How to Read a Novel

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

  • Duration 4 weeks
  • Weekly study 2 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 we shortlisted for the James Tait Black fiction prize last year. 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 10 secondsWe 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 the narrator, and what impact does a setting have on the development of plot? Over the course of this MOOC, we'll be looking at four of the key building blocks of fiction - plot, 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 how to spot when a narrator is unreliable. You'll learn how to read novels more incisively, drawing on a range of examples from classic texts.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 secondsYou'll also hear from authors about how they use these building blocks when writing their own novels. Every year the James Tait Black Shortlist gives you some of the very best fiction written in the English language. What a fantastic opportunity for people to get an insight into the shortlisted books using the University of Edinburgh's great experts, and then to meet the authors at the end as well. It's already 10 years since the James Tait Black prizes started to be awarded at the book festival in Charlotte Square Gardens.

Skip to 1 minute and 16 secondsThis is a really extraordinary opportunity, 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 excitement of the live event that you get at the book festival. Now that we've reached 10 years together, I think this is a great new chapter in our journey.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 secondsWe hope 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.

What topics will you cover?

  • The course examines specific techniques relating to plotting and temporality including flashbacks, unreliable narration and framed narratives.
  • The course considers ways of understanding character, such as behaviour and motives.
  • It explores issues relating to the presentation of dialogue, including conversational mood and dialect voices.
  • The course examines the impact of various different settings on the development of plot and character.
  • It invites learners to test their understanding through weekly quizzes and a final peer assessment task.
  • The course covers the four novels shortlisted for the James Tait Black fiction prize 2017: C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree.

When would you like to start?

Most FutureLearn courses run multiple times. Every run of a course has a set start date but you can join it and work through it after it starts. Find out more

  • Available nowThis course started 20 Jan 2020

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.

Sonnet Fitzgerald

Who will you learn with?

Alex Lawrie

Alex Lawrie

I am a lecturer in English literature at the University of Edinburgh. My main research interests are in modern and contemporary literature.

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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.

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: