• 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.

62,886 enrolled on this course

"Reading" by Sam Greenhalgh, on Flickr, Licensed under CC BY 2.0. Close up of an open paperback book, with a hand at the edge of the page to hold it open. Green leaves and sunlight in background.
  • 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 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.

Download video: standard or HD

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.

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 four novels explored for this course are:
    • Girl by Edna O’Brien
    • Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall
    • Travellers by Helon Habila
    • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

Add to Wishlist to be emailed when new dates are announced

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

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?

Benjamin Bateman is Lecturer in Post-1900 British Literature at The University of Edinburgh. He teaches and publishes on modern and contemporary fiction, queer theory, and the environmental humanities

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.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

Want to know more about learning on FutureLearn? Using FutureLearn

Learner reviews

Learner reviews cannot be loaded due to your cookie settings. Please and refresh the page to view this content.

Get a taste of this course

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

Do you know someone who'd love this course? Tell them about it...

You can use the hashtag #FLnovel to talk about this course on social media.