Writing about Complexity


[adjective, verb kuh m-pleks, kom-pleks]

1. composed of many interconnected parts; compound; composite: a complex highway system.

2. characterized by a very complicated or involved arrangement of parts, units, etc.: complex machinery.

3. so complicated or intricate as to be hard to understand or deal with: a complex problem.

Regardless of the text, prompt, discussion topic, or type of essay, the goal is always the same: go beyond the surface level of a text and dig deep to find and unpack meaning. Moving students to complex writing can be difficult for several reasons but mainly because complex thinking is hard. Phrases such as “very complicated” and “hard to understand” from the Dictionary.com definition of complex indicate the difficulty associated with complexity. Repeated practice of reading and discussing meaty texts are the best ways to develop thought patterns to find what is not easily seen.

Summary vs. Analysis vs. Complexity

Understanding the difference between these three concepts is key when unpacking meaning. SparkNotes may be the best way to help students differentiate between summary and analysis because they already familiar with the format. Summary is the recount of events in a text or even a paraphrase of a poem while analysis involves looking for patterns or meanings in a text. Having students write a scene SparkNotes style with a summary section followed by analysis is a worthwhile activity to understand the difference between the two. Unpacking complexity, however, involves explaining why patterns and meanings are relevant and how they relate to the “meaning of the work as a whole.”

Writing about Complexity

Putting these ideas on paper adds another level of organization and thought, and while there are no formulas or quick tips for writing literary analysis, here are some ideas to consider when writing about the complexity of a work:
Use Transitions

Transitional words are a great way to highlight different layers in analysis. A guide to transitional devices such as this one from  OWL at Purdue can be helpful for students. Transitions act like thread when sewing pieces of fabric together; use sturdy thread!

Contrast Ideas

Juxtaposition is one of my go-to tools in writing because it sets the reader up to think deeply. For example, wealth is used by Gatsby to impress others but ultimately wealth doesn’t add any value to his life. Exploring wealth through these two lens positions the writer to think deeply.

Recognize Foil Characters

Aunt Alexandra and Atticus. Dr. Frankenstein and the creature. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Foil characters offer a great way to explore larger themes through contrasting actions and beliefs of characters.  

Explore Different Points of View

Examining the ant swarm in The Poisonwood Bible or crossing the river in As I Lay Dying through the experiences of different characters automatically adds layers to a scene. Taking the different layers and drawing conclusions from them leads to complex thinking and writing.

Reflect on What is Said and Done vs. What Remains Unsaid and Not Done

Going beyond the obvious forces the writer to speculate about they WHY. Why does Victor Frankenstein refuse to speak in defense of Justine? He thinks no one will believe him which highlights the larger idea of selfishness in the novel. I have shared this visual before but love using this to jar student thinking.


Think Before and After

Thinking of how a character changes throughout a novel or how a theme is developed by viewing it at the beginning then the end is another way to frame complex ideas.

Consider Literary Criticism

Having students unpack the events or analyze characters through different literary lens leads to complex thinking. Looking at Lenina in Brave New World through a feminist lens or Kurtz in Heart of Darkness through a psychoanalytic lens moves the reader and writer to deep literary waters.

Organize by Insight

I’m the broken record stuck on this phrase, but this works so well. Starting paragraphs with the big picture idea allows the student to spend the rest of the paragraph unpacking the meaning.

Analysis is hard work. Writing about complexity is hard work. We are asking our students to do hard work. With the AP exam less than a month away and college and a lifetime of learning after that, let’s roll up our sleeves and help our students do hard work.

What methods do you use to teach complexity or help students write about complexity in a text?