Developing an essay sparked by a book:
Start with a question, rather than a thesis. (I mean starting your writing process, not literally writing the first sentence of your essay as a question.) A novel, after all, is the answer to a “what if” question, an extended hypothetical example, if you will. Your own question can be a hypothetical one: What would it be like to live in a society where every move was watched by someone? What would it be like to live in a society where you could never ascertain what really happened? What would it be like to live in a society where love was distorted into hate and family life turned into a vehicle for spying on everyone? See where thinking about this question takes you.
Make a connection, with your own life, with the world around you. Winston’s active rebellion starts with literacy, with the act of writing in a diary. Later, the record of his thoughts serves as a guide to his interrogator in the effort to break down every thought of resistance to the Party’s control. Have you kept a journal or diary? Did it give you a sense of power or control over your life? (And this leads me to think about another hypothetical question: what would it feel like to have it used against you, to change your mind about everything you’d written in it?) Does increased surveillance of your actions make you uncomfortable, for instance, when you know you’re in the presence of a security camera?
Make a connection between the fictional situation of the book and a real-world situation that resembles it. For example, North Korea and Myanmar, countries that have been in the news recently, are governed by dictators whose power is maintained through military force. The citizens’ access to information about the outside world, and their communication with the outside world, is severely restricted by the government. This suggests that the political situation that Orwell describes is not just an artifact of the past but a real and present description of some societies today.
Make a connection between the historical events of the author’s lifetime or details of his life with the events or themes depicted in the book. In the case of 1984, there are many aspects of real-world totalitarianism that likely inspired Orwell’s portrayal of Big Brother’s government, which you can learn about through some research on, say, Joseph Stalin or, specifically, his purges and show trials in the 1930s, or the Hitler Youth organization. Or you may want to know more about Orwell’s belief in the proletariat, as shown in his nonfiction writing about living as an impoverished writer, waiter, and even tramp in Down and Out in Paris and London and his portrayal of the working class in The Road to Wigan Pier.
Select a quotation from the book that makes you think. Explore it, consider its ramifications, relate it to the rest of the book, to your life, or to life in general. You may want to carefully consider the wording, looking up individual words, or the phrasing, or some rhetorical or poetical device, such as an oxymoron or alliteration, to deepen your understanding of the quotation and its relevance.
If you don’t like the book, focus on an aspect of it that you dislike and explore why it affects you the way it does. You can critique the book fully on the basis of your objection to it, or you can play writer’s advocate (or devil’s advocate against yourself) and try to figure out why the author wrote it the way he did. What’s the rationale for the decisions the writer made so that the book appears in the final form that it does? Of course, you can take the same approach to some aspect of the book that you like, again asking why the author wrote it the way he did, and analyze what it is you like about it. (We usually don’t look too deeply into why we like what we like, generally accepting our interest and enjoyment as sufficient reason.)
Look for a pattern in the book and write about that. You’ve probably written a number of essays of literary criticism that did just that: discussed a pattern. For example, any analysis of a particular symbol or a pattern of imagery (say, the use of color in 1984) follows the connections between the specific element of focus and other elements in the book.
Look at other works by the same author. At this George Orwell site, http://www.k-1.com/Orwell/, you’ll find links to a number of Orwell’s essays. What insight does Orwell’s essay on “A Hanging” shed on the Parsons children’s ghoulish interest in watching hangings in 1984, for instance? How does the famous essay “Politics and the English Language” explain his disdain for political rhetoric as it is expressed in 1984? Do his reasons for writing, enumerated in the essay “Why I Write,” illuminate the role that writing plays in Winston’s life? Any of these connections can be the starting point for an essay.
Note: All of these ideas are based on the approach of writing to explore what you think. If you’ve been taught that before you write you should have a thesis and an outline, you have been taught a method that assumes you have something to say on the given topic. If I decide to write a letter to the editor, for instance, because I feel very strongly about an issue, I have a thesis—a position statement—on the issue before I start writing, and I can sit down to outline what I’ll say to support my position—my reasons for my position, which I hope will convince readers of my letter to agree with me.
In school, however, you are often asked to write before you have come to a fully reasoned position on your topic. The starting points I’ve enumerated above are meant for that situation, when you are required to write, required to think about something you’ve read, but don’t yet have something to say.