Thanks to Shahzeb for contributing the notes!
She was widowed, she was thirty-seven, and she was to become what he had termed an informal housekeeper.
There is no physical description, so we have no idea at this stage what Mrs Kingshaw looks like. Our interest is gained by making us wonder, for example, what has attracted Mr Hooper to Mrs Kingshaw? What does he mean by ‘informal housekeeper’? So the author’s technique is one of giving a little information to make us want to read on.
Descriptions may be more detailed. This is Marian in The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley:
Her father’s long eyelids drooped over her eyes, leaving under them a glint of blue so deep and liquid that it might have been shining through an unshed tear. Her hair was bright with sunshine, but her face, which was full like her mother’s, only pale rose-pink instead of cream, wore a stern brooding look that her small curved nose made almost hawk-like.
You could sketch Marian’s appearance from this information, but not Mrs Kingshaw. However, there is a similarity in the descriptions, and it is an important technique which you should comment on when writing about character. This is the implicit meaning in the descriptions; that is, what the authors are suggesting about the characters. Marian is obviously beautiful, but words such as ‘stern’, ‘brooding’ and ‘hawk- like’ hint at harsh elements in her character; the lack of information about Mrs Kingshaw makes her seem mysterious and even a little threatening. Susan Hill and L. P. Hartley have got us speculating about their characters – in one case through lack of detail, and in the other through the amount of detail!
Rather than simply describe them, the author may show us characters doing things. Our reactions to what they do help us decide what kind of people they are. When Billy Casper in A Kestrel for a Knave washes his hands after a fight at school, he plays with a soap bubble:He tilted his hand and shifted his head to catch the colours from different angles and in different lights, and while he was looking it vanished, leaving him looking at a lathered palm.
What is the author, Barry Hines, telling us? Despite his problems, Billy is a sensitive lad who delights in the natural world around him. On a more basic level, he is not used to having hot water and soap to wash with!
Squealer in Animal Farm by George Orwell shows his character through what he says. Here we see his cunning and disregard for the other animals:We pigs are brain workers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Yes, Jones would come back!
It is what he says which shows Squealer’s nature. Sometimes it will be how a character says something which is revealing. In The Darkness Out There by Penelope Lively, Mrs Rutter shows how little she minds about the death of a German airman (but also her anger at the death of her own husband in the war) by commenting, ‘Tit for tat...’.
Apart from character, the aspect of prose fiction which most influences how you respond to an author’s concerns is setting. Setting means the ways in which places or objects are used to create meaning, atmosphere or mood.
Sometimes a description will appear to be literal or neutral if the writer simply wants to establish where something is happening:The house, which was called Warings, had been built by the boy’s great-grandfather, and so it was not very old. In those days, there had been a large village, and the first Joseph Hooper had owned a good deal of land. Now, the village had shrunk, people had left for the towns and there had been few newcomers, few new buildings. Derne had become like an old busy port which has been deserted by the sea.
That extract from I’m the King of the Castle gives background information in a straightforward way. Even so, a skilful writer like Susan Hill cannot avoid suggesting in the final sentence that the village has not merely shrunk in size, but has actually been rejected by people – what is wrong with this place, the reader might wonder.
Descriptions of places are often used to create meaning. In this passage from Lord of the Flies, the sea is made to seem monstrous and threatening:...it seemed like the breathing of some stupendous creature. Slowly the waters sank among the rocks, revealing pink tables of granite, strange growths of coral, polyp, and weed. Down, down, the waters went, whispering like the wind among the heads of the forest. There was one flat rock there, spread like a table, and the waters sucking down on the four weedy sides made them seem like cliffs. Then the sleeping leviathan breathed out – the waters rose, the weed streamed, and the water boiled over the table rock with a roar.
Words such as ‘breathing’, ‘creature’, ‘growths’, ‘whispering’, ‘heads’, ‘sucking’ and ‘breathed’ give the sea human qualities. These convey both the threat of the environment and the fear of the boy watching it. So, as well as helping to establish William Golding’s theme of savagery, the passage also tells us about Ralph’s feelings.
Setting can thus be used to illustrate a character’s mood, or to set the tone of a story. The narrator in Dylan Thomas’s The Outing tells us:The charabanc pulled up outside the Mountain Sheep, a small, unhappy public house with a thatched roof like a wig with ringworm ...
