A literary analysis assignment will ask you questions about a passage or text, and require you to use examples that back of your answer. Finding the right answer usually requires you to point to different parts of the text, and explain how they relate to each other. Knowing how to do this can be challenging, especially for students who don’t connect with the text or know where to start. I’ve made this step-by-step manual in an effort to make answering these types of questions more straightforward.

1. The First Read

Read the passage once, slowly and carefully. As you read, do not worry about memorizing the story or its details. Instead, focus on understanding each sentence as you are reading it.

With complicated texts, it’s common to be half sure of what a sentence means — try not to settle for “getting the general idea of what they’re saying”.

When you try to really understand a hard sentence, you might realize halfway through the sentence that you’re lost. This is common. You try to reread the sentence, but then get lost again at the same part. If you keep restarting the sentence halfway through, you can get stuck in a loop. The reason you might be getting stuck is because you are trying to do two things at once: reading a wordy sentence without mentally stuttering, and understanding what the sentence is saying. Focus on one of these things ta a time: start with getting comfortable with the phonetics (sounds) of the sentence.

Do this by reading the full sentence (don’t stop halfway through like you were doing). It’s okay that you don’t understand what you are reading — the goal is just to read it once in your head without mentally stuttering or pausing. Get comfortable with the structure and sounds of this sentence.

Now that you are very comfortable with reading the sentence, focus on the meaning of each word. You should will find this step easier now.

Instead, set a high standard for yourself at this step, and make sure you are confident with each sentence. Use a dictionary generously if you have access to one. If dictionaries aren’t helpful for you, use a thesaurus instead (thesauruses will give you a synonym, or a simpler word, to replace the word you don’t know). Most sentences will require you to read them at least twice: the first time, focus on pronouncing the words in your head without hesitating. The second time, focus on the meaning of each word.

By the end of the passage, it’s okay if you don’t remember most of what you read. However, any sentence you go back to later should now be somewhat familiar, and fully understandable/not confusing anymore.

2. Rephrase and Understand the Question

Literary analysis questions are often frustrating to read. Often students understand all the words in the question, but don’t fully know what they are being asked to find. Take this question, for example:

“What role do secondary characters play in influencing the development of the main character?”

Most students understand all the words in that question, but still struggle to fully understand what they are actually being asked. Your task at this step is to make sure you are 100% sure of what the question is asking — do not settle for 75%. If you settle for a “half understanding”, your answer will “half answer” the question, and likely get marks removed for being too general. Here is a literary analysis question; let’s try to understand what it is asking us:

“What role do secondary characters play in influencing the development of the main character?”

At first glance, it can be tough to understand what the question is even asking. For some students, understanding the question is possible when they reread the question slowly, several times. Often each word makes sense, but collectively they do not. If this is happening to you, use the strategy I explained earlier on this page: read the sentence once to familiar yourself with the phonetics, and then focus on the meaning of each word. As mentioned, you can use a Thesaurus to help you simplify the question by replacing hard words with their synonyms.

Another great way to make sure you understand the question is to use Chat GPT. Pop the question into Chat GPT and ask her to rephrase it in simpler words.

If you have access to Chat GPT, type in the question and ask to rephrase it in simpler words. Look how much it helped!

After you’ve understood the question, memorize what it is specifically asking you. Really memorize it — look away from the question and see if you can say it on your own. It’s okay if your version of the question has different or simpler words (as long as you are asking the same question). Does the question have two parts? Are you being asked to provide examples and evidence for your answer? Make sure all the parts of the question are being memorized.

With the question memorized and understood, reread the passage. You will naturally read it at a quicker pace, because you have already read it properly once. As you read through it, constantly remind yourself of the question you are trying to answer. Underline or mark any example that helps answer the question, or gives examples which support your answer. Underline anything and everything that helps answer the question — you don’t need to use all of it in your final answer, but please underline or mark it for now.

Now it’s time to answer the question. Each answer should have three parts to it.

A) Answer the Question in One Sentence

Start with a sentence that directly answers the question. Your sentence should contain and repeat some of the words from the question. Consider this question:

How would you describe Adam’s personality? Use examples and evidence from the text.

I would start off my response by directly answering the question in one sentence, repeating a few words from the question itself: “I would describe Adam has having a shy and lonely personality.” Notice how I answered the question very directly, and repeated some words from the question (describe, Adam, and personality are three words I used in my sentence that were originally from the question).

B) Point to One Example

Your next sentence should point to an example in the text that backs up what you just said. Look at all the underlines you made in the text. Choose one of these examples to start with (you can add more later, but start with one). Your sentence can look like this:

This is shown when <describe example in your own words>.

If you need to mention what a character said and want to quote them, you sentence can instead look like this:

“This is shown when <character’s name> says <insert quote>.”

In the case of Adam, I could say

“This is shown when Adam goes to his neighbour’s backyard party and spends most of the time with the dog.”

C) Explain Why You Chose This Example

Your next sentence should explain why this example backs up your answer. Sometimes, it can feel very obvious to you why the example helps justify your answer. In any case, pretend somebody asked you: “Why are you bringing that example up?”

How would you answer them?

Your sentence should look like this:

This example shows <repeat your answer from the first sentence> because <insert justification here>.

In the case of Adam spending time with the dog at the party, I feel like the example does a good job of showing why he is shy (to show he’s lonely, I’ll can use a different example later).

This example shows that Adam has a shy personality because he did not take the opportunity to talk to anybody else at the party, and instead only felt comfortable with the dog.

Sometimes it’s hard to answer the question of “why did I chose this example” because you feel like the answer is too obvious. Let’s say say your example was “Adam sat in his room and cried almost every day.” It might seem obvious to you that this example shows he had a sad personality, so answering the question of “Why are you choosing this example” might seem obvious. Try to answer it anyways, even if your answer is just as obvious. You could say “Crying every day usually means you are upset about something, so this example shows he has a sad personality.”

Go through B and C again

Reread the sentence you wrote in step (A). Do you feel like the example and justification you gave in steps (B) and (C) are enough to show that (A) is true? In the case of Adam, our answer for (A) was that he had a shy and lonely personality, but in steps (B) and (C) we only gave the reader and example that showed he was shy. In order to fully prove my answer, we need to give another example to show he is lonely. I should therefore give another example (step B) of him doing something alone, and then explain why that example shows he is lonely.

When you’re done answering the question, move on to the next question, and repeat the steps above, starting with step 2.

If you need more support with essay writing or literary texts, give us a call at the tutoring centre. We can help you directly, or potentially point you towards some free resources in your area.

Written by Lauren Fagen

Lauren is the owner and director of Genesis Tutoring. She builds strategies for advanced math courses and standardized logic tests. Working with only a handful of students at a time, Lauren ensures that each student and family has a clear path towards their academic goals. Outside of the tutoring centre, Lauren has a deep connection with animals, primitive survival, and making art.

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