Writing about texts (Fiction)

Preparation

  • Read the text. Needless to say, you cannot write effectively about texts you haven’t read.
  • Exam conditions. Make sure you know exactly what kind of exam you will have to do: How long will it take? What kind of tasks will be offered? Can you choose? Are you allowed to bring your own book? Can you use any text at all? Ask to your teacher for suggestions. 
  • Make annotations. In most cases, annotations will help you to find material for analysis more quickly. Look for leitmotifs, symbols, new characters, major developments in the plot, place names, references to time (dates, specific days, months, seasons).
  • Focus! While reading, think of the exam you are about to sit: Highlight passages of special relevance to the overall topic of your class (e. g. “The Ambiguity of Belonging”).
  • Listen well! Working with the book during the lesson will help you to see what the teacher’s priorities are (important passages, theories about the text, stylistic devices).
  • Revise! Prior to the exam, go through your materials. Usually, teachers will set their exam tasks in accordance with their lessons. Generally, the last few lessons matter most!
  • Improve your range of technical terms! Learn the technical vocabulary you need for writing about literary texts (point of view, narrative techniques, registers of style, stylistic devices, tropes, genres …).
  • Learn how to structure your text! As you might guess, your essay should have some kind of structure – often, expectations will go beyond “introduction - middle part - ending”. It is advisable to ask your teacher for templates and to take down the main steps of writing. Also, revise specialized vocabulary to structure texts!
  • Test yourself! Write a mock exam and ask your teacher to correct it (if time permits).
  • Make checklists! Even if you can never be too sure which topic will come up in the exam, make checklists with important points for exam questions.

Analyse the exam layout and make a draft!

Before you start writing, make sure you understand the task descriptions: Analyse how the concept of masculinity is reflected in the protagonists of “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”!

  • What exactly are you supposed to do? There is a limited range of operators (“Analyse…”, “Examine …”).
  • How many different tasks are hidden in the task descriptions? (“Analyse … and show how…”).
  • How many credits will you get – and what for?
  • What kind of text is provided? Where does it come from? Do you see any indication of source? Are there any annotations to guide you with the vocabulary?
  • Don’t start writing on the spot – make a draft! First, collect your ideas and arrange them purposefully! Use checklists! Make sure your notes contain not only your theses but also some evidence from the text to back up your statements!

The Stage of Writing: Template for “Analyse…”

The concept of masculinity in Tom Franklin’s “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”: Analysis

The title of your essay should consist of three elements:

a) the author;

b) the title;

c) the kind of essay.

Tom Franklin’s bestselling novel “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”, published in 2011, is set in rural Mississippi. It tells the story of two characters, “Scary” Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones. Besides, the reader is introduced to economic and cultural realities of the Deep South. As the chapters jump back and forward in time, the past and present of those two characters unfold – presenting the on-going events from each of the two characters' points of view. The plot focusses on the crime investigations around two disappeared girls – one in 1982 and the other just recently. As the relation between the two boys in the past is revealed, the crimes of the past and present are unfolded too.

In the introduction,

a) name the author, title, genre, and year of publication;

b) inform the reader where the text is set, who the protagonists are, and what the text is about (= message);

c) make the reader understand the way the text is composed (point of view) and give a very brief summary of the plot.

With two male protagonists, masculinity is an important aspect to be examined all throughout the novel. In this context, “masculinity” refers to the characteristics and patterns of behaviour that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for men. If you compare the male protagonists of “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”, there are some striking differences in the way how Larry and Silas respond to the concept of masculinity. This sheds a new light on the overall interpretation of the novel.

In the next paragraph,

a) define the task by explaining the most important terms;

b) subdivide the task into various aspects or categories;

c) point out why these aspects are relevant to understand the text;

d) show how they relate to the plot,

e) give an outlook on your structure (what you are going to write about).