Here the mix of comedy and disappointment reflects both the narrator’s feelings and the atmosphere of the story.
Barry Hines begins A Kestrel for a Knave with this paragraph:There were no curtains up. The window was a hard edged block the colour of the night sky. Inside the bedroom the darkness was of a gritty texture. The wardrobe and the bed were blurred shapes in the darkness. Silence.
This sets the mood for the whole story, which is indeed ‘hard’ and ‘gritty’. This ‘silence’ is not peaceful, but threatening, with the ‘blurred shapes’ lurking in the ‘darkness’.
When you consider setting, look for meaning both in what is described and how it is described; think about what these choices tell you about characters in the story or about the actual themes and ideas of the story. Look especially at the words used, and any images – such as William Golding’s comparison of the sea to a monster or Dylan Thomas’s comparison of the thatch to a rotten wig.
When you read a poem, what does it sound like? Do the sounds have anything to do with its subject matter? If you speak a poem out loud, how much effort does it take to pronounce the words? Do the sounds of the words, and the effort it takes to make them, help you share the poet’s feelings or sense the atmosphere the poet is trying to create?
When Wilfred Owen, a soldier-poet of the First World War, writes about ‘the merciless iced east winds that knive us’, the sounds (that is, all the cs, ss and is) make you feel as though you are experiencing the biting cold, and sharing his despair.
Owen’s line shows examples of both alliteration (when the same sound is repeated, for example the cs, ss and is) and of onomatopoeia (when the sound of a word imitates the sound of what it describes). ‘Wind’ is an onomatopoeic word, as you make a blowing sound when you pronounce it. So is ‘knive’, as the sound of the word is sharp and violent, just like the effect of the cold wind it describes.
Poets often use alliteration and onomatopoeia together. Their choice of words may also be influenced by the physical effort the reader needs to make when speaking them out loud. In the Owen extract, ‘knive’ ends with a rasping v sound, and the cs and ss in the other words are very forceful too as you need to force air between your teeth to pronounce them.
In complete contrast, Lord Alfred Tennyson uses gentle, soothing sounds in the following lines from his poem In Memoriam. These require little effort on the speaker’s part and so reinforce the alliteration and onomatopoeia. They create the effect of a hot, drowsy summer afternoon.
The moan of doves in immemorial elms And the murmuring of innumerable bees
Poets often use original imagery to convey their meaning. The image may relate an object, place or emotion to something with which you are familiar, so that you can share the poet’s feelings. When Gillian Clarke writes ‘Like peaty water sun slowly fills the long brown room’ she is using a simile, where the word ‘like’ makes a direct comparison of one thing (sunlight) to something else (peaty water). In this example, the simile helps you picture a room which remains rather gloomy and mysterious despite the brightness which comes into it. It allows you to share the feelings of apprehension which the poem describes.
Imagery may be used to shock you into seeing something in a different way, if the poet compares the familiar or comfortable with something frightening or disturbing. For example, to Ted Hughes ‘thistles’
are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects. Every one manages a plume of blood.
Here there is a simile in the first sentence. The reference to
Hughes also uses the technique known as personification, when objects or places are made to seem alive by the words used to describe them. In the final lines of Hughes’ poem, personification is combined with metaphor and simile to reinforce the threat he sees in thistles:
Then they grow grey like men.
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.
When you respond to a poem, you need to think – what is it about and why was it written? Does it make you see situations in a new light or understand feelings in greater depth? When Gillian Clarke describes her car, left near a building which was being demolished, in her poem Jac Codi Baw as
splattered with the stone’s blood, smoky with ghosts.
her purpose is to help us reflect on how much is actually being destroyed.
Tone refers to the way in which the poet addresses you. It may be to question you or challenge your thinking, as when George Herbert writes in Jordan:
Who says that fictions only and false hair Become a verse?
Or the tone may be quite matter-of-fact. Nissim Ezekiel begins the poem Night of the Scorpion:
I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion.
Attitude means the poet’s viewpoint: is the ‘I’ in the poem the poet him or herself, or is the writing ironically putting forward ideas the poet does not hold? In the lines by Gillian Clarke above, it seems quite clear that she is expressing her own attitude of sadness. But to decide if Simon Armitage is being honest in his poem which begins:
I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
you would need to consider the whole poem very carefully.
