How to Write an A* Prose Essay (A-level English Lit)

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Quirky Object
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Hi! Here is the prose version of my A-level English lit poetry guide (only ten months late...). The main essay I’m going to refer to received 38/40 and is not a perfect essay, but it does demonstrate some of the things examiners will be looking for. My texts are Frankenstein and The Handmaid’s Tale and the title of this essay is “Compare the ways in which the writers of your two chosen texts present family relationships.” This essay was written in timed conditions.


Introduction:

Since you’re partly assessed for AO3 (context) in prose comparison essays, and context is a useful way to add some ‘bigger picture’ perspective to your analysis, an introduction – the part of your essay where you give a ‘bigger picture’ overview before going into detail – is the ideal place to include context. Here is an example of an introduction which I started with context (the essay title was “Compare the ways in which the writers of your chosen texts criticise individuals”):


Example 1
To an extent, both “Frankenstein” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” can be seen as social critiques. In “Frankenstein”, Shelley criticises what she saw as a dangerous trend towards obsessive rationality, encouraged by the rapid industrialisation and scientific advancement of the 19th century. Motivated by an entirely different set of circumstances, Atwood criticises patriarchy and the tendency of male narratives to dominate literature, influenced by the writings of Cixous and reacting against the social conservatism of the 1980s. However, both writers also use the behaviour of individual characters as a vehicle to critique wider societal trends. They do so by inviting the reader to question the protagonists’ actions and attitudes, and also those of the protagonists’ character doubles and adversaries.





Comparing the contexts of your two texts and their different (or similar) influences on the texts is a good way to bring in both AO3 and AO4. The more nuanced this comparison is, the better; in this introduction I mentioned that although each author writes in a different social context and makes different criticisms of society, they use similar methods (the criticism of protagonists, antagonists and character doubles) to convey their criticisms of society through individuals. In the last sentence I established the structure for the essay to follow, which is the essential part of any introduction.


Of course, you don’t always need context in the introduction:



Example 2
In both novels, the protagonists are separated from families which had once seemed to be safe havens for them. However, the character of this separation is different in each novel; Victor Frankenstein retains a much greater sense of his complicity in his own isolation from his family and therefore is much more inclined to blame himself and actively seek to put things right. Meanwhile, Offred has been reduced to passivity by her entirely forced separation from her own family. This contrast is perhaps reflected most clearly by the dreams which each character has of their family; Victor’s dreams and memories encourage him to strengthen his resolve and fight his tormenter, while in Offred’s dreams, her passive role is emphasised.





This may not hit AO3, but close comparison and a clear outline of the essay’s structure work well for AO4 and AO1. You need to keep this close comparison going throughout your essay.


Points:
Here are examples of a similarity point and a contrast point. The balance between similarities and contrasts should be quite even in your essay in order to demonstrate your ability to make different kinds of links.


Similarity
The extent to which both protagonists viewed their formerly close family relations as a safe haven is emphasised by the idealisation associated with both families. Victor’s childhood was idyllic, and Shelley uses a form of the superlative and a modal verb to stress its superiority to any other possible childhood: “No human being could have possessed a happier childhood than myself.” The implication that Victor’s life growing up with his family was not only happy, but the happiest possible, gives an impression of idealisation. As well as Victor idealising his childhood, his parents idealised him: “I was their plaything and their idol, and something better – their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven.” The use of terms in the semantic field of religion, such as “idol” and “Heaven”, combined with the imperative serves to elevate Victor’s childhood relationship with his parents. Even the setting of his upbringing illustrates its idyllic nature. Switzerland, and Alpine settings in general, have enjoyed a reputation for tranquillity and safety for centuries and are correspondingly often used in European literature to epitomise peaceful surroundings. In particular, they have a long tradition of being used as the setting for utopian novels, a tradition which H.G. Wells pays homage to in “A Modern Utopia” (a book written expressly to draw on the same 19th century utopian tradition which may have influenced Shelley). It is therefore fitting for such utopian surroundings to be used in “Frankenstein”, to make Victor’s subsequent isolation from his family even more jarring in contrast.