In his teenage years, Silas serves an example of unchallenged masculinity. Although he has grown up without male role models beyond his mother’s boyfriend Oliver, he seems to have adopted typical features of masculine behaviour. In contrast to Larry, he excels as a baseball player and seems to be a respected member of his all-male peer group. Moreover, he displays his chivalry by defending Cindy Walker against her step-fathers sexual advances and proves his appeal to women by dating her. In general, it is hard to tell whether Silas follows traditional Southern values or whether he represents a specifically African American code, but it is evident that he complies with standards of masculinity. As an adult, however, he seems far less eager to identify with traditional roles – he opens up about his feelings to his girlfriend Angie. Obviously, Silas has matured.

Following your layout, you will deal with each category separately, but linking it to the main topic. You are expected to divide your findings into paragraphs.

Each paragraph contains …

a) a topic sentence to introduce the reader to the respective topic,

b) a mainbody for argumentation and evidence,

c) a conclusion or closing statement to highlight the most important outcome of the paragraph.

Larry, however, fails to meet his father’s expectations in many ways. As a teenager, he shows no interest in becoming a mechanic (a profession often regarded as suitable for men), he doesn’t engage with women and stays away from activities that are traditionally regarded as typical for males. Unlike Silas, he prefers reading to physical activities. This is why often gets taunted by his father – he is seen as effeminate and weak. Only when he announces his presumed date with Cindy, he wins his father’s respect. All in all, it becomes quite obvious that Larry does not fit in well with the code of behaviour expected of male Southerners in the 70s. He abhors male domination of women which becomes clear when he doesn’t share Wallace Stringfellow’s fantasies of sexual violence. Generally speaking, Larry seems to very very consistent in his denial of toxic masculinity.

With every new paragraph, keep a few things in mind:

a) stick to the main topic;

b) use the simple present to talk about the plot and present your findings;

c) use structuring phrases and advance organizers;

d) link your paragraph to the first part to show connections;

e) if materials are provided, work with the text – use direct and indirect quotes;

f) if no material is provided, you still have to offer sufficient and detailed evidence.

There are two passages in particular that illustrate how differently Silas and Larry react to situations that may reveal their masculinity. When Silas takes over Larry’s responsibility of “cutting the grass”, Carl praises his son for managing a task that requires a certain amount of skills and physical strength. This is one of the rare examples when Carl displays a positive attitude towards his son. The second passage shows Larry as he gets pushed into a fistfight against Silas – Carl, posing as referee, harshly criticizes his son for losing this test of masculinity. In both passages, Silas and Larry are forced to enter a state of competition; they are very reluctant to subject themselves to such a contest.

Depending on the task description in the exam, you have to follow certain routines. Typical operators include:

a) CONTENT: define, describe, find evidence for, prove, outline, point out, present how, state the reasons for, summarize;

b) ANALYSIS: analyse, examine, describe and explain; compare and contrast; show and illustrate;

c) INTERPRETATION: assess and evaluate; comment on and reflect on; discuss, interpret, justify.

In this example, you are to compare concepts of masculinity with regard to the protagonists. Furthermore, you need to give evidence for your statements. Use passages from the text to illustrate what has been said before.

Throughout the novel, Larry and Silas are complementary characters – two brothers that depend on each other to understand their respective development. Interestingly, masculinity has never been an important factor in their relationship. When they meet again, gender issues seem to be completely irrelevant. Once they have reached adulthood, they get rid of stereotypical notions of male role-fulfilment and begin to understand that gender is only a minor factor in who we are. In “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”, toxic masculinity (represented by Carl Ott and Cecil Walker) leads to sexual violence and broken relationships. Larry and Ott serve as examples that masculinity can be interpreted in different ways.

In the closing paragraph, present your conclusion by taking it to a more general, more abstract level. It is also important to place your findings in the framework of the entire text (the novel / drama). Also, you should integrate the aspect you had to examine in a wider context, linking it to general discourse.