The form of a poem can also affect your response to it. Regular rhyme and rhythm may often create a happy, light-hearted mood and convey simple ideas – or the poet may use the form ironically to contrast with, and emphasise, a sombre message. This is what William Blake does in his poem London:
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.
Poems which have an irregular rhythm and little, or no, rhyme can seem more like a conversation. It may feel as though the poet is talking directly to you, especially if the language is blunt and everyday rather than formal. This is Seamus Heaney in his poem The Early Purges:
I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
Dan Taggart pitched them, ‘the scraggy wee shits’,
Into a bucket
Sometimes the form of a poem can imitate its meaning, as in the opening of this poem by Alice Walker, Poem at Thirty-Nine, where the shortening lines seem to illustrate her tired father running out of energy:
How I miss my father.
I wish he had not been
Always try to comment on the form of a poem: it is chosen for a purpose by the poet, as carefully as the ideas, words and images are chosen.
Plays are written to be performed. Respond to them as a member of an audience – what effect would situations, characters, language have on you?
Responding to the author’s use of language is crucial. This may be within stage directions, for example when the grumpy teacher in Willy Russell’s Our Day Out replies to a cheerful colleague’s greeting: ‘Morning’.
Even a simple piece of punctuation can help. When Basil Fawlty says ‘Sorry?’ to a guest, the question mark shows that he is either in one of his usual states of confusion or challenging aggressively. He is not being apologetic – that would be out of character.
Authors may give detailed directions and descriptions, so that you react in a way which suits their purpose. When we first see Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion, the script says:She is not at all a romantic figure. She is perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty, hardly older. She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London and has seldom, if ever, been brushed ...
and so on, for another ten lines. What this kind of scripting tells us is that the playwright is particularly concerned that the audience sees the characters and receives the play’s ‘message’ exactly as s/he imagined them.
Dramatists use various devices to shape the audience’s reactions. In A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller uses Alfieri not only as a character in the play, but also as a commentator to step out of the action and talk directly to us:It was at this time that he first came to me. I had represented his father in an accident case some years before, and I was acquainted with the family in a casual way.
I remember him now as he walked through my doorway –
at which point the action resumes with that meeting, enabling Miller to switch timescales and have a mouthpiece for his message at the same time.
Dramatic irony – that is, when you know more than the characters on stage – can create striking effects. You may feel an almost physical involvement with the action – at its most obvious level, this occurs in pantomime when a whole audience will shout out to a character on stage, ‘Behind you!’
A radio play depends almost entirely on the power and originality of its language. So be prepared to comment on how the author captures your imagination through the choice of words, and how sound effects and silences add to the drama.
Comment on how television and film may use a range of special effects – such as multiple screens, flashbacks, non-fiction inserts, long shots and close-ups – to affect your response to characters and themes. In a visual medium, language may seem less important – you may see characters in situations where no words are spoken. You need to consider whether the medium helps or hinders the author’s purpose, and whether the author has exploited fully the technical possibilities offered by the medium.
Writing which conveys factual information must make its meaning clear. It must not cause doubts or uncertainty in the reader’s mind. If you have to read this kind of text twice, it has failed in its purpose. The language of such texts avoids opinion, emotion and implication; the writer’s attitudes or personality are not important. Language is used here literally.
Literary texts are different: they have succeeded if you can find alternative meanings when you read them. The language of a well- written literary text is full of qualities such as the author’s mood, ideas and values.
In literal language, a spade is a spade and a pen is a pen. Literary language, by using images and allusions (reference to a person, event or story), can make us see how one might be like the other. Read this extract from the poem Digging by Seamus Heaney:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Seamus Heaney realises that his tool – the pen – is like his father’s tool which was a spade. Neither tool is better than the other, and both men create worthwhile things with them.
Remember the power of the imagery from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies:...it seemed like the breathing of some stupendous creature... Then the sleeping leviathan breathed out – the waters rose, the weed streamed, and the water boiled over the table rock with a roar.
Certain words give animal qualities to the sea. They convey the fear of the boy watching it. In the extract from Thistles by Ted Hughes (see page 10) we also saw how thistles could be symbolised as threatening in a human way through personification and imagery.