Offred’s upbringing and family life – both with her mother and in the family she formed with Luke – are set in a society very similar to that which was contemporary to Atwood. Being contemporary society, it could not be called a utopian setting, unlike Victor’s perfect childhood home in Belrive. However, it does seem considerably more utopian in relation to Offred’s dystopian present. Offred expresses a strong desire to return to her past with her family, saying “I want Luke here so badly. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not. I want to be more than valuable,” and “I want her [Offred’s mother] back. I want everything back, the way that it was.” The repetition of “I want” in both cases highlights the intensity of Offred’s longing for the past. This sets up a similar contrast between utopian past and dystopian present to that which exists in “Frankenstein”; Victor establishes this contrast by saying “I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind.” This shows another, related similarity between the two protagonists: both display an eagerness to tell stories which recount better times than what their lives have become, with Offred saying “I’m too tired to go on with this story […] Here is a different story, a better one.” For both characters, “better” stories involve an idealised, almost utopian past, in the company of their family.




This is a very long point which could probably have been made more concisely, but it does address all of the assessment objectives, as follows:


  • Picking up the idea of a “safe haven” straight from the introduction and clearly stating that the first point of the essay is about idealisation. (AO1)
  • Language analysis, commenting on the effects of specific grammatical features (modal verbs/superlatives/imperatives) and word choice. (AO2)
  • Analysis of the effect of the author’s choice of setting (AO2) and link to the sociocultural and literary context of this setting. (AO3)
  • Link back to the essay title, summarising how the author presents family relationships in light of what has been discussed in this paragraph. (AO1)
  • Introducing the second novel (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) using a context point (AO3) and immediate comparison with “Frankenstein.” (AO4)
  • Analysis of the effect of word repetition in “The Handmaid’s Tale” (AO2) and comparison with the effect achieved in “Frankenstein” using quotations, which are linked directly to another comparison point. (AO4)
  • Link back to the essay title. (AO1)



The following contrast point does not use context, but is more concise and contains lots of close language analysis and comparison.

Contrast
While both novels’ main characters are unwillingly separated from their families, it is clear that the separation was entirely forced in Offred’s case, while Victor blames himself and his own creation. The language used to describe Offred’s separation from her daughter implies that she could have done nothing about it; the asyndeton and passive verb in “she’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held” suggests that this was a sequence of events which inevitably, autonomously unfold. Passive verbs are used to similar effect in “[time] has washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child […] I’ve been obliterated for her.” Imagery using sand implies something which can be washed and crumbled away easily, once again emphasising Offred’s passivity and helplessness as she is ripped away from her family. In contrast, Victor is always the subject of verbs which describe his separation from his family; notably, not only is he the subject of the sentence “I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime”, but the simile invoking crime foreshadows the criminal behaviour of the creature in the future and Victor’s responsibility for it. This behaviour is the reason behind Victor’s ultimate separation from his family, and this sentence presents Victor himself as its root cause.




  • Nuanced comparison between the two novels (i.e. mentioning a similarity and a contrast). (AO4)
  • Language analysis: the effects of asyndeton, passive verbs and imagery involving sand. (AO2)
  • Link between language techniques used in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and those used in “Frankenstein” (passive vs active verbs) and the contrasting effects of each. (AO4)
  • Link back to the title (a conclusive statement about family relationships). (AO1)



Conclusion:

Conclusions are fairly straightforward; just sum up the main similarities and differences you’ve discussed in your essay, maybe linking in a context point you’ve already made. My conclusions pretty much always follow this format:

Example
At first glance, the family relationships presented by the two authors seem similar; they both involve an element of idealisation, the eventual separation of families and instances where the protagonists dream of being reunited with them. However, the destruction of Victor’s family idyll – for which he considers himself responsible – motivates him to fight his oppressor to the death, while the destruction of Offred’s family, which she could not help, drives her further into passivity and subservience to the regime.




Hope this was helpful! Let me know if you have any questions. I’d be happy to make a drama version of these guides if you think that would be useful. I'm aware that I'm being a bit of a killjoy by sticking so closely to the assessment objectives for the exam, which can seem restrictive, but at this point we all just want our A*s :lol:
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It's very nice of you to make a thread with the intention of helping those needing more assistance with their essay writing.

