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AQA A Level English Literature Guide to LITB3 Section A: Text & Genres Exam Techniques

Steve Campsall | Wednesday May 15, 2013

Categories: Hot Entries, Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Plays, Writing, Drama Analysis, Essays, Literary Analysis, Persuasive Writing, Poetry Analysis, Prose Analysis, Rhetoric Analysis, Speech Analysis, AQA A Level English Literature B, LITB3, KS5 Archive, AQA A Level

  • Throughout this guide, a past exam-style question based on the play Macbeth has been used to illustrate ideas, but these have been written in a way that will allow you easily to transfer the idea to any other exam text, whether another ‘Gothic’ text or Pastoral.
  • To achieve a high grade in your exam answer, one major precondition exists:
    • That you know your text well.

If that condition has been met, through classroom and personal study along with research via the Internet or other study guides, then this guide should help you achieve the other preconditions, that you are able to demonstrate your knowledge of the text in an essay that ticks each of the four ‘Assessment Objectives’ boxes against which your grade will be judged. 

Exam Technique | LITB3 Section A

1. Beginning Your Answer

The first thing we read in any text is always important; it sets a psychological ‘mind-set’ that tends to persist. This is especially so in something as subjective as English Literature where there are no ‘right’ answers. In English there are only views and opinions based on interpretations or readings of texts.

So, the opening of your essay is important. There are ways that will create the sort of impact that causes the examiner right from the go to think that the essay might turn out to be a top grade response. This guide offers one such way.

How can you do this? Write confidently. Attack the question immediately and do so directly. An excellent way to do this is to offer a summary of your response, stated ‘in a nutshell’. This means writing in that opening paragraph, a succinct overview. Knowing how to create an effective overview is, without doubt, a useful skill to have. It will be important that you understand how to do it and to have practised and hopefully mastered the technique well before exam day.

What exactly is an overview? It’s a succinct statement of your ‘over[all]view’, that is, of your ‘take on’ and ‘response to’ the exam question. In the box below is an example of an opening to a response to a LITB3 exam-type question that gives such an overview. This is the question:

“The violence in Macbeth is so excessive that it ceases to have any effect on the audience.” To what extent do you think the violence in the play is excessive? (40 marks)

In Macbeth, Shakespeare presents a succession of violent scenes as a part of a plot intended to be sufficiently engaging for the audience to leave the theatre having thoroughly enjoyed the play, whilst at the same time having been brought to consider, even accept, the play’s themes. Shakespeare’s original audience would likely have been exposed to violence and death as a part of their daily existence, whereas a modern audience’s exposure to violence will be from ultra-realistic media depictions. These different contexts and audiences might well lead to different responses to the play’s violence, but the suggestion that this master Renaissance dramatist failed in his job of creating an effective plot because of a use of excessive and desensitising violence surely ignores the evidence of the continuing success of the play four centuries after it was first written.

It’s important that the opening paragraph shows you are responding to each key word in the question, and it can also be possible to show your awareness of the relevant assessment objective (which are all equally weighted in this unit). Can you find evidence in the above that the writer touches on AOs 1, 2, 3 and 4?

There is something more that can be done in the opening paragraph – and this could prove the most helpful of all to you as the writer of the essay – you can add in detail that will guide your structure of the rest of the essay. Doing this means that you will not be lost for what to write next and, equally importantly, it will add to the already positive mind-set of the examiner marking your essay. To do this, you simply need to note in brief outline the 4-6 areas that you will be exploring to support your response – the one you’ve just stated in the overview.

The possible effects on an audience of the violence of the plot can be explored through an analysis of five key scenes: the opening description of Macbeth’s ‘bravery’, the murder of King Duncan, the murders of Banquo and Lady MacDuff and, in the play’s dénouement, the eventual death of Macbeth himself.

In the opening paragraph it’s important to avoid any use of quotation or other textual detail. This is an overview, after all, and such detail is for the supporting body paragraphs of the essay (presented in each and every one as part of a PEE structure). If you need any help with creating a PEE structure in your paragraphs, then there are other guides on EnglishEdu that will help, but a summary is presented elsewhere in this guide, along with a summary of how to meet AO2 by discussing the effects of form, structure and language.

There is a useful and interesting exception to the rule of not quoting in the opening paragraph. It can be a very effective technique to use an enlightening embedded quotation within a sentence of the overview, even in its opening sentence. This style of writing can be impressive as it suggests something very important - confidence with the text.

The use of violence and violent imagery, of an audience hearing, for example, of the protagonist “brave Macbeth” disembowelling his opponent “from the nave to the chaps” helps William Shakespeare create a plot that is so engaging that the audience will likely actually enjoy being persuaded to accept the themes of the play, of Shakespeare’s views on aspects of society such as ambition, kingship, power and masculinity. To suggest that this master playwright failed in this key plot device is to ignore the continuing success of this play with recent films and TV versions attracting mass audiences.

