Paper 2 (English Lit.)

Paper 2: Cramming in as many literary devices as you can get away with, whilst still answering the question

— Anonymous IB student

Although it may sound silly, the quotation above is profoundly true. In paper 2, two main aspects are assessed: whether you have a good grasp of the “author’s choices” (aka literary devices), and whether you actually answer the question. Doing well at Paper 2, in many respects, is a matter of balancing your natural desire to add literary devices whilst actually answering the question. Whilst ideally there should be a large overlap between the two (i.e. you should ideally use most literary devices to help answer the question), I feel it is best to show your deep knowledge and understanding of the text by doing a little extra to answering the question (elaborations below). My tips below will focus on both adding literary devices and answering the question.

Before Answering


  • Make a compare and contrast chart for at least three works you study

In paper 2, you need to give a flowing essay, in which you move between both works, often within the same paragraph, to establish similarities and differences in the way certain literary elements are used. This assessment is the most difficult exam in IB for the vast majority of IB Lit. students and teachers I speak to. In other words, you need to prepare for the exams thorougly.

Because you need to move back and forth seamlessly between two or more works, you should make a table or a chart to prepare for Paper 2 early on. When you read your works, try to note down key literary devices and conventions of your genre when they come out. For instance, if you notice a metaphor, make a column titled "metaphor" and add your example in quotations to your table. If you notice a metaphor from the other work, add this to the same column as well - so you can easily, visually see similarities and differences between your works.

  • Memorise at least 7 quotations per work

For Lit. P2, you are expected to have very sharp knowledge of the literary works. According to most of my IB Lit. friends that scored well, quotations are powerful, as they allow you to show off your knowledge, and therefore potentially score highly.

For each work you study, you should select at least 7 quotations to memorise. These quotations should be something on top of the rather obvious iconic quotations. For instance, if you have Hamlet, you should choose something more than just "To be or not to be that is the question". Of course, obvious quotations help sometimes too, but if you want to make yourself more competetitive,you would also memorise some extra ones.

Try to pick quotations that can be used for many literary devices or to support many motifs. This is sensible, as it will reduce your study time.

Dissect the Question

- Dissect the question (often into two parts)

Often, questions in Paper 2 (both in Lit. and in Lang. & Lit.) come in two parts. The first part often asks "how" or "in what ways", and the second part often asks "why" or "to what effect". You need to answer both aspects of the question to do well.

Let's take a question I just made up:

"Metaphors are a key aspect of literature. Explore in what ways two or more plays you have studied use metaphors and to what effect these are used."

This question has two aspects. It asks how metaphors are used (so this invites you to give examples of metaphors from your plays), and to what effect these are used (so try to think of overarching themes and motifs your example metaphors support or enhance)

When you read, prepare, or write for P2, make sure you think about both how the author intensifies/emphasises/establishes their major themes and motifs, and to what effect.


Name your books

- State the name of the works you will be analysing and their authors in the first sentence

Since each IB school can choose the works you will study from a long list of authors, it is best to state which books you will be using at the beginning of the paper, so the examiner doesn't have to search for this. Remember - give the examiner an easy time to get good grades. You're on the same team, as it were.

Deeper Level Thesis

- Look for a "similarity within a difference" or a "difference within a similarity"

One of the best pieces of advice on Paper 2 I got from my English Literature teacher was this easy way to find a deeper level analysis was to look for a "similarity within a difference" or a "difference within a similarity".

This means that in your introduction already, you establish a comparison and a contrast, thereby raising the sophistication of your essay. To do this, try to find a superficial similarity/difference between the works you studied, then try to find a deeper level similarity/difference. It might look something like this:

"At some level, Pygmalion and Master Harold and the Boys have been sharply contrasted, as Pygmalion has a satirical, rather light-hearted tone, whereas Master Harold and the Boys seemingly contains a deeper, even darker tone. For instance, whereas the characterisation of Higgins is somewhat comical, Hally, especially when he spits at Sam is anything but humorous. However, upon a deeper reading, the two playwrights seem to be similar in their social criticism, as they seem to represent different groups of people through their characters."

Notice how there is something of a deeper level established, which you can build upon, and through the thesis, you are inviting yourself, as it were, to both compare and contrast.

Establish the Question

- Establish that you are actually answering the question right away

From my experience sharing answers to P2-style questions with friends, the biggest mistake students seem to make is not answering the question. It is absolutely vital that you actually answer the question. If the examiner even suspects that you are not answering the question, or answering a different question to the one given, you will be penalised. This is the issue with people memorising an answer before going into the exams - it doesn't work - you need to answer the question.

Having said this, it is important that you give the examiner the impression that you are answering the question right away. A good way to do this is by showing the examiner that you know what the key words of the question are. For instance, if the question asks, "To what extent and to what effect is lighting used in two or more works you have studied?" - the obvious key word is "lighting", so in the first sentence of your introduction, you would need to state, "In both Pygmalion and Master Harold and the Boys, lighting plays a vital role in constructing the mood, thereby setting the scene for the characters".

