How to Study a Novel

The key to studying a novel is creating organized notes about the most important literary elements as you read. Develop a system for organizing your thoughts as you read, whether in a graphic organizer or sticky notes written directly in the book. Studying a novel develops intellectual skills such as critical thinking, as you engage with the text to take ownership of its important ideas.

Analyzing Character

Throughout your reading, pay attention to the characters in the novel. Look at their actions, thoughts and feelings to form an opinion of them. Also look at the way the author describes the character and how other characters feel about the character -- attitudes revealed in dialogue sections. For major characters, ask yourself what motivates the character and how the character changes over time. Think about how you might compare and contrast various characters. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, you may note that Scout, the novel's protagonist, is a tomboy. You might think about how this relates to her challenging social conventions.

Pulling Apart the Plot

Make an outline of the important events of the novel, including the rising action, the introduction of the conflict, the climax or turning point, and how the novel works towards resolution. Practice summarizing the events of the story in about five sentences, including the most essential details. In To Kill a Mockingbird, you may note the children’s interactions with Boo Radley in the beginning of the novel, the trial in which Scout’s father defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, and when Boo Radley saves the children from Bob Ewell.

Interpreting the Setting

Make sure to note the context of the novel, including the historical period in which the novel takes place, the cultural influences within the story, and the political backdrop. Think about why the author chose the setting and how the setting influences the events that take place in the novel. To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Alabama during the Great Depression, a time when racial tensions were very high. The events of the trial reflect the historical implications of the setting.

Identifying Theme

After you read, look for a main message or overall idea that the novel expresses. Write down thematic statements in the form of a general sentence -- a theme does not include the characters, plot or setting. For example, for To Kill a Mockingbird, you may write, "There is always good and evil in humanity." After you write down a thematic statement, look back in your reading to find evidence from the text that supports your theme. Write down a quotation and note the page number. For example, you may support your theme by citing page 157 when Atticus says, “Mr. Cunningham’s basically a good man ... he just has blind spots along with the rest of us." Look for multiple themes in the novel.

About the Author

Anne Post has experience teaching in both public and private school settings, as well as several early childhood programs. Post holds a Bachelor of Science in education from the State University of New York at Geneseo with expertise in both childhood education and special education.

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