Advice for writing literary or film-based essays



The following is intended to offer help in the writing and structuring of essays on literary or cinematic topics.


In my opinion, the key to successful essay writing is analysis.


The Question


Crucially, the process of analysis should begin with the very title of the essay, or the question which has been set. In order to remain relevant, the very wording of the question should be considered, and attention paid to definitions of the terms used. The wording of the question itself may help structure a response.


Good questions will allow development of observations or reflections, but relevance must be maintained and subjective interpretation and irrelevant personal digressions should be avoided.

Clearly it is difficult to see the usefulness of these notes without reference to an example, so let's say you are studying "Les Misérables" and have been set the following question:


"To what extent can Javert be regarded as Jean Valjean's evil opponent?"


Firstly, you should restrict yourself to discussion of Valjean and Javert - inclusion of other characters should be used only to illustrate aspects of Valjean and Javert's characters.

Note the opposition of Valjean and Javert in the question - is the delineation as clear-cut as is suggested in the question?


Consider "evil" with respect to Javert - is this a suitable term to describe him?

Given the opposition of Valjean and Javert in the question, this suggests Valjean is "good".

Would Javert consider himself "evil"?

Would Valjean consider himself "good"?

Why is Javert Valjean's "opponent"?

Why does he pursue Valjean?

Why do we sympathise with Valjean?


Analysis of the question and the terms of the question have thus lent themselves to the structuring of a response.


The Structure


Most essays will consist of:


An introduction in which the question is analysed and a context is provided.


The main body in which evidence is presented in response to the analysis of the question.


A conclusion in which the various points made are drawn together and summarised.


Reading or watching a film


In producing an essay, the writer is trying elicit meaning and clarify his/her own thoughts or response to material. To do so, the reader/viewer must pay attention to detail. It is not enough to simply read a book or watch a film. The reader/viewer must learn to see and understand what is implied by the use of certain words, structures, or techniques. An author or director will employ certain structures or have his/her characters act in a certain way for a purpose. Consideration should be given to the effect produced, and how it is achieved.


Character and character development


Actions and words spoken by characters will reveal their feelings and motivations. As in life, actions and words reveal personality and character - consider what is done and said, and what these tell the reader/viewer about attitude and feelings.


Consider also changes and developments in the characters in the course of the work - how does he/she change and why?


How do these changes (or lack of them, which can be equally noteworthy) contribute to the themes of the piece?




The themes of a book or film are expressed and developed principally through the actions and dialogue of its characters. An overview of characters and their development is therefore essential to the discernment of themes, and indeed identifying a theme common to a number of characters (or entire works) may well help the reader/viewer gain a fuller understanding. What may seem isolated scenes or even films may become part of a bigger picture (and greater clarification gained) if a common thread or theme can be identified.


How the work is written/produced


The author/director will try to achieve certain effects - the reader/viewer should try to discern what these effects are, and how they are achieved.


An author will produce a number of effects by varying his/her techniques and structures - he/she may use simple or complex language, formal or informal, brief descriptions or sentences, or lengthier ones. The words and techniques will have been chosen after due consideration - care should be taken in deciding their effect.


Equally, a director will produce a certain atmosphere, create a certain response, or change the pace - awareness of these elements and many more should be developed.

Authors and directors may also use metaphor and symbolism to try to clarify or broaden the impact of their work.


The best general advice is to be open and receptive, and not impose an emotional response to a situation on the characters - we are trying to elicit their response, nnot our own.

Bear in mind it is entirely acceptable to have ambivalent feelings about stories or characters, indeed this is a technique that may be used deliberately by authors and directors in order to underline the complexity of a theme or topic.


Clarity of expression


It is quite common to feel like collapsing in an inarticulate heap as you try to express yourself in an essay. If that is the case, have a break and think about what you feel about a character or theme, ask yourself what you are trying to say, and set about stating your feelings as clearly as possible. Many modern books and reports are "over written", that is to say the authors frequently use language chosen to suggest their own knowledge and intelligence, but at the expense of clarity and communication. Please do not fall into that trap!


Clearly it is impossible to produce something which will meet every reader's needs, but I hope you have found these notes of some help.

You will find useful suggestions on the writing of a conclusion to your essay here.


Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.