How to generate ideas for a literary essay

academics expository writing writing
By Eugenia

Students are expected to think and write with greater sophistication, specificity, and self-direction as they get older. This can be a stumbling block for writers used to receiving topics from instructors. One day, instead of a general prompt, you’re handed an unfamiliar novel and asked to determine your own line of research and argument. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Let’s say you would like to say something smart about Mikhail Bulgakov and wind up with Bulgakov paralysis. The Master and Margarita is a long, complex work of art. The topic is just too big. Where to begin? 

Read closely

The first thing to do is to give yourself permission to think small. You can interest your reader in what may seem like a niche idea if you take your time in selecting and explaining it. You probably won’t be able to cover as much as you think you can in your word count. You’ll invariably be working with specific aspects of a question or curiosity you have.

In fact, in the process known as close reading, paying attention to detail is paramount. Close reading means engaging with the way language works in a text. It is a method equally appropriate to poems, novels, plays, news stories, and so on. It means noticing not just what is being said, but how it is being said, that is, how the text functions. The practice of close reading may feel a bit awkward at first, but it’s crucial to amassing the evidence you need for a strong analysis.

Look for patterns

So, if you don’t yet have an idea for a thesis on The Master and Margarita, start by noticing patterns. You loved the characters, were entranced by the plot, and understood the general themes, but you’re reluctant to isolate any part of what seems like an organic whole. This is normal. What textual elements tend to repeat? What stood out? Did anything confuse or beguile you? 


  • tone (speaker attitude or textual atmosphere)
  • motif (recurring words or images)
  • figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, allusion, hyperbole, etc.)
  • diction (word choice)
  • syntax (word order)
  • form (poetic or prose arrangements influenced by genre)


These formal elements can all constitute evidence for your argument. Begin by noticing at least three patterns that contribute to the major themes of the text. Note down a few examples for each pattern, citing the text directly. Briefly explain why each pattern is important or what it achieves for the work as a whole.

Evaluate your patterns

Now that you have at least three patterns, pick your favorite. Which is strongest? Which is most interesting? Did you come up with an additional line of thought after reviewing your data? It may help to check with your instructor on which selection sounds most promising. Remember to refine your evidence so that you have the best possible examples for your pattern. The first quotations you turned toward may not have been the most fruitful ones. 

Write a tentative claim 

Once you are armed with linked evidence and a sense of why it matters, you can compose a draft of your thesis. Your thesis will be a strong claim that explains the stance you are taking on this topic. It will articulate the relationship between your specific pattern and the work as a whole. Try to make it as clear as possible and don’t be afraid to revise it as you go on to compose the essay. After following these steps, you should have found a generative and compelling entry point to a formerly intimidating book.

Eugenia is a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is completing a dissertation on contemporary capitalism and dystopian fiction.


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