If it's OK with you, I've noted down some technical points for you to consider:

1. When you mention a writer for the first time in an essay, make sure to write their full name. In other words, Mary Shelley / Margaret Atwood. Afterwards, always refer to them by their surname or pseudonym etc.

2. Try restructuring your opening sentence so it doesn't sound so awkward. For example: Both “Frankenstein” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” can be seen as social critiques to an extent.

3. Try easing into your essay question by setting the scene rather than diving straight in. It'll make your writing flow better and sound more natural.

4. Your use of 'however' is incorrect in your introduction. Words like 'however' and the like indicate that you'll introduce a contrasting view or opinion; but, in your case, you're attempting to use it in place of 'furthermore' or 'moreover'.

5. "Motivated by an entirely different set of circumstances, Atwood criticises patriarchy and the tendency of male narratives to dominate literature, influenced by the writings of Cixous and reacting against the social conservatism of the 1980s."

Always employ the active voice: Atwood, on the other hand, is motivated by an entirely different set of circumstances and as such she criticises patriarchy and the tendency of male narratives to dominate literature...

6. "influenced by the writings of Cixous and reacting against the social conservatism of the 1980s"
Who or what is influenced by the writings of Cixous? Atwood? Or, the male narrative meta within literature? It's not clear by what you've written.
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(Original post by Quick-use)
It's very nice of you to make a thread with the intention of helping those needing more assistance with their essay writing.

If it's OK with you, I've noted down some technical points for you to consider:

1. When you mention a writer for the first time in an essay, make sure to write their full name. In other words, Mary Shelley / Margaret Atwood. Afterwards, always refer to them by their surname or pseudonym etc.

That is very true, I completely missed that not sure why my teacher didn’t correct that when this essay was marked.

2. Try restructuring your opening sentence so it doesn't sound so awkward. For example: Both “Frankenstein” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” can be seen as social critiques to an extent.

I think this is pretty subjective. I'd have agreed with you if "to an extent" had been placed after "seen", but I feel it's ok to put an adverb prepositional phrase at the start or at the end of a sentence (perhaps depending on what you want to emphasise) as long as it’s separated from the rest of the sentence. In this case, I could argue that I’m emphasising the relative nature of each novel’s status as a social critique rather than the fact that both of them could be considered to have this status, but the difference in emphasis is fairly insignificant, so it doesn’t really matter.

3. Try easing into your essay question by setting the scene rather than diving straight in. It'll make your writing flow better and sound more natural.
I didn’t think this was as necessary for this particular essay question, since family relationships are quite a self-explanatory idea; there isn’t much need to establish a definition before launching into the argument or much relevant context to add. I guess it could be done, though. How would you have done it?

4. Your use of 'however' is incorrect in your introduction. Words like 'however' and the like indicate that you'll introduce a contrasting view or opinion; but, in your case, you're attempting to use it in place of 'furthermore' or 'moreover'.
I totally disagree :lol: the sense is “despite the fact that both protagonists are separated from their families, each protagonist responds differently to/plays a different role in this separation”, which is a contrast. Any other reading of that sentence seems very unnatural to me, though that’s probably because I wrote it and had this contrasting sense in mind all along.

5. "Motivated by an entirely different set of circumstances, Atwood criticises patriarchy and the tendency of male narratives to dominate literature, influenced by the writings of Cixous and reacting against the social conservatism of the 1980s."

Always employ the active voice: Atwood, on the other hand, is motivated by an entirely different set of circumstances and as such she criticises patriarchy and the tendency of male narratives to dominate literature...
I know we’re technically supposed to avoid the passive voice and I agree that overusing it can make sentences convoluted, buut I feel like the passive needs to be cut some slack (😉). Using the passive in order to emphasise the role of this entirely different set of circumstances (or any other agent) is perfectly valid, and also allows one to switch round the syntax for further emphasis. English syntax is already rigid enough without us narrowing the possibilities even more :’)

6. "influenced by the writings of Cixous and reacting against the social conservatism of the 1980s"
Who or what is influenced by the writings of Cixous? Atwood? Or, the male narrative meta within literature? It's not clear by what you've written.
Yep, you’re right. I suppose the examiner could infer what I mean (Cixous isn't exactly the biggest supporter of patriarchal narratives), but it isn’t really their job to do so; I should’ve written “having been influenced by...”

