The Heart of an Effective Literary Essay: Conflict, Theme and Thesis Statement Conflict


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The Heart of an Effective Literary Essay: Conflict, Theme and Thesis Statement

Conflict: Narrative fiction doesn’t exist without conflict. Other types of literature certainly do. But a story has no backbone without a conflict, either internal or external. Often the conflict is unresolved, and perhaps within the scope of human existence, it can’t be resolved. Often, in facing a conflict, characters make bad choices with noble intention – in tragedy, for example.
Theme: When you examine the conflict in a story, you should be able to see thematic elements that rise out of the elements of the narrative, and encompass more universal aspects of human life: Death, War, Love… These broad themes mark the work as universally appealing, so even if you yourself never actually floated down a river with an escaped slave, you can still appreciate the theme of individual against society when you defiantly stash your i-Pod into your backpack and head through the metal detectors.

From Theme to Thesis Statement:

A good thesis statement makes a qualifying declaration about a main theme of a work. It is not a declaration of the theme of the work, or of the conflict in the work. It most certainly ISN’T a “Where’s Waldo” approach: “I found Love in this story” or “I see conflict—I’ll show you where” or “I see an individual struggling against society”. While this might work well for a book review, it has no place in literary essays.

Literary essays are meant to show how the author enriches our view of our own life. A good literary essay, therefore, is mainly analytical. It analyzes the how compelling plot elements of the story move the characters into making formidable choices, or recognizing truth—remember, a story is like a piece of someone’s life—and your essays should reveal the interaction between a conflict and a character’s reaction to it. Good essays involve probing psychological analyses of the main characters, and an understanding of why humans might make the choices that they make. Good essays also MUST discuss the resolution of the narrative in terms of how the character's actions elicited this outcome, and what this tells us about humanity. Good essays also should include the BIG EVENTS of the novel!  (Darcy's bad proposal; the Lydia Fiasco...) These tend to be extremely revelatory to both character development and the outcome of the novel!

Your thesis statement, therefore, must expresses YOUR particularly biased, qualitative, and judgmental view on what the outcome of the narrative reveals to us as a truth about human nature. Your thesis statement should make an opinionated statement about why the tragedy happened. If the story turned out favorably for the characters, your thesis statement should explain why it did.
Exercise: You all know Romeo and Juliet. So what are the external conflicts? What are some internal conflicts? What happens as the characters try to grapple with these conflicts? What do they do?

Write a good thesis statement!

AP Open Ended Prompts:
1980--A recurring theme in literature is "the classic war between passion and responsibility." For instance, a personal cause, a love, a desire for revenge, a determination to redress a wrong, or some other emotion or drive may conflict with moral duty. Choose a literary work in which a character confronts the demands of a private passion that conflicts with his or her responsibilities. In a well-written essay show clearly the nature of the conflict, its effects upon the character, and its significance to the work. Avoid plot summary.
2000: Many works of literature not readily identified with the mystery or detective story genre nonetheless involve the investigation of a mystery. In these works, the solution to the mystery may be less important than the knowledge gained in the process of its investigation. Choose a novel or play in which one or more of the characters confront a mystery. Then write an essay in which you identify the mystery and explain of the investigation illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

In more recent times, the AP Open-Ended prompts have become more difficult, and perhaps, more compelling in their wording. Rather than lead young writers, as the 1980 prompt does, the newer prompts mandate that you already understand the workings and purpose of literary analysis of narratives.

So in responding to the 2000 prompt, your goal is to explain how the mystery creates conflicts and moves the protagonist to new understandings beyond the crime itself. This is true for all of the oddball focuses of recent AP exams: the country setting, the wedding or funeral, the character who isn’t there, the betrayal, the symbol, the scene with the dead animal, the unexpected guest, the wrong color lipstick…(I made up the last three.)

To simplify your task? You can take a “beginning, middle, and end” approach to character development. You can move your characters into opposing camps and explore the outcome of the conflict that way. You can analyze the story element in the prompt and explain how it reveals aspects of the conflict, and go from there. You can include stylist elements of the work, if they merit attention.

(See Below)

AP LITERARY ESSAY ANALYSIS: What to include in your essay

The point of literary analysis is to show how the art of literature helps shape the purpose or theme of the work. In your essays you should discuss how the author uses literary devices to effectively convey idea, purpose, human nature, message, viewpoint … otherwise known as “theme”.


(See Poetry Terms and Definitions at

You should analyze poetic tools and connect them to the overall purpose of a poem

In narrative poems you might also consider narrative tools (see below)

Poetry also often involves characters, as well

Look, also for the development of argument (form)


Look for poetic tools

Look for narrative tools

Look for stylistic tools including syntax, tone, and grammar

Look for the development of argument




Resolution / Theme

Plot elements

Symbolic motifs

Narrative Voice

And also, Poetic and other Stylistic Tools

Writing Essays for Longer Works: What should you take notes on while reading?
Narrative Plot Structure

When writing about a book that has a clear narrative, even if it is non-linear, or out of time sequence, consider the following to use as essay topics: Play close attention to events that occur to trigger separate parts of the plot (exposition, turning point, resolution). Write down all the character traits for the protagonist, antagonist, and other characters who may be symbolic or serve a function of plot. Write down many significant events in which these characters play a key role. Take close note of narrative structure and narrative voice. Note down the settings. Other considerations include stylistic tools common to prose and poetry: tone, mood, syntax, symbolism, allegory, imagery, figurative language, dialect and diction, word choice and all other poetic tools.  Use suggested organizational methods (Nine Organizational Methods) below to guide the organization of your essay.


Episodic or Other Narrative Structure

If your novel is episodic or composed of several narratives, focus on a common theme or motifs that thread through the stories. Pay close attention to the detail of three to five individual stories as illustrations of the theme.  You can neatly divide up your topics by individual story, or by motif (issues, characters) to support theme.  You could also consider the same stylistic tools as above.  What is the plot structure of Chronicle of a Death Foretold? Contrary to the claims of the silly narrator, it is not at all a chronicle, and not as random in its causal connections, despite the narrator’s attempts to interrupt the actually structure of the murder itself.


Seriously Non-Narrative Works

If the work is seriously non-narrative, abstract, absurdist, or inscrutable (The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne, Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino) you might want to identify “purpose” rather than theme, and consider scenic elements or dramatic moments--and all the elements common to poetry as well as conventional narratives to use as topics. Does the absurdist nature of the work itself support theme?



Your body paragraphs are there to support you thesis statement.  Don't lose track of your thesis. At the end of every paragraph, tie all the evidence to your thesis.

For the third AP essay, start your thinking by asking a question regarding the theme that pertains to your particular novel. (Why is a very minor character important to this book? What is the unanswered question in this book, and why is it important? Which insane character in this novel is really the one with all the answers? ) Take a stand. Write your thesis statement. Use characters, events or stylistic elements in the novel around your claim to prove your point.


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