• University of Edinburgh

How to Read a Novel

Get underneath the skin of a novel by understanding some of the main building blocks of modern fiction.

52,183 enrolled on this course

How to Read a Novel
  • Duration4 weeks
  • Weekly study2 hours

Get more from your reading

What makes a great novel? How is a novel woven together? How can we best appreciate works of fiction?

Answer these questions and more with this course from The University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

On the course you’ll discover four of the main building blocks of modern fiction: plot, characterisation, dialogue, and setting using examples from a range of texts including the four novels shortlisted for the 2020 James Tait Black fiction prize. You’ll also explore the formal strategies authors use, how they came to be, and how they affect us as readers.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds We all enjoy reading novels, but have you ever wondered how the story’s put together? What makes us believe in the characters? How far can we trust a narrator, and what impact does the setting have on the development of the plot? Throughout this course, we’ll be looking at four of the key building blocks of fiction– plots, characterisation, dialogue, and setting. You’ll be encouraged to think about how characters thoughts and motives are communicated to the reader. You’ll explore how a particular atmosphere can be created, depending on where a novel is set, and you’ll learn to spot when a narrator is unreliable. You’ll learn how to read novels more incisively, drawing on a range of examples form classic texts.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 seconds You’ll also hear from authors about how they use these building blocks when writing their own novels.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds The MOOC will run alongside the announcement of the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, here in Edinburgh, and we’ll have exclusive access to four of the best novels published last year. I think this MOOC gives a really extraordinary opportunity for people to get an insight into the shortlisted books. Imagine every year the James Tait Black Shortlist gives you some of the very best fiction written in the English language, and then the chance to get into those books using the University of Edinburgh’s great experts, and then to meet the authors at the end as well. What a fantastic opportunity really to understand what the best of this year’s literature has to offer.

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds This is a unique experiment between the Edinburgh International Book festival and the University of Edinburgh. I think it will be a great way to help readers get more out of reading their novels, a way of understanding reading in a totally new way. Which takes all of the best of what the university has to offer and adds to it the thrill and the excitement of the live event that you get at the book festival. I think this is a great new chapter in our journey.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds We hope that you’ll join us on this course in order to delve into the fascinating world of fiction. We’ll be taking you on a thrilling journey that offers you all the tools you need in order to learn how to read a novel.


  • Week 1


    • Scene setting

      Welcome to this course on How to Read a Novel. This course connects you to a global community of people who are interested in great books.

    • Framed narratives and unreliable narrators

      Following on from the previous section, these steps will consider some other key plotting strategies which affect the way a story is told: unreliable narrators, framed narratives, and free indirect style.

    • Plotting in Edna O'Brien's Girl

      This section will consider how the devices we looked at in previous steps operate in a contemporary novel.

    • Meet the author

      Here you can watch an interview with Edna O'Brien, and take part in our weekly book club discussion.

  • Week 2


    • Introduction to character

      These steps will introduce you to some of the key techniques used by authors in order to reveal character.

    • Interiority

      Building on the previous section, these steps will show you some of the ways a character's thoughts and motives are communicated to the reader.

    • Characterisation in Sarah Hall's Sudden Traveller

      This section will apply our understanding of how character is revealed, taking a set of short stories as our example.

    • Meet the author

      Watch an interview with Sarah Hall, and take part in our weekly book club discussion.

  • Week 3


    • Introduction to dialogue

      These steps will show you some of the different ways in which dialogue is presented on the page, and ask you to share your own views on what makes a fictional conversation convincing.

    • Dialect

      This section will consider the impact of characters speaking in non-standard English - or dialect. Taking examples from Walter Scott and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, we'll consider the political implications of dialect speech.

    • Dialogue in Helon Habila's Travellers

      This section will consider several examples from Habila's 2019 novel in order to show just how much is revealed about a character if we look closely at their dialogue.

    • Meet the author

      Watch an interview with Helon Habila, then join in on our weekly book club discussion.

  • Week 4


    • Introduction to setting

      This section will explore a variety of approaches to setting, and consider the effects produced.

    • Space

      The previous section considered the impact of setting, or "place". Now we're going to consider the less tangible category of "space" - or, how a character's perception of their environment can affect their mood.

    • Setting in Ducks, Newburyport

      This section will consider some key excerpts from Lucy Ellmann's 2019 novel, and consider what impact the setting has on the book's atmosphere or mood, as well as on characterisation.

    • Meet the author

      Watch the video below with Lucy Ellmann, the author of Ducks, Newburyport. Then take part in the discussion in our weekly book club.

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

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What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify key strategies used by authors to alter the temporal progression of the narrative.
  • Reflect on the effects generated by a narrative frame.
  • Evaluate novels for signs of narrative unreliability.
  • Discuss my reading of contemporary fiction with a large online learning community.
  • Explore ways of understanding character, such as behaviour, speech, and motives.
  • Explore the impact of various settings on the development of character and plot.
  • Evaluate the effect of different ways of presenting dialogue, and the impact of dialect speech.

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone who enjoys reading. You don’t need any past experience.

Image: Reading - Sam Greenhalgh CC BY 2.0

What do people say about this course?

"What an outstanding course! I work as an editor and have years of education in literature, but I still learned a lot. Plus the introduction to each of the James Tait books was heavenly. Great instruction, wonderful information."

Who will you learn with?

I am a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. My PhD thesis is on the American writer Edith Wharton, and I am interested in a wide range of modern and contemporary fiction.

Promoted by

The James Tait Black Prizes
Edinburgh International Book Festival

Who developed the course?

The University of Edinburgh

Founded in 1583, the University of Edinburgh is one of the world’s top universities and is globally recognised for research, innovation and high-quality teaching.

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