• 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

A woman in a bookshop in Edinburgh, staring at the shelves.
  • 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 2023 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 5 seconds Hi. I’m Benjamin Bateman, a senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. I invite you to sign up for How to Read a Novel, a four-week course where we will study the building blocks of fiction in classic works of literature. And to enhance our understanding, we will connect each building block– characterisation, plot, dialogue, and setting– to the four books shortlisted for this year’s James Tate Black Prize in Fiction. Join us for what I guarantee will be a rewarding learning experience.

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 run of the course are:
    • Week 1 (Plot): Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
    • Week 2 (Character): Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi
    • Week 3 (Dialogue): Bolla by Pajtim Statovci
    • Week 4 (Setting): After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
  • Want to prepare early for the next run of this course in August 2024? The four novels that will be explored are:
    • Week 1 (Plot): Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright
    • Week 2 (Character): Though the Bodies Fall by Noel O’Regan
    • Week 3 (Dialogue): Open Throat by Henry Hoke
    • Week 4 (Setting): Lori and Joe by Amy Arnold

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

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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. You don’t need to have read all four books before you commence the course, but you may find it enhances your learning experience if you have.

Image: John Michael Thomson (2018) CC0

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

Anna Chiari is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh and Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Her research interest focuses on comparative literature, modernism, trauma and gender studies.

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

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Get a taste of this course

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