The meaning of literary texts is often conveyed through the way the reader understands a situation better than the characters involved in it. For example, in Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, Mr Gryce the Headteacher sees nothing odd in singing a hymn about God’s love at an assembly mostly taken up by shouting at the pupils (and sometimes the staff). Irony may also be very bitter. An example is this extract from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem:
Does it matter? Losing your sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind:
And people will always be kind.
Irony can also be subtle. In Penelope Lively’s The Darkness Out There, it is only at the end of the story that the reader realises how inappropriate this early, gentle description of Mrs Rutter is:...the old woman was back in the armchair, a composite chintzy mass from which cushions oozed and her voice flowed softly on.
Dramatic irony is a common device in plays or sitcoms: you, the audience, know more than the characters on stage and so can be horrified or amused by what they say. In Fawlty Towers the audience is already cringing when Basil asks a guest ‘And how is that lovely daughter of yours?’ long before Sybil quietly reminds him: ‘Dead’.
One way to show understanding of how texts achieve their effects is to
compare how writers tackle a similar theme, idea or situation. You
need to think about:
Look at the ending of Rupert Brooke’s Peace:
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
Compare this with the ending of Siegfried Sassoon’s Attack:
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
Both describe death in battle. To Brooke – writing at the start of the First World War – it is something glorious, patriotic, almost without consequence. To Sassoon – writing with several years’ experience of the trenches – it is terrifying. Brooke’s language is stately and ‘poetic’; Sassoon, although he uses the same technique of personification, writes in plain, urgent language. He uses rhythms which reflect meaning (second line) and he uses stop–start phrases and harsh sounds (third and fourth lines). When comparing texts it is a good idea to point out similarities as well as differences. This is often how varying attitudes and values become clear.
You will sometimes need to compare the presentation of characters. The author’s technique may leave you to form your own opinion. Read the extract overleaf from The Darkness Out There by Penelope Lively.The girl blushed. She looked at the floor, at her own feet, neat and slim and brown. She touched, secretly, the soft skin of her thigh; she felt her breasts poke up and out at the thin stuff of her top; she licked the inside of her teeth, that had only the one filling, a speck like a pin-head.
Sandra is a complex character: still childlike, but becoming a young adult; likeable, but a little vain. The author stresses this complexity by making you do the work. Sometimes an author needs to move the story along and introduce you quickly to the main aspects of a character. Description may then be more obvious – as Claudette Williams shows in Invisible Mass of the Back Row:He is big, sturdy and beautifully dark, with a baby moustache. He is handsomely dressed in his Dashiki suit. There is a kindness about this man that is not usually found among teachers.
Sometimes a character or situation changes within a text. You may be asked to describe and explain this process by comparing one part of the text with another. Look at how the teenagers in Penelope Lively’s The Darkness Out There think of Mrs Rutter at the start of the story:...old Mrs Rutter with her wonky leg would be ever so pleased to see them because they were really sweet, lots of the old people.
But after they discover the secret of her past, Kerry says about her:‘It makes you want to throw up ... someone like that.’
You might explain this change by quoting and explaining the last lines of the story, seen through the thoughts of Sandra:She walked behind him, through a world grown unreliable, in which flowers sparkle and birds sing but everything is not as it appears, oh no.
You may be asked to show your understanding of the relationship of texts to the place and time in which they were written and how that affects their meaning. It may be just a single word which suggests a non-British setting, as in Poverty Poems – 2 by Nissim Ezekiel:
I lifted up my eyes
And saw a leper standing
Against a poster-ridden wall.
Here, the word ‘leper’ alerts us to the likelihood of a foreign setting. It may be a description of behaviour or beliefs which you can identify as indicating a different social and cultural setting. This extract describes the behaviour of villagers after a neighbour has been bitten by a scorpion:
The peasants came like swarms of flies
they searched for him...
The worries, ideas and values described in texts are often the same, irrespective of the cultural or social setting. You should therefore look not only for what is distinctive in such texts, but also for what is familiar or universal. Look for how the distinctiveness of the setting makes for originality. In the lines above, from Nissim Ezekiel’s Night of the Scorpion, the neighbours show the fear and concern you would expect in any society. However, details – such as the candles and lanterns and the actions of the villagers – locate the event firmly within its own culture. This is reinforced by the imagery used, ‘swarms of flies’ being a particularly appropriate metaphor in the circumstances.
