Question 3: The Open-Ended Essay Question

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Question 3: The Open-Ended Essay Question

  • Analyzing the “Big Picture”

How would you approach this prompt?

  • In many works of literature, a physical journey – the literal movement from one place to another – plays a central role. Choose a novel, play, or epic poem in which a physical journey is an important element and analyze how the journey adds to the meaning of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.


  • Like an FRQ in other AP classes.
  • This essay is based on a provocative prompt that highlights specific insights applicable to a broad range of literary texts.
  • The question provides for varied personal interpretations and multiple approaches.


  • Your professors, the College Board, and I want to assess your ability to analyze a work of literature in a particular context. The illustrations you include in your essay will demonstrate your insights and critical thinking as well as your writing ability.
    • Do you know how the parts of a book relate to the overall whole?


  • Although the prompt is the same for all students, you have the freedom to choose the piece of literature to which you will refer.
  • Once chosen, you have total freedom to select the specifics that will support your thesis.
  • Unlike the other essays, which have rubrics based on certain concrete interpretations and directions of the text, your open-ended essay will be uniquely your own.


  • Providing only plot summary instead of analysis
  • Providing illustrations and examples that are obvious or superficial instead of using ones that are relevant, convincing, and insightful


  • Depending on memory rather than on preparation
  • Rambling on in vague and unsupported generalities or providing incorrect information
  • Wasting too much time pondering on which work to use


  • You will be asked to choose a full-length work, such as a novel or play. You may never use a film.
  • A list of works will be provided with the open-ended prompt, but you DO NOT have to choose a work from that list!


  • Avoid trilogies or series (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Wheel of Time, Hunger Games, etc.)
  • You may not use the Bible.
  • It is recommended that you use a major work that you have read within the last year or so and know very well—especially ones that you have studied in AP Literature class.


  • The College Board prefers works from the literary canon because they exhibit breadth and complexity. Don’t fight these requirements! You will do yourself a disservice trying to outwit or beat the system.


  • In many works of literature, a physical journey – the literal movement from one place to another – plays a central role. Choose a novel, play, or epic poem in which a physical journey is an important element and analyze how the journey adds to the meaning of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
  • What is the topic of the prompt?
  • What are each of the tasks that the prompt requires you to complete?
  • Select a text to answer the prompt. How could you organize the body of your paper?

Books You Have Probably Read

Tools of Analysis

  • P1s (Whole):
  • Complex Characterization
  • Critique/Promote/ Purpose
  • Theme
  • A Central Question
  • P2s (Parts):
  • Settings
  • Ironies
  • Conflicts
  • POV/Writing Style
  • Characters
  • Plot Events
  • Motifs/Symbols
  • P3s (Evidence): Apt and specific textual support from the novel/play

Examples of P1s (Whole):

  • Examples of P1s (Whole):
  • Complex Characterization
    • Over the course of Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s psychological deterioration and moral revelation results from directly witnessing the inhumane horrors of imperialism.
  • Critique/Sanction/Purpose
    • In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the tragic figure of Jay Gatsby to express the futility of an overly naïve belief in the American Dream.
  • Theme
    • Through the dynamic characters of John and Bernard, Huxley’s Brave New World offers a relevant warning of the self-destruction incurred by escapism and conformity.
  • A Central Question
    • Shakespeare’s eponymous protagonist as well as his tragic effects on others begs the supreme question of the play – How much doubt is too much?

So many essays

Sample Essay Shell Prompt: Analyze how a scene of violence functions to support the meaning of the work as a whole.

  • Thesis: The final catastrophic scene of Hamlet reinforces the play’s conclusion of the essential pyrrhic quality of revenge.
  • Para 2: Establishing how Hamlet’s revenge against Claudius leads to the deaths of innocents, Gertrude and Laertes; considering poison as means of violence
  • Para 3: Characterizing Hamlet and his own demise because of his final action of revenge
  • Para 4: Showing the implications of revenge to the entire political sphere

Tips for the Open-Ended Essay

  • Go beyond “X drives the plot”
    • Consider effects on theme, purpose, characterization, foreshadowing, development of motifs/ideas, creation of conflict, establishment of mood, promotion of suspense
  • Your thesis statement should include
    • Answer to the prompt
    • +
    • Overall meaning (theme, purpose, characterization, etc. from list above)
    • e.g.: The moment of revelation in which the truth of Algy and Jack’s actual names functions as a criticism of Victorian manners regarding marriage.

Don’t just summarize!

  • Don’t just summarize!
    • You can elaborate on plot details, but you should integrate them into analytic sentences
      • WEAK: Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius but his hesitation and doubt prevents this.
      • STRONG: Hamlet’s character flaws of hesitation and doubt surface when he fails to kill Claudius at prayer, reinforcing the play’s general condemnation of inaction.

Use present tense when talking about things that happen in novels/plays/poems.

  • Use present tense when talking about things that happen in novels/plays/poems.
    • NO: Hamlet killed Laertes by stabbing him.
    • YES: Hamlet kills Laertes by stabbing him.
  • Literary themes are not one word.
    • Motif: Revenge
    • Theme: Revenge leads to self-destruction.
  • Punctuation!
    • Novels are underlined. Epic poems are, too. Hey, so are plays.
    • “Poems” and “Short Stories” are in quotation marks.
  • Avoid speculation in writing. Think speculatively, but don’t write that way.
    • NO: If Hamlet had been more decisive, he would have killed Claudius and we wouldn’t have the play.
    • YES: Hamlet’s indecision to kill Claudius leads him down a slippery slope of doubt, illustrating the paralytic potential of questioning and the delay of his revenge.