Second Template: Success in "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter"

TASK DESCRIPTION: With the ending of Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" in mind, analyse whether the protagonists have been succesful in their personal lives.
 

Tom Franklin’s “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”: Do Silas and Larry succeed? – Analysis

Tom Franklin’s novel “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter”, published in 2011, is set in a small community in rural Mississippi. Against the background of two murder cases, the reader is introduced to Larry Ott and Silas Jones, two very different characters who meet again in their native Chabot after 25 years. In the course of the plot, they uncover a secret from their past: Silas, the African American police constable, and Larry, the outsider and murder suspect, are sons of the same father. With frequent flashbacks, the chapters alternate between Silas’s and Larry’s point of view.

To be able to compare both characters with regard to their fictional biographies, we need to clarify whether Silas and Larry have succeeded in their personal lives. Consequently, we need to define “success”.

To be successful means to rise from a low position to a much better position at last, removing obstacles on the way in order to achieve a certain goal. Though, success is not entirely within everyone’s reach, as it is always determined by factors as gender or race. With this definition in mind, are Larry and Silas successful in their personal lives?

At first, Larry looks like a complete failure. Later on, we see he has also gained something.

Materially, Larry has lost more than he has gained. Looking back from the ending of the novel, Larry has started from a middle-class background, heir to a potentially profitable business and several acres of land. However, after he is suspected of having raped and killed Cindy Walker, his neighbours’ daughter and his only date in his teenage years, he has to sell most of his property. Moreover, he has failed socially. Having grown up as his parent’s only son, he struggles to gain his father's respect. On top of that, Larry remains an outsider for most of his youth. He finds him all the more isolated after the murder allegations against him. Above that, he has lost his father in a car accident and is forced to leave his mother in an inexpensive nursing home, River Acres.

But from another angle, Larry has not been entirely unsuccessful in the end. First of all, his innocence has finally been proven. This may not only give him personal satisfaction, but also enable him to build up a new social network. The most important gain in his biography is certainly Silas. Not only does he win a friend who takes care of him, but he also meets his brother to develop a new sense of belonging. From how he refutes Wallace’s morbid fantasies, we can conclude that he has successfully developed a set of moral values and a firm attitude towards violence.

So, Larry has lost most of his property and remains an outsider, but he is no longer completely isolated.

Silas, too, has not been very successful in terms of a career.

In terms of a career, he has not made any significant progress. Having returned to his native Chabot, he is a simple constable in charge of traffic patrols. As a result, he lives in a trailer and seems be quite disillusioned about getting ahead in life. Despite his newly gained fame after his successful investigations against Wallace Stringfellow, his career options are still limited. In addition, Silas has not overcome his failure as a friend – this is why he is so reluctant admitting his friendship with Larry but still supports him in hospital. While Larry is not to blame for his own misery, Silas blames himself for his.

But in contrast to Larry, Silas can open up to his girl-friend Angie who shows that she is honestly interested in him. When they meet at the diner, Silas seems to have so much confidence in her that he shares his childhood memories with Angie. Furthermore, he is embedded in a network of co-workers who support and appreciate him. Roy French just as well as Voncille seem to be on good terms with Silas. With regard to his personal development, we can clearly see that Silas has learned a lesson. He has acknowledged that he has betrayed his friendship with Larry on several occasions, especially at the haunted mansion, when Silas turns his back on him. This motivates him to take over responsibility for Larry while his half-brother is in hospital.

In conclusion, Silas has gained more than he has lost.

To sum it up, neither of the characters has been completely successful, but on the other hand, neither has turned out to be a complete failure. To put it briefly, we can say that both characters may not have attained material goals, but they have still developed emotionally. In the end, both are able to identify each other as friends – and not only as friends, but as brothers. With Larry proven innocent and Silas’s acknowledging his guilt, the reader understands that all the wrongs of the past have been righted. Thus, the novel contains – to say the least – promises of a happy ending.

 (approx. 500 words)