Social and cultural settings may even be imaginary, for example in science-fiction stories. In Examination Day, by Henry Slesar, twelve- year-old children are tested and ‘eliminated’ if they are too intelligent for the needs of their society. So this is the choice facing Dickie’s parents at the end of the story:‘You may specify by telephone,’ the voice droned on, ‘whether you wish his body interred by the Government or would you prefer a private burial place? The fee for Government burial is ten dollars.’
The historical setting of texts may be shown by the ideas or actions described, but is often most obvious through the language. For example, in this ballad the vocabulary makes it clear that this is a Scottish poem from an earlier century. The harshness of the vocabulary suits the theme and mood exactly.
As I was walking all alane
The tane unto the t’other did say
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
For dramatic effect, a story or poem may sometimes turn cultural, social and historical expectations on their head. Margaret Atwood, for example, uses a traditional story to create humour out of modern attitudes in There was Once:– There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.
– Forest? Forest is passe, I mean I’ve had it with all this wilderness stuff. It’s not a right image of our society, today. Let’s have some urban for a change.
When commenting on these aspects of a text, remember that you must comment on the effects achieved by the social, cultural or historical dimension – shock, amusement, fascination with the unknown, etc.
In your examination you need to show that you can use technical words which describe how writers make language work for them and achieve their desired effects. Examples of such terms are alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor and personification. (Check back to pages 9–16 if you are unsure of the meanings of any of these words.)
Simply using these words, even knowing the meaning of them, is not enough. To gain high marks in your examination you must be able to explain how any technique works in a particular text. So, for example, in these lines from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies you would comment how the alliteration and onomatopoeia (particularly the s and sh sounds) imitate the noise of the sea which they describe. They create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind:Now the sea would suck down, making cascades and waterfalls of retreating water, would sink past the rocks and plaster down the seaweed like shining hair: then, pausing, gather and rise with a roar, irresistibly swelling over point and outcrop, climbing the little-cliff, sending at last an arm of surf up a gully to end a yard or so from him in fingers of spray.
Similarly, in Portrait of a Machine the poet, Louis Untermeyer, does not state directly that the machine is alive. However the words he uses (such as ‘nudity’, ‘monster’, ‘purring’, ‘muscles’, ‘sure-fingered’ and ‘flank’) make the reader think of the machine as some kind of living creature:
What nudity as beautiful as this
And the sure-fingered rods that never miss?
This long and shining flank of metal is
Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil
The writer’s purpose here is to make you think about the nature of machines. Are they beautiful, or threatening? How much in control of them are we?
This is a useful acronym to help you to write about the effects achieved by the language and devices used by writers of fiction texts. Suppose you were responding to these lines from Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
You might structure your comments the SECSI way:
The structure of a prose text will influence how you read, understand and react to it. Look at the beginning of this novel, Push Me, Pull Me by Sandra Chick:Everyone likes Christmas Eve. I don’t. Would never admit it, though. Wouldn’t be fair on the others to play selfish and dampen the spark. Truth is, I get jealous of the fun everybody else is having.
The writing is in the first person (‘I’), in the voice or style of an invented teenage character. The effect is immediate and compelling. It feels as if you are being spoken to directly by someone who could be a friend of yours. The use of informal language (e.g. ‘Would never admit it’, ‘Truth is’) is a choice made by the author in structuring the story to appeal to its target audience.
Third-person narration (‘he’/‘she’) can work equally well, especially if the structure allows for lots of dialogue. The advantage is that an author can exploit the contrast between formal description and speech so that readers do not tire of one style. Here is an example from
A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines:...Jud was having his breakfast when Billy came downstairs. He glanced up at the clock. It was twenty-five to six.
‘What’s up wi’ thee, shit t’bed?’
‘I’m off out, nesting; wi’ Tibby and Mac.’
He whooshed the curtains open and switched the light off. The morning light came in clean as water, making them both look towards the window. The sun had not yet risen, but already the air was warm, and above the roof line of the house opposite, the chimney stack was silhouetted against a cloudless sky.
‘It’s a smashing morning again.’
‘Tha wouldn’t be saying that if tha wa’ goin’ where I’m goin’.’
A different structural approach to narrative is to use two or more characters as narrators. This approach can either use the straightforward alternation of chapters or sections, or use devices such as diaries or letters interspersed in the text. The main purpose of this is to give the reader more than one account of – or reaction to – events and characters. This encourages thoughtful and different interpretations of what apparently happens.
