Bringing Life to Literary Analysis

Lessons Learned in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

My wife and I are big enough film buffs that it’s pretty commonplace for us to comment aloud about the beauty of a particular shot’s composition or color or general aesthetic while watching a film.  Our kids are used to hearing such remarks even during family movie night.  

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after I had remarked about a favorite shot from the opening scene in Star Wars The Force Awakens , my eight-year-old chimed in a few scenes later, “THIS is my favorite shot in the movie.”  It was the first shot of Rey, the film’s heroine, so perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that the shot stood out to her.  And yet, look at it:

starwars56266a4e8641eScreenshot:  The Force Awakens (20th Century Fox)  

It’s not exactly the introduction of a strong-willed heroine for a young girl to idolize and fall in love with.  It’s…strange and foreign.  Off-putting, even potentially villainous (the costume design of the mask strikes a perfect balance between menace and utilitarian practicality).  I ended up pausing the film for a second and we talked about a few different shots in the film, and it turned out she had some fairly sophisticated reasons for loving each of them.  Her “mentor text” for such thinking had simply been my wife and I talking film in front of her.

This got me thinking about how we actually talk about literature, and movies, and other works of art.  You don’t have to look much farther than Twitter for evidence of this–the account “One Perfect Shot” quite literal posts a single film image every hour or so that they consider perfectly composed.  Occasionally they feature analysis of a singular scene and look closely at its effectiveness.  I do similar things all the time with my colleagues when talking about favorite books–it’s how we interact with art.


Image via “One Perfect Shot” on

What Happens When We “Go Big”?

The thing is, this looks nothing like the many variations of literary analysis writing I devote time to in my HS classes.  Topics vary, but it feels like ultimately my students are always writing the same paper.  Lit analysis tends to fall back on some variation of “prove to me you have mastered an understanding of this work based on X.”  X then becomes some interchangeable variable like “theme” or “characterization”.  

Nothing wrong with any of those!  Except if I want anything out of this form of writing, it’s passion and engagement on the part of my students.  When we ask a student to become an expert on the whole book at once, a lot of our writers instinctively shrink from the task, and their writing voices shrink with them.  Maybe the secret to more engaged literary analysis might be to make it look more like the way we talk about art–in terms of the moments we love best, or that got us thinking the most.

We usually ask students to examine the entirety of a text in a literary analysis.  Good teachers of course help make this manageable.  Graphic organizers guide the writing and evidence hunting, the focal points of the prompt I mentioned earlier make the task feel less overwhelming, and teacher modeling during the reading points out obvious and useful examples for students to use as starting points in their own analyses.

It’s worth considering the potential pitfalls and limitations to these sorts of well-intentioned efforts, at least in my experiences with them.  Graphic organizers are an enormous help for struggling writers but invite a reliance on formula that can be hard to drag them away from later.  Narrower prompts help kids focus their reading attention on a task, but their narrowness also tends to limit the reader’s freedom to interact with the text in a personal way.  Modeling helps kids see how to read purposefully but then closes off sections of the text from being explored freshly in their own writing.

Trading Scope for Substance

Which brings me back to the way my daughter started chatting about a movie.  She could never explain the visual aesthetic of JJ Abrams as a director but she did a pretty nice job of explaining what she liked about that first moment we meet her hero.  If an eight year old whose only film education is listening to her mom and dad nerd out can produce this, why couldn’t a high school writer do the same with a work of literature?  

As readers, we recognize the nuance of a piece first and then consider it as a whole.  Sometimes we never end up engaging with the entire work in any personal way, but small moments may still have an impact.  I loathe the thematic substance of John Updike’s Rabbit Run, but I could read the gorgeous prose of that opening scene of a pickup basketball game in an alley all day and not get bored:


A Sample annotation of Updike

While this approach to literary analysis has its own potential pitfalls, I’m hopeful that the increase in voice and buy-in from the kids will make up for it.   It allows them to not only individualize their paper more, but to take some control of the discussion of literature itself.  Suddenly they’re coming to the conference table with a lot of ownership about their perspective and opinions.  

Students can direct their analysis at scenes they’re comfortable with and intrigued by.  Even students who disliked a text now have an entry point–they could pick a scene they didn’t despise, or, they could choose a scene that encapsulates their frustrations with the book and examine how the writing disappoints their expectations as readers.  

The other advantage here is that student voice should increase.  Traditional literary analysis tends to produce cold, lifeless pieces from kids.  Their mentor texts here should be things like book and movie reviews, but even beyond that, students should get more exposure to all the think pieces on the internet that zero in on particular moments or elements of books and movies that are worth paying attention to.  In fact, in an odd way, one of their best mentor texts might be the natural conversations they have with their friends about works that they love and ones they don’t.  Literary analysis should ultimately sound more like the way we interact with art in our everyday lives.  

As Rebekah and others have accurately pointed out, we aren’t training our students to become English Majors.  But helping them to think more genuinely about art seems like a really good use of writing time.


How do you encourage voice in literary analysis writing?

Do you have fun ways of helping students interact meaningfully with a text before they write about it?

How do you engage every writer during a writing lesson?

You can connect with me on Twitter @zigthinks or on Facebook at


  1. I like the idea that the “think piece” is the literary essay out in the wild. It’s an example genre of how memoir, evidence, and analysis come together.

    I’ve had students write about the rise and fall of the Disney Channel and about how Mean Girls changed the high school movie forever.

    I’m also convinced that the “think piece” genre is on the rise since journalism has moved from print to online and from sending investigative reporters out into the field on assignments (expensive) towards freelancers writing and producing content at their leisure (not expensive). I’m concerned as to what that shift means for the future of readers and writers …. but that’s neither here nor there.

    1. Yes–I agree completely! I love the way you summarize this too: memoir, evidence, and analysis all working in unison. We’re talking in my district right now about whether to tear down the walls of genre (right now we still speak in terms of informative, argumentative, narrative as discrete) and I think you’ve succinctly explained why we need to follow through on that plan. Thanks!

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