, the steps discussed above can apply to other forms of literature, too. But just as, however, fiction has certain features that guide your analysis (like plot and point of view), other literary forms can have their own unique formal elements that must be considered and can also fit within certain larger genres or literary traditions. For example, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a long poem in the epic tradition that utilizes a specific meter (unrhymed iambic pentameter); these particularities of genre and form would likely shape your analysis of that text. For more information about how to analyze poetry, see our Poetry Explications handout; for more information about how to analyze drama, see our Drama handout.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Barnet, Sylvan, and William E. Cain. 2011. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature, 12th ed. New York: Pearson.
Shelley, Mary. 2011. Frankenstein: Norton Critical Edition, edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
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