No contractions!

  • No contractions!
    • Contractions aren’t good things to use in your formal essays.
  • Don’t praise the work!
    • Hamlet is an excellent play that…
  • Be assertive!
    • NO: Hamlet somewhat fits the tragic hero archetype
    • YES: Hamlet’s nobility, hamartia, and confrontation of fate establish him clearly within the tragic hero archetype.

Don’t just repeat the text of the prompt.

  • Don’t just repeat the text of the prompt.
    • PROMPT: Choose a novel or play that depicts a conflict between a parent (or a parental figure) and a son or daughter. Write an essay in which you analyze the sources of the conflict and explain how the conflict contributes to the meaning of the work. Avoid plot summary.
    • DON’T: Throughout the play, Hamlet experiences a conflict with his parental figure that affects the meaning of the work.
    • DO: Throughout the play, Hamlet’s struggle for power and revenge against his uncle Claudius provides for motifs of incest and betrayal as the tragedy develops.

Walk your reader through your interpretations.

  • Walk your reader through your interpretations.
    • NO: The opening scene’s setting is outside and contributes to the motif of invisibility. Polonius’s death shows this idea, too. These events contribute to the theme of the seen vs. unseen.
    • YES: The dark and obscured outdoor setting of the opening scene immediately establishes questions of the seen/unseen, later recycled in the death of the seemingly hidden Polonius at the hands of vengeful Hamlet.
  • Avoid the cliché hook!
    • NO: Death is the ultimate unknown. Hamlet addresses this by…
    • YES: The ubiquity of death as the ultimate mystery serves as perhaps the most essential question of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet.

Your thesis statement should still have the following:

  • Your thesis statement should still have the following:
    • a P1 that gives an overall meaning (theme, purpose, characterization, etc.) RELATED TO THE PROMPT
    • some P2s that give elements of the novel/play which support your P1
      • Plot events, characters, settings, ironies, shifts
      • You must be able to connect your P2s to your P1
  • Remember to SHOW! don’t tell
    • Telling: Shakespeare uses scenes that show Hamlet’s mental paralysis to demonstrate that the prince was a hesitating avenger who cannot kill Claudius.
    • Showing: In scenes such as Hamlet’s “The Play’s The Thing” soliloquy, Shakespeare demonstrates that the prince functions as a hesitating avenger who cannot kill Claudius because Hamlet must find undeniable proof of Claudius’ guilt before he commits the act of murder and revenge for his father’s murder.

More showing vs. telling

  • TELL: The ghost affects the action of the play by inciting Hamlet’s revenge and saving Gertrude’s life. This shows the importance of protecting family honor.
  • SHOW: By inciting Hamlet’s revenge and saving Gertrude’s life, the ghost reinforces the importance of protecting family honor to the audience.
  • TELL: Hamlet’s death is a prime example of tragedy.
  • SHOW: Coming from Hamlet’s hamartia of indecisiveness, his delayed revenge ultimately suggests that achieving certainty beyond all doubt yields a sort of paralysis in the face of adversity.

Be Specific!

  • For short (2 page) papers, avoid fillers and vague sentences. You have much to prove in little time, so be specific!
  • VAGUE: Although the ghost only shows up three times, he plays a major role.
  • SPECIFIC: Although the ghost appears only three times, he serves as a supernatural reminder for Hamlet to execute his revenge.
  • VAGUE: Ophelia’s flowers are symbols that show her character.
  • SPECIFIC: Ophelia reveals her subversive character when she distributes flowers, symbolic of different vices, to the royal court - especially when she gives rue (regret) to Gertrude.


  • In Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison the plot is centered around the story of Milkman Dead and the physical and psychological journey he embarks on to reveal the necessity of self-exploration and to articulate the importance of knowing one’s cultural roots.
  • The love that Milkman experiences in that moment inspires him to leap out across the open space between himself and Guitar. This leap is symbolic of Milkman’s gratitude towards his aunt, as he is leaping out in order to take revenge on his former best friend. Furthermore, the leap is symbolic of Milkman’s discovery and appreciation of his family’s history. Like his great-grandfather, Solomon, Milkman is destined for greatness that goes beyond the constraints of gravity. Though the novel does not specify, if Milkman does, in fact, fly, the leap he makes suggests his surrender and his ultimate release from the inhibitions he has endured throughout life, including wealth, a dysfunctional family, and racism. The moment Milkman leaps combined with his aunt’s death indicates the conclusion of Milkman’s self-discovery and the beginning of his newfound morality and selflessness, even if that leap means death.

P1 (answer to prompt) must be INFERENCE-based

  • Connect your P1 to a theme, purpose, complex characterization,
  • NO - Hamlet’s indecision leads him to put off taking revenge against Claudius.
  • YES – Hamlet’s indecision reveals the complexity of action, and the play’s general criticism of skeptical attitudes.

Read the prompt and grade the sample essays. Note strengths and weaknesses of each.

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