Other common structural devices such as flashbacks make you think about the sequence of events in a story, or the effect of the past on characters in the present. They may lead you to think ‘What might have happened if...?’
Remind yourself of how the main structural features of a poem – rhyme, rhythm, layout of verses and choice of language – affect the reader’s response to its meaning.
Remind yourself of how dramatists may use a range of devices to structure scripts. Many of these are similar to prose structures – narrative viewpoint, contrasts in voice or language, chronological sequence, for example. However, there are a number of special effects available to radio, television and film in particular.
If you are comparing versions of a text in different media – for example, a film of a Shakespeare play or a stage dramatisation of a novel – consider whether the original structure has been changed at all. Have parts been left out, or additions made? Has the sequence of events been changed? Have the relationships of some of the characters changed? Why do you think this was done, and what effect does it have on you? A helpful way to think about the importance of how a text is structured is to consider what effect changes have had on it, or might have if they were made.
The main purpose of non-fiction texts is to convey information or facts, but this is often presented alongside the author’s ideas or opinions. Look out for opinions disguised as facts (see page 49) and question the usefulness of arguments (see page 53).
Non-fiction texts include autobiography, biography, journals, diaries, letters, essays and travel writing. Because these deal with people’s experiences, ideas and attitudes you should read them as though they were literary texts. The language used, the people, incidents, places or ideas described, are selected and structured in a formal way to have a particular effect on you. Many are written in the first person (‘I’) so your opinion of the author will influence judgements about the trustworthiness of the text.
In biography, the author often writes as though s/he knows all the innermost thoughts and qualities of the subject. You must decide how reliable the author is. In this excerpt, the author has a view of his subject as a businessman which was clearly not shared by everyone:
Clark was unfairly blamed for the company’s troubles, which derived from complacency, failure to modernise and restrictive practices.
You don’t know which view is correct, but you must recognise that what is written here is merely an opinion. The opinion is backed by emotive and value-laden words such as ‘unfairly’, ‘blamed’, ‘complacency’, ‘failure’ and ‘restrictive’.
Travel writing often reveals attitudes and prejudices. Paul Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea shows his contempt for seaside holidaymakers, and perhaps some snobbery, when he describes Blackpool as:
real clutter: the buildings that were not only ugly but also foolish and flimsy, the vacationers sitting under a dark sky with their shirts off, sleeping with their mouths open, emitting hog whimpers.
Words like ‘clutter’, ‘ugly’, ‘foolish’, ‘flimsy’ and ‘hog whimpers’ are intended to make you share Theroux’s condescending view of these people who visit an unattractive place, sunbathe under ‘a dark sky’, look foolish and make animal noises. His use of the word ‘emitting’ puts you on Theroux’s side: he knows you are an intelligent person who will understand his language and share his point of view – writers will try to manipulate you in this way.
Journals, diaries and letters are usually different. Sometimes they are written for publication (in which case you must read them in the way suggested above). More often they are informal in style and structure, and it is easier to spot the writer’s opinions or prejudices. For example, Mary Shelley’s diary entry for 6 March 1815 reads:
Find my baby dead. Send for Hogg. Talk. A miserable day. In the evening read ‘Fall of the Jesuits’. Hogg sleeps here.
The plain language, short sentences and jumps from one thought to another underline the spontaneity and real emotion in the writing.
These include information leaflets and other factual or informative writing, such as encyclopaedia articles or reference books. There is not always an author’s name on these, but remember they have been written by someone. Look for evidence of bias in the language or in the selection and presentation of material.
You should comment on the language, content and structure of texts,
and the influence of the author’s own attitudes and ideas. Remember
to answer these questions:
Media texts include radio, film, television, magazines and newspapers. They may contain both fiction (e.g. realisations of a classic novel as drama script or printed cartoon) and non-fiction materials (e.g. advertisements).
In your GCSE English exam, you are most likely to encounter non- fiction, print-based materials. In responding to them, you need to explain how particular effects are achieved. You should also comment on why texts are successful in relation to their target audience and intended purpose.