Thanks for the feedback, I love discussing this sort of thing
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(Original post by Quirky Object)
That is very true, I completely missed that not sure why my teacher didn’t correct that when this essay was marked.




I think this is pretty subjective. I'd have agreed with you if "to an extent" had been placed after "seen", but I feel it's ok to put an adverb prepositional phrase at the start or at the end of a sentence (perhaps depending on what you want to emphasise) as long as it’s separated from the rest of the sentence. In this case, I could argue that I’m emphasising the relative nature of each novel’s status as a social critique rather than the fact that both of them could be considered to have this status, but the difference in emphasis is fairly insignificant, so it doesn’t really matter.


I didn’t think this was as necessary for this particular essay question, since family relationships are quite a self-explanatory idea; there isn’t much need to establish a definition before launching into the argument or much relevant context to add. I guess it could be done, though. How would you have done it?


I totally disagree :lol: the sense is “despite the fact that both protagonists are separated from their families, each protagonist responds differently to/plays a different role in this separation”, which is a contrast. Any other reading of that sentence seems very unnatural to me, though that’s probably because I wrote it and had this contrasting sense in mind all along.


I know we’re technically supposed to avoid the passive voice and I agree that overusing it can make sentences convoluted, buut I feel like the passive needs to be cut some slack (😉). Using the passive in order to emphasise the role of this entirely different set of circumstances (or any other agent) is perfectly valid, and also allows one to switch round the syntax for further emphasis. English syntax is already rigid enough without us narrowing the possibilities even more :’)


Yep, you’re right. I suppose the examiner could infer what I mean (Cixous isn't exactly the biggest supporter of patriarchal narratives), but it isn’t really their job to do so; I should’ve written “having been influenced by...”

Thanks for the feedback, I love discussing this sort of thing
You're right in saying that placing 'to an extent' at the beginning of a sentence is not grammatically incorrect. But, try reading your sentence with 'to an extent' at the beginning and the end, and see how the comma affects the rhythm of the sentence. A very important technique you'll hopefully come to develop throughout your studies in further academia is understanding the importance of how easily you can read a text. Do the words roll off of your tongue? Academic literature can be very dense, but having fluidity within your writing can strengthen the persuasiveness of your argument.

At high school, it's most likely not expected for you to establish a setting or background when writing an essay. Instead, diving right into the question is paramount. For the purposes of your A level qualification, it's probably best that you do as you've been doing thus far, but just know that it's not great academic practice as it makes your writing appear juvenile. Before you address the question or problem at hand, you need to set the context.

Here are a few lines from my introduction on an essay on classical Japanese fiction that I did during my undergrad a few years back:

The Tale of Genji, the most prominent piece of Japanese literature to date, by Murasaki Shikibu offers a creative interpretation of the aristocratic society of Heian Japan (794 – 1185) and its political, religious, social, aesthetic, and cultural vistas. Murasaki, a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko, opts to set the events of Genji during the reign of Emperor Daigo (897 – 930) and not during her own lifetime (978 – 1016). The authoress intertwines her vast knowledge of the intricate religious ceremonies, the elegant processes of courtship and the complexities of the marriage system of Heian Japan with the lugubrious love-story of the eponymous protagonist Hikaru Genji to create the world’s first psychological novel. The character of Genji, having lost his own mother as a child, pursues the love of multifarious women in the hope of filling the maternal void left within him. However, his woes of love are continuously met with heartbreak and even death which plunge the novel into a mood of gentle melancholy.

I introduce my text and set the context all the while slowly leading up to the question of love and jealousy within the context of Japanese aesthetics and its representations through spirit possession. (It was a very loaded essay question...)

Of course, at this level you're not expected to write a 5000 word essay and therefore your introduction doesn't have the luxury of being a page long; but, generally speaking, it can seem abrupt when the first sentence of your entire essay is an assertive statement. That said, I realise that this is for A level so they probably won't care too much about how you compose your essay as long you answer the question.

Regarding your usage of the word 'however', I was referring to this sentence: "However, both writers also use the behaviour of individual characters as a vehicle to critique wider societal trends."

Whether or not the passive voice should be cut some slack is another matter. All I can say is that it's not good academic practice. Avoid it wherever possible.