Nuances of Genre

- Bring out the specific nuances of your text

Whilst the vast bulk of your P2 should be focused on nswering the question, remember that you are also being judged on your Knowledge and Understanding. A large part of this is how much you know about the conventions of your genre. For instance, if you are studying drama, you need to show your appreciation for dramatic devices, such as costume, lighting, props, stage directions, dialogue etc. You should begin to do this in your introduction, especially by giving a broad statement. For instance, if the P2 question was about how the theme is constructed, you could start with something like: "Pygmalion is a satire and therefore uses irony as a powerful literary device to drive the theme"


Both Works

- Move between both works in each paragraph

Remember that P2 is a comparative essay, so the main point in each paragraph should either be a comparison or a contrast - you should move between both works, using them as examples in support of your main point in each paragraph.

Let's say you want to talk about conflict.

One approach could be to have each work in separate paragraphs: "In Pygmalion, a pivotal conflict is between Eliza and Higgins. This seemingly represents something of a class struggle, as Higgins is portrayed as being in a higher social class than Eliza. Conflict, therefore, is foreshadowed from when Eliza meets Higgins at his office, as Higgins insults Eliza. Through use of diction, Higgins is characterised as offensive.

In Master Harold and the Boys, Hally and Sam's conflict is a key moment, and culminates when Hally spits at Sam, thereby rejecting him as a father figure. The closed setting intensifies the conflict, as Hally and Sam are placed in a setting, in which they are unable to leave, due to the rain. This conflict is powerful, it is used to portray a critique of society."

Notice how this approach doesn't allow for much comparison or contrast between each work. I prefer taking the approach of using one paragraph to show how one main literary device supports the main idea:

"Both Pygmalion and Master Harold and the Boys portray a conflict between different classes, as represented by the different characters. In Pygmalion, this conflict is constructed as largely an economic class conflict, as Eliza seemingly represents the "undeserving poor", and Higgins is characterised as a satire of the economic upper class. By contrast, it may be argued that Master Harold and the Boys portrays a more nuanced conflict, as Sam is both a father figure to Hally, as well as from what was considered a lower social class. Though this difference may seem trivial, this contrast is intensified through the tone of each play. Master Harold and the Boys, in this sense, is more realistic than Pygmalion, as it portrays the complex reality of the notion of class, thereby constructing a darker, more sinister tone."

Notice how in this approach, there is much stronger comparison between the two works, as each work is merely used as an example to support the main point, so it naturally opens up for a synthesis of the two works.


- Maintain coherence between paragraphs

Coherence is absolutely vital throughout your essay, as it shows how organised you are in delivering your arguments. It effects your entire grade for P2, as an incoherent essay, even if it had strong arguments, would not be as convincing as one with coherence between each paragraph. On one hand, you should try to use connecting words, such as "First and foremost", "On the other hand", "Yet", "However", "In a similar way" etc. at the beginning of each paragraph. Yet beyond this, your essay needs to flow - so try to summarise the main point of your paragraph in the last sentence of each paragraph and show how it supports your overall argument.

- Maintain coherence within paragraphs

Within each paragraph, you should be supporting one main point, usually regarding one main literary device. You should use examples from each text to support your main point. This will ensure each paragraph is coherent, as you will be discussing one main idea per paragraph and showing your working.


- Show the examiner that you aren't talking about real people

A major part of genres in Literature is that these are fictional, meaning that you need to show your understanding that the characters in your work are not real people. This is done quite subtly by using words like "constructed" and through using the present tense. For instance, if I wrote, "Macbeth became the king by killing Duncan, which led him to have psychological issues", it sounds like I am writing something historical. In Literature, however, this would be misreading the text heavily. By contrast, I might write, "Through use of characterisation and soliloquy, Macbeth is constructed as psychologically unstable, thereby portraying the consequences of breaking what may have been considered the natural order". Though similar points were used, this sounds more literary, as it respects that wall of verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude is a word worth understanding - as my Lit. teacher helpfully pointed out, it often appears in IB exams, and even if it doesn't, it is a word you can often use (if done correctly) to wow the examiners.

Embedded Quotations

- Show the examiner that you aren't talking about real people

Integrated quotations are very important to your P2, so using important quotations from your texts, try to practise writing quotations embedded in your arguments. The quotations should fit in the context of your arguments - they shouldn't hinder them or stand out too much.

Also, a more minor point is to say "quotation" rather than "quote" - it's something very minor, but it was something apparently mentioned several times in successive examiner reports.

Conventions of Genre

- Don't just use literary devices in general - use specific conventions of your genre

If you have drama, you should try to use some dramatic devices - some devices specific to drama as well, so you show your appreciation for the specific genre. Similarly, if your school chose poetry - poetic devices (etc. etc.) If you have a very post-modern text, discuss specifics of post-modernism such as breaking the fourth wall, intertextuality etc.

In the end, remember that P2 is an assessment not only of how well you answer the question - you are also being judged on how much knowledge and understanding you have, which includes conventions of your specific genre.