Many media texts are aimed at broad groups of people, categorised by income, profession or interests. Particular advertisements, for example, will be aimed at different groups and will therefore be presented and distributed differently. Rolls Royce cars are not advertised on prime- time commercial television, but Skodas are. This allows the authors of media texts to make certain assumptions about the audience’s beliefs, lifestyles and aspirations. For example, an article in a magazine for members of the National Farmers’ Union begins:
British food is clearly the best, and how to prove it beyond doubt to supermarkets, caterers and the general public, is the aim of a new industry-wide farm standards initiative being promoted by NFU.
This is neither a lively nor balanced presentation of views. The writer is addressing an audience assumed to be both interested and sympathetic.
In the most successful media texts, purpose is hardly distinguishable from audience, as media authors need to give their audiences what they want. This is why media texts may often seem stereotypical: for example, magazines aimed at men are full of articles about sport and cars, and magazines aimed at women are about fashion, food and children.
A tabloid newspaper shows a picture of Gianfranco Zola, Chelsea’s Italian footballer, serving a pizza under the headline:
which contains the puns typical of the medium, but also presents a stereotypical view of Italians. Even more ‘upmarket’ broadsheet newspapers use similar approaches, as in this headline from The Independent: ‘FRENCH SAY NON TO LE BUSINESS SPEAK ANGLAIS’. This is designed to capture the interest of an educated readership. It also sustains the supposed hostility between the French and the English.
Media texts are often short and snappy. They are designed to grab the
reader’s attention. You should therefore look out for, and comment on,
Comment on how titles, subheadings, frames, colour, font styles and sizes, and illustrations are used to catch and direct the reader’s interest. Charts and diagrams may be as important as words in conveying information.
Definite facts do not often appear in written texts, even those labelled ‘non-fiction’. Look at this simple advertisement for a credit card:
The only facts in it are the (approximate) number of outlets and the telephone number. All the rest is opinion (even ‘your local branch’ might be a long way to people who live in the country). This advertisement is designed to make the reader feel that it is important to own one of these cards.
In the following excerpt from Reginald Thompson’s newspaper account of skirmishes in North Korea, there is very little fact at all. The writer’s purpose is to establish the atmosphere or ‘feel’ of the event, before going on to relay the bare facts of what actually happened.
It was a game of blind man’s bluff in these wild rugged irregular hills in which the enemy moved freely, easily eluding the groping arms of the Americans by day, and swooping down upon them, blind in the night, with devastating fury and magnificent discipline.
You may not be asked to identify fact and opinion directly. Instead you
might be asked to describe what a text tells you about something, and
then to explain what the author
first tell the facts, then consider the opinions. Remember to use your common sense. For example, if a house advertisement claims that the residence has ‘a large south- facing garden’, it is reasonable to assume that the property has a garden and that it will (more or less) face south. Whether it is large or not is more likely to be a matter of opinion.
In examinations, you may be presented with a piece of travel writing. This is a genre (type of writing) in which facts, opinions and the writer’s ideas and attitudes are often intermingled. Sorting out one from the other requires careful reading. Read this extract from Please Don’t Call it Soviet Georgia by Mary Russell carefully:
The silence is heavy with waiting. Then it comes, faint at first. A heavy, rumbling sound. A film of nervous sweat breaks out across my back. Maybe it’s not tanks. Maybe it’s aircraft going over. At this time of night? No, the tanks rumble on, thunder into our ears. Below, the faces are impassive, unflinching. Beside me, a young woman puts her arms round her friend who is sobbing. Suddenly, the sound stops. It’s true, there was nothing to fear. Not this time. It was a tape, the tape of what happened last year. Only, last year the tanks didn’t stop...
The facts are few – she is scared by what she thinks are tanks. But the emotions, attitudes and values (the opinions) are what make the writing moving and powerful.
When reading non-fiction texts, you often need to follow an argument or train of thought. This will help you to understand the writer’s purpose, or understand what the writer is trying to persuade or instruct you about. Such pieces of text might be:
Look out for the effect of structural features which organise the writing. For example, the use of headlines, subheadings, numbers, diagrams and pictures, or flowcharts (see pages 57–58 and 61–62 for more detail about these). These features shape your response to the writing. Look at this card designed and produced by British Telecom to be carried by mobile phone users to remind them of certain facilities on their phone.
The clarity of the BT card is aided by:
Note how not all the instructions on the card are grammatically complete (e.g. ‘Wait for prompt’). This helps to keep the instructions short and precise.
