Responding to novels

Responding to novels

In this week’s blog post, Insight writer and English teacher Anja Drummond goes through what you need to look for when analysing a novel.

Like any other texts, novels can be written in different styles and genres. Some are purely fictional, a product of the author’s imagination. Others may be semi-autobiographical, partly based on the events and experiences of the author’s own life. Some may be gothic fiction, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or science fiction, like Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Regardless of these differences, there are some common elements to all novels that you need to know and be able to incorporate into your analytical essays.


Plot and structure

Demonstrate to your assessors that you understand the pattern of events in your novel. Think about why the author has structured events in a particular way. Is it to create suspense? To increase the reader’s curiosity? Map out the main events of the text, including crises, turning points, climaxes and resolutions, and consider the significance of these moments for characters and/or themes.

The following essay excerpt reveals an understanding of the plot of Frankenstein and how it contributes to character development.

Victor’s own desire for vengeance began with the deaths of William and Justine, which left Victor with an ardent desire to ‘extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed’, but it is not until the death of his wife that he devotes himself to the destruction of the Creature.


Background and setting

Consider how the place in which the text’s action occurs is related to other aspects of the text. The historical and social context will influence elements such as character relationships and themes. Furthermore, the cultural values, customs and beliefs that are considered ‘normal’ within the world of the text will depend on the historical and social context in which the text is set (as well as the context in which it was written).

TIP: Don’t be tempted to provide detailed historical information. Instead, provide subtle references to the context and setting that show your understanding. For example, in an essay on The Left Hand of Darkness, you might acknowledge that the issue of women’s rights was experiencing a new awakening when Le Guin wrote her novel, and that this likely had an impact on her imagining a world without gender and, by extension, without gender discrimination.


Language and style

The author’s choice of words helps to create the mood of the text and shapes readers’ attitudes towards characters and ideas. To understand the author’s language and style, complete a close analysis of several key passages. When you analyse the passages, consider these questions:

  • What images are used to represent an idea, event or character? Think about the senses invoked – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
  • Are any symbols used? Objects or colours may be used to represent an idea.
  • Do the sentence structures employed by the writer vary? Are the sentences overly ornate or does the writer use a more economical style?
  • How do these elements influence the mood or tone of the text?


Narrative point of view

An author’s decision to employ a particular narrative point of view will significantly influence the way a reader responds to the text. The use of a first-person narrator creates a sense of intimacy with the reader, allowing them to inhabit the world of the narrator. However, their exploration of the world of the novel is constrained as they can only possess information that the narrator possesses.

In contrast, an omniscient narrator who appears to know all things will give the reader a broader and more comprehensive grasp of the world the characters inhabit. Recognise that when an omniscient narrator is used, although they may know everything, they don’t necessarily tell the reader everything. Think about why the author might have chosen to withhold some information until a certain point in the text.

You also need to consider the impact of using multiple narrative points of view. For example, in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Penelope’s narration seeks to garner the sympathy of the reader. However, Penelope neglects to reveal the depth of her ruthlessness in maintaining control of her own life. It is the counter-narrative of the Chorus of twelve maids that reveals how they were sacrificed by Penelope to aid her survival.



It is essential to have a detailed knowledge of the characters in your novel. As a starting point, ask yourself the following questions about the protagonist:

  • How do they respond to important events within the novel? What does this tell us about their personality?
  • What ideas and values are revealed by what the character says?
  • How does the protagonist respond to others? What kind of relationships do they have with others? Do these cue us in to any themes such as love, loss or prejudice?

Take the time to understand the roles played by minor characters. Minor characters will often contribute to the changes experienced by a protagonist and serve as a conduit through which the protagonist will reveal much about themselves.



There are many common themes that emerge within texts. In particular, notions such as justice, change, loss, personal growth, love and friendship, identity and belonging, and prejudice will often be revealed through the events and the experiences of the characters. Consider how particular sections of the novel work together (showing cause and effect) to develop and reveal the author’s attitudes towards particular ideas and issues.


Putting it all together

Every year, the VCAA Examination Reports provide detailed discussion of student performances in the previous year’s exam with excerpts from student essays. Read these essays, make note of how top-scoring students incorporate all of the elements listed above in their analysis, and try incorporating some of the vocabulary they use in your own work.


Need help getting to grips with your Year 12 texts? Our Insight Text Guides provide clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text, and include chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes and much more! Head to our website to view our list of Insight Text Guide titles.

Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

Photo credit: Roman Motizov/shutterstock

Responding to film

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Responding to poetry

April 30, 2018