One of the best organizers for taking notes and responding to a story is two-column notes. By putting a plot summary in one column and your thoughts on the story in the other column, you learn to read less superficially (to see more than just what is on the surface). At the very minimum, two-column notes will help you read on two levels. That is the purpose of the exercise – to help us read a little more deeply and to make connections to what we read. In teacher-speak, we call that “close reading” or “deeper reading.” The tool for this assignment, two-column notes, will help us approach deeper reading and enjoy our reading more.
Before You Read
The steps for two-column notes are straightforward. First, we divide the novel into four main sections. This post will use Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as an example, and the author actually divided his story into five parts or “books.” Authors occasionally do that (I seem to remember Tolkien doing it!), and when the book is already divided for us, we just grab the author’s divisions and move on! In this case, Hemingway’s five parts can become four sections for us by making one our sections in the assignment include two books:
- Part – Book 1, Chapters 1-12
- Part 2 – Book 2, Chapters 13-24
- Part 3 – Book 3, Chapters 25-32
- Part 4 – Books 4 & 5, Chapters 33-37 and 38-41
If the book is not divided into obvious sections by the author, that’s okay, too. Just divide the book yourself either by chapters (or by pages). Make the parts roughly equal based on the chapters. Make a list of the four sections you will be using in your assignment and start reading.
While You Read
The second step is to read each section and write a short summary sentence for each chapter in the section. The most helpful thing you can do is to write a one-sentence summary on a sheet of notebook paper after you finish each chapter. This will save you some effort and stress when you sit down to create the two-column notes.
After You Read Each Section
The third step in the process is to create a two-column notes for the section you just read. Remember, you will have at least one sheet of paper for each of the four sections of the novel.
To create the two-column notes, fold a sheet of paper in half vertically. Label the top line with the section information (books, chapters, pages, etc.). Then write the words “plot summary” on the next line in the left column.
Here is where those one-sentence summaries save you a lot of headache. Choose the 8 to 12 most important sentences from your list of one-sentence summaries and write them neatly in the left column. Notice in the example from A Farewell to Arms that the sentences are short and simple – “just the facts.” They help recall the most important events in the story and demonstrate comprehension of the plot.
If each section has only a few chapters, you may need to write two or three sentences for each chapter. The goal is to have at least eight sentences. More than 12 will be difficult to fit in your plot summary column.
SPOILER ALERT – Here are my one-sentence summaries of Part 4 of the novel. If you haven’t read the book, this could spoil it for you, but it’s worth the educational value to print them here for you (there a dozen chapters in Books 4 & 5):
- Henry gets of the train in Milan and is helped by an old friend.
- He locates Catherine and Ferguson in Stresa.
- He fishes from a rowboat with a barman.
- He plays billiards with Count Greffi.
- Townspeople surmise Henry has deserted, and the barman helps Catherine and Henry escape on the lake.
- Henry and Catherine row up the lake into Switzerland.
- In Switzerland, the happy couple enjoy an idyllic life until it is time for Catherine to give birth.
- Henry and Catherine move to Lausanne to be close to the hospital.
- Catherine goes into labor and needs a Cesarean section.
- The baby boy is born stillborn.
- Catherine dies from hemorrhaging after the surgery.
Again, the sentences are short; they were written on the fly while I read the novel. It takes only a minute to write a brief summary of each chapter if write your summary immediately after reading each chapter. (One of the best habits you can develop is to write short summaries of every chapter you read in a notebook or software application. This will help you process and retain what you read.)
Notice also that my sentences are written in present tense. Literary analysis is always written in present tense. This is a skill we will work on in class this year, but start writing present tense summaries this summer. One of my high school teachers told me that we write in present tense about literature because in a sense both the characters and the author are still living, although the author may be dead and the book may be ancient.
After you read the section and write summary sentences, copy your sentences from your notes into plot summary column of your two-column notes. If it helps, fold the sheet of paper backwards so only that column is showing. I did that and wrote all my one-sentence summaries before writing anything in the right column.
