Read your text several times
Examiners and teachers love nuanced responses. The key to developing a complex response is by reading your text several times (at least three times before the exam). Each time you read it you should annotate, take notes down and you’ll notice more elements and recurring themes. Every student has a different interpretation to an essay question. As long as you justify your arguments (using quotes, meta-language etc), there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation in English.
Do not retell the story & integrate meta-language
Your teachers and tutors harp on this for a reason! Examiners have read the texts before, so you must assume that they know the plot inside out. Text response is an analysis of how the author (or director) constructs a text and the ways they imply a point of view or values. You will analyse the ideas, cultural references, context, narration explored in the text and answer some of the following questions: Why has the author included specific recurring motifs or portrayed the protagonist in a particular manner? What is the author suggesting? How does the author explore the theme of ‘x’?
For example, the themes of love and death are explored in Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Think about how it is explored and what the author is attempting to do or convey. Include meta-language (language that describes language) such as ‘imagery’, ‘motif’, ‘juxtaposition’ etc.
E.g ‘Agnes’ crave for love influences her path to execution (idea and exploration of themes). All her life, she had lacked love. She recounts through her first-person narrative that ‘everything I love is taken from me’, such as her beloved foster mother, Inga (evidence). Kent uses Agnes’ retrospective narrative (how) to allow readers to empathise (why) with Agnes’ ……
Allocate quotes to specific themes, and memorise them. Have at least 20 quotes up your sleeve! Pick quotes that aren’t the stock-standard and obvious ones as seen in study guide books so that you stand out amongst your peers. You should also be aware of how to embed and integrate them into an essay, as well as picking quotes that aren’t too long.
If you are a visual learner, mind maps are a great tool for any subject you are studying and particularly useful for English. Collate all your notes, sort them into sub-categories such as THEMES, CHARACTERS, ELEMENTS and you’ll find overlaps between all sorts of elements.