Finally, if the reader has to infer something because of poor sentence structure or grammar, then they probably won't take your argument very seriously.
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You're right in saying that placing 'to an extent' at the beginning of a sentence is not grammatically incorrect. But, try reading your sentence with 'to an extent' at the beginning and the end, and see how the comma affects the rhythm of the sentence. A very important technique you'll hopefully come to develop throughout your studies in further academia is understanding the importance of how easily you can read a text. Do the words roll off of your tongue? Academic literature can be very dense, but having fluidity within your writing can strengthen the persuasiveness of your argument.

At high school, it's most likely not expected for you to establish a setting or background when writing an essay. Instead, diving right into the question is paramount. For the purposes of your A level qualification, it's probably best that you do as you've been doing thus far, but just know that it's not great academic practice as it makes your writing appear juvenile. Before you address the question or problem at hand, you need to set the context. I was taught to do this in my final year at school.

Here are a few lines from my introduction on an essay on classical Japanese fiction that I did for a university module a few years back:

The Tale of Genji, the most prominent piece of Japanese literature to date, by Murasaki Shikibu offers a creative interpretation of the aristocratic society of Heian Japan (794 – 1185) and its political, religious, social, aesthetic, and cultural vistas. Murasaki, a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko, opts to set the events of Genji during the reign of Emperor Daigo (897 – 930) and not during her own lifetime (978 – 1016). The authoress intertwines her vast knowledge of the intricate religious ceremonies, the elegant processes of courtship and the complexities of the marriage system of Heian Japan with the lugubrious love-story of the eponymous protagonist Hikaru Genji to create the world’s first psychological novel. The character of Genji, having lost his own mother as a child, pursues the love of multifarious women in the hope of filling the maternal void left within him. However, his woes of love are continuously met with heartbreak and even death which plunge the novel into a mood of gentle melancholy.

I introduce my text and set the context all the while slowly leading up to the question of love and jealousy within the context of Japanese aesthetics and its representations through spirit possession. (It was a very loaded essay question...)

Of course, at this level you're not expected to write a 5000 word essay and therefore your introduction doesn't have the luxury of being a page long; but, generally speaking, it can seem abrupt when the first sentence of your entire essay is an assertive statement. That said, I realise that this is for A level so they probably won't care too much about how you compose your essay as long you answer the question.

Regarding your usage of the word 'however', I was referring to this sentence: "However, both writers also use the behaviour of individual characters as a vehicle to critique wider societal trends."

Whether or not the passive voice should be cut some slack is another matter. All I can say is that it's not good academic practice. Avoid it wherever possible.

Finally, if the reader has to infer something because of poor sentence structure or grammar, then they probably won't take your argument very seriously.
I see your point, I just think that's entirely subjective. The placement of that phrase at the beginning or end of the statement doesn't change its readability at all for me.

I think you're aware of this already, but we have an hour to write these essays in an A-level exam (and like I said, this particular essay was also written in strict timed conditions). Coursework is the place for A-level students to explore literary criticism and context as fully as they can and get used to the style of essay which might be written at university, and I most certainly did "set the scene" in my coursework essay, not least because I had weeks to write and refine it as opposed to one hour. Exam essays at A-level are exercises in prioritisation, which generally translates to "if something doesn't hit an assessment objective, don't do it." For this reason, considering context etc. in full is probably detrimental in an A-level exam if neglecting to do so isn't seriously harmful to one's clarity of argument or basic treatment of the subject matter. You could say this isn't representative of English as an academic discipline or whatever, but I think it's still a valuable skill. In fact, for the majority of A-level English students who won't spend very much of their lives doing serious academic writing, learning to address a question in the most concise way possible and prioritise the most essential components of an argument is probably more useful.

In this case, the contrasting sense is "despite the differences between the social circumstances criticised by each of these authors, both of them use individuals as a means to present their criticisms."

If I hand in an essay next year at university and my supervisor tells me off for using the passive voice excessively (which will probably happen), then I'll stop using it so much. At this stage, it really doesn't matter. If I feel that a passive verb is stylistically appropriate then I'm going to use it because I have the freedom to do so at A-level, and because I don't have much time to mull over how I might rephrase a sentence in an exam.
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