Writing the Prose Passage Essay for AP English Literature

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Writing the Opening Statement

Your opening statement is the one that sets the tone of your essay and possibly raises the expectations of the reader. Spend time on your first paragraph to maximize your score.

Make certain that your topic is very clear. This reinforces the idea that you fully understand what is expected of you and what you will communicate to the reader. Generally, identify both the text and its author in this first paragraph.

A suggested approach is to relate a direct quotation from the passage to the topic.

Writing the Opening Paragraph

Remember our philosophy: In the Beginning: if you focus on the beginning, the rest will fall into place. A wonderful thing happens after much practice, highlighting, and note-taking. Your mind starts to focus automatically. Trust us on this. It is the winning edge that can take an average essay and raise it to a higher level.

Do this now. Take 5 minutes to write your opening paragraph for "The Dead" prompt. Write quickly, referring to your notes.

Let's check what you've written:

  • Have you included author and title? _____ Yes _____ No
  • Have you addressed the character of Gabriel? _____ Yes _____ No
  • Have you specifically mentioned the techniques you will refer to in your essay? _____ Yes _____ No
Highlight these points to see if you've done them. You may be surprised at what is actually there.

Here are four sample opening paragraphs that address all of the cri teria:


In "The Dead" by James Joyce, the character Gabriel is revealed through diction, point of view, and imagery as he watches his wife sleep.


Poor Gabriel! Who would have thought he knew so little about himself and his life. And yet, in "The Dead," James Joyce, through diction, point of view, and imagery, makes it clear to the reader and to Gabriel that there is much to reveal about his character.


"Yes, yes: that would happen very soon." And, yes, very soon the reader of the excerpt from Joyce's "The Dead" gets to know the character of Gabriel. Through diction, point of view, and imagery, we are introduced to Gabriel and what he thinks of himself.


"The Dead." How apt a title. James Joyce turns his reader into a fly on the wall as Gabriel is about to realize the many losses in his life. Death pervades the passage, from his sleeping wife to his dying aunt.

Each of these opening paragraphs is an acceptable beginning to an AP Literature exam essay. Note what each of these paragraphs accomplishes:

  • Each has identified the title and author.
  • Each has stated which techniques/devices will be used.
  • Each has stated the purpose of analyzing these techniques /devices.

Now, note what is different about each opening paragraph:

  • Sample A restates the question without anything extra. It is to the point, so much so that it does nothing more than repeat the question. It's correct, but it does not really pique the reader's interest. (Use this type of opening if you feel unsure of or uncomfortable with the prompt.)
  • Sample B reveals the writer's attitude toward the subject. The writer has already determined that Gabriel is flawed and indicates an understanding of how Gabriel's character is revealed in the passage.
  • Sample C, with its direct quotation, places the reader immediately into the passage. The reader quickly begins to hear the writer's voice through his or her choice of words (diction).
  • Sample D, at first glance, reveals a mature, confident writer who is not afraid to imply the prompt's criteria.

Note: There are many other types of opening paragraphs that could do the job as well. The paragraphs above are just a few samples.

Into which of the above samples would you classify your opening paragraph?

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