A key issue that examiners raise annually, is the problem of what they call ‘bolted-on context’. It’s very important that you don’t simply ‘add on’ context just to show how much you know something about the historical era in which a text was written, even in the opening paragraph. This isn’t a history exam, after all. Generalised ‘bolted-on’ contextual comments such as, ‘Audiences in Shakespeare’s time were… x, y and z’ fail to impress, and rightly so.

A way to gain marks for context is to show the examiner you understand that all texts are a response of a writer to a specific context, one that the author reacted to, and felt sufficiently fascinated or angered by, to want to communicate their response to a reader or audience. A literary response might seem a very unusual way to communicate a response to context; after all, most people would surely show their feelings in far more direct and open ways by, maybe, talking about them to a friend, or – if we feel really aggrieved by some event in our world – to write to our MP, or at the extreme, stand in the street with a placard. To write a play, poem or story is a far more indirect way of communicating our feelings. It’s worth, therefore, spending a few moments thinking through just why a writer chooses this peculiar – yet potentially peculiarly successful – way. The key word concerning literature is emotion, and the key technique used to create this is a plot. A fictional plot is, in fact, perhaps the most persuasive use of language available – an effective plot is capable of influencing readers and viewers to accept themes in ways little else can.

A way to comment on context effectively, therefore, is to develop your comments from the quotations that form a part of your PEE paragraphs. Done this way, you’ll be using perception and insight to generate potentially genuine contextual influences rather than guessed and generalised ones.

There are useful ways to include context in the opening paragraph, however, but this needs to be handled carefully if it is to be appropriate and lead to high marks. You’ll see it in action in the following paragraph.

The use of violence and the creation of violent imagery, of an audience hearing, for example, within minutes of the play opening, of the protagonist “brave Macbeth” disembowelling his opponent “from the nave to the chaps” uses a dramatic context that the audience might well recognise reflects the real-life context of Shakespeare, one of violence that constantly verges on disorder and chaos, one in which a strong and powerful king is a necessity if a stable and ordered society is to be the result.

2. Continuing Your Answer

You will now need to write a series of ‘body’ paragraphs that develop in detail the points you outlined in the overview paragraph. These will each explain and flesh out with textual support the skeleton point made in the overview, so as with the opening paragraph, no waffle, generalisations or ‘bolted on’ contextual information! Everything in the essay’s body paragraphs needs to be directed to developing the first-made points, thus to be entirely relevant to the exam question and the assessment objectives.

Up to the final concluding paragraph, each body paragraph needs to be built around the classic and bomb-proof PEE structure, beginning in a way that – as with the opening paragraph – shows you are directly and confidently attacking your answer (i.e. you are clearly developing the overall idea you’ve already stated in the overview given in your opening paragraph).

For each body paragraph:

  • Cover, in sequence, the outline points you stated in the opening overview paragraph. This technique will make writing the essay far easier and thus more enjoyable and satisfying as the structure will always clear in your mind. Most people leave an English exam unsure of how well they have done – this is a technique that allows you a much higher level of confidence that you have done well as you know you have hit the AOs and have covered each key word in the question.
  • Open each body paragraph with a topic sentence, one that:
    • Is clearly linked to one of the points made in the overview and thus is entirely relevant to the exam question;
    • Suggests the direction the remainder of the paragraph will take to help explain further the point made in the opening topic sentence as well, of course, to support the overview;
    • Shows a natural-seeming progression from the previous paragraph;
  • Write an extra series of sentences to build up a PEE structure using at least one quotation (or, in a play, an explanation of stage action) and preferably more than one. However, AQA have stated that students should find ways of getting ‘a lot from a little’, thus a well-chosen quotation should allow you to create a significant paragraph, in which the initial point is complex and the final ‘explanation’ is extensive, discussing the effects of language, the methods used and the purposes intended, at both at the point it it exists and as a contribution to the whole. Remember that for every quotation there is likely to be two central purposes at least – firstly as a contribution to the plot; and secondly to the themes.
  • Aim to cover in the essay examples of language, form and structure (there is an explanation, with examples, for each of these at the end of this guide if this will help).
  • The evidence (a quotation usually, but explanation possibly) must clearly and properly show how you arrived at the point you opened with (many quotations in essays fail to do this, or to do so sufficiently well).
  • It’s important to choose as your evidence not merely that which does actually clearly support your point, but to choose for another key reason: to be sure the evidence has within it sufficient literary merit to allow you an insightful perceptive and extended explanation (i.e. as the final ‘E’ of the PEE triplet), one that explains the literary (i.e. narrative, poetic, linguistic or dramatic) method used as well as the effect and purposes intended.
  • Be sure that you write nothing except that which develops the argument which you are creating to support your view (the one stated succinctly in the overview.
  • It’s good style to end each paragraph with what is called sometimes a ‘hook sentence’, one that smoothly and subtly ‘hooks’...

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