A novel is a lot like a short story, but longer. A novel has all of the elements of the short story: plot, character, setting, tone, point of view, style, symbols, and theme. So when you read a novel, you need to pay attention to all of those things, just as in a short story.
And, as in a short story, the author is exploring various themes. Very few novels have a distinct "moral"; as in short stories, the authors tend to explore issues and raise questions, rather than give definitive answers. However, a novel, because of its length, can introduce and develop more characters, can have a more detailed plot, and can develop more complexity in its themes.
Sometimes, because of that very length, it's hard to know what to look for in a novel, other than its plot. So here are a few tips:
- Read the first chapter very carefully. Pay special attention to details you find there. Authors tend to introduce most or all of their themes in the first chapter. So ask yourself questions as you are reading: Why does the novel begin with this event? With these characters? Why has the author chosen this point of view? Why is this description here? What symbolism is being introduced? What tone is being set? In the first chapter of Station Eleven, every word is important, and provides you with clues to the themes of the novel. For example, why does the novel begin with the scene of Arthur Leander's death? And why does he die onstage in the middle of King Lear? King Lear was a vain man, one who meant well but was blinded by pride and the need for adoration. Look for these themes in the rest of the novel. Lear is also hallucinating in this scene: look for the theme of dreams, deception, and false appearances.
- As you would in a short story, look for repetition of details, words, and events. Any patterns are significant. For example, another character, Jeevan, mentions that the theater feels like "a terminal...a train station or an airport, everyone passing quickly through." There are numerous references to train stations and airports in the novel. Think about what ideas they might represent in the novel.
- Look for symbolism. To find it, look for details that don't seem to push the plot forward, or that don't seem to be necessary. Look for words or phrases or images that repeat themselves. Look also for characters and events that don't seem to be necessary, and pay attention when characters seem to be acting "out of character"--i.e., doing things that don't seem to fit their previous actions or their stated intentions. For example, the comic books Miranda wrote give the book its title, and are mentioned nummerous times in the story. But they are completely unnecessary to the plot. So why does the author spend so much time on them? What ideas do they introduce?
- Read the last chapter of any novel carefully, as well. Not only is the author wrapping up the plot, he/she is usually giving a few last clues to theme. Details in this last chapter are, therefore, as important as details in the first chapter.