Take a break. Then come back and think about the section you just read. Look over your plot summary and make write a couple of paragraphs on scratch paper about your first impulses, thoughts, and feelings. Don’t edit. Just write. Write two or three rough paragraphs – on your scratch paper. You should feel or think something. You should remember something from your personal experiences and your other reading. These are the personal connections you’ll write down.
What you should write? Write about a character’s growth and development. Write about the author’s point of view or purpose in writing the novel. Write about the big ideas and issues in the novel. If you read To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, you should write about the big issue of racism in the novel – it’s “the elephant in the room,” as the saying goes. Write about the things that come to your mind after finishing each section. Let your chapter summaries prompt your thinking.
Just write. You will edit before you copy your paragraphs onto your two-column notes. Set a timer and write for ten minutes. You will be amazed at how this helps you get ideas out and helps you clarify what you think and what you feel.
Now, before you copy all your thoughts onto your two-column notes, read your rough draft. Please (seriously, I beg you), get rid of “I think” and “I believe” and any other references to me, myself, I, we, us, and you. These do not belong in formal academic writing and they take up too much space on the sheet of paper (I know I am using them here, but this blog is intentionally less formal). References to first- and second-person are unnecessary; if you think or believe that John is a great guy, just write, “John is a great guy.” There is no need to write, “I think John is a great guy.” The reader understands that your statement is what you think or believe. So, eliminate those unnecessary clauses.
You should also check your vocabulary and verb tenses. Look for opportunities to substitute some synonyms. For example, replace guess with surmise if the latter is a better word choice. Look for more precise verbs or nouns than the words you put down in your first responses.
When we write about novels, we write in present tense. Take a look again at my one-sentence summaries. They are written in present tense. The responses should be in present tense unless the use of past tense is warranted (e.g. actual historical events). Make sure you are writing about the characters in present tense. Rewrite anything which is unclear and which needs revision before you put it on the two-column notes.
SPOILER ALER – If you haven’t read the novel, this could spoil it. Here are my personal responses to the final part of the novel after a little bit of editing:
Although life seems idyllic for the happy couple, there is foreboding in the final events of the novel. Henry’s rowing on the lake with the barman is a foreshadowing of his escape route; indeed, Henry seems to be thinking this is how he will leave, making note of where the little boat is kept when not in use. He seems worried that Catherine will die, even before there are complications with the surgery. Catherine believes she will die. Thus, Catherine’s death at the end of the novel is no surprise.
Indeed, her death seems to be destined – foreordained. Henry’s conversation about the war with Count Greffi and others and his mediations while Catherine is in surgery suggest that her death is punishment for their relationship and not just bad luck. That brings to the front the lack of morality in the story. Ferguson is the only character who challenges the couple’s lack of moral qualms regarding their relationship. Henry’s only misgivings come at the end of the novel when she dying. He has been nihilistic throughout the novel and now he resigns himself to fate.
Hemingway seems to be arguing the meaninglessness of war, but nihilism fails if there is justice in the universe and people receive what they deserve. The nihilism of the novel is disturbing and makes the story unsatisfactory. The protagonist has learned nothing and the world is not better.
Neatly copy your paragraphs into the personal connections column of your two-column notes. Fold the sheet backwards if it helps – especially if you’re left-handed. If you need more space, write the remainder of your personal connections on the front of another sheet of paper (without dividing this extra sheet into columns).
Do this same process for all four parts of the novel you are reading. Write a summary for every chapter. Put your summaries onto your two-column notes. Write a rough draft of your personal connections and then copy that onto the two-column notes. This will help you get below the surface of the story you are reading.
When You Finish the Novel
After you finish your fourth section of the novel, check your two-column notes. Number each sheet of paper in the top right-hand corner. Put your last name to the left of each page number. Be sure your full name and the due date of the assignment (18 Aug. 2017) are on the front page.
If you have the time and the means, make a copy for yourself. Then be ready to turn in the assignment before the due date.