Of course, not all arguments or instructions can be put into simple or brief language. Complex ideas need a full explanation. They may require the use of technical language. Look at this extract from a buyer’s guide to four-wheel drive vehicles (The Essential Guide to Choosing and Using Your 4×4 Vehicle, published by the Rover Group Ltd):
Although the language is reasonably straightforward, the ideas are not necessarily easy for someone who does not understand the workings of power units in cars. The diagram does not seem to make the argument any easier, as the labels include some terms not used in the writing. Be prepared to identify failures as well as successes – provided you can explain why.
Most non-fiction and media texts are put together carefully so as to have maximum impact on their intended audiences. This is true even of ‘private’ texts such as diaries or letters, which will usually be structured in narrative or chronological ways to capture the writer’s idea or point of view. More ‘public’ texts – such as information leaflets or magazine articles – will usually show a wide range of features. This is because there are often business-related reasons for their need to succeed.
Most of these additional features are intended to ensure that the reader understands the message or purpose of the text in two main ways. Firstly, by presenting information in a logical way and/or in a way which will capture your interest and imagination. Secondly, by presenting text in small units so that you are able to take it in easily and think about it as you go. You are less likely to become bored by it, and more likely to stick with it to the end. Breaking text up in this way also allows it to be presented attractively (as you will see in more detail on pages 61–62).
Look at this advertisement for homes in the USA:
This example shows use of the following structural features:
These are some of the most common structural devices found in printed non-fiction/media texts – whatever their length, purpose or audience.
Other devices to look out for include the use of graphical information (particularly charts or tables) to convey numerical or financial information, or maps, diagrams and timetables to convey travel information.
The purpose of such structural devices is to ensure that the reader quickly gains whatever information the writer wishes to convey. When responding to non-fiction/media texts you should always write about structural features with these questions in mind:
The last point is important. If a piece of text is aimed, say, at teenagers then it is not reasonable to criticise it on the grounds that older people would not understand the use of slang or colloquial language. Similarly, do not criticise an advertisement for pensions aimed at older people because it is ‘boring’ to a teenage reader.
These are more to do with how the text is presented. There is some overlap here with structural devices (see pages 57–58). For example, bullet points or headlines are really both structural and presentational. All the devices discussed on page 58, and those detailed here, are concerned with achieving desired effects on particular audiences.
You should therefore respond to the use of presentational devices in
the same way as to structural devices. You should ask yourself these
These may be placed around parts of a text, or around the whole text. The effect in either case should be to draw the reader’s eye to something significant. Look out for which parts of a text are highlighted in this way and which are not. Sometimes the absence of frames can be used to divert attention from details which the writer does not want to stand out – such as details of additional charges or product guarantees.
These may serve a number of purposes. Above all, they can make dull text look more attractive and therefore more interesting. At the same time, they may present an image of the information, product or idea which the writer is trying to promote. Consider how realistic or honest illustrations are – sometimes new cars or houses will be represented by an ‘artist’s impression’. Ask yourself ‘why?’ Is it because the actual product doesn’t exist? Or can the ‘impression’ impress more than the real thing?Colour
Colour is often used sparingly as it is expensive to reproduce. Although colour can make text eye-catching, over-fussy or poor use of colours can be distracting. They can make text more difficult to read, rather than more attractive.
The style and size of different fonts may affect the way a reader reacts to text. For example, some fonts have a more ‘serious’ or formal appearance, while others are more obviously informal. Some styles are associated closely with particular eras (e.g. the 1970s or 1980s) or even individual products. Some styles may be associated with feelings or atmospheres. For example, a ruined castle, or a horror film, might use a ‘gothic’ or ‘medieval’ font in their promotional literature. Larger fonts may be used to emphasise particular aspects of a text. The so- called ‘small print’ may hide less attractive information. Text may be in bold, in italics or underlined in various ways, to add to the impact of different font styles and sizes.Logos and symbols
Logos are used mostly to fix the image of a company or organisation in the reader’s mind so that it is instantly recognised when met again. Some advertising relies on well-known logos and does not mention the company name at all. The effect of this can be to make the reader feel as though s/he belongs almost to an exclusive ‘club’ of those who understand the logo, and can therefore make them more responsive to the advertisement. Symbols such as ticks, crosses, pairs of scissors and so on can be space-savers, and thus cost-savers. They can also be helpful to readers.
All texts are written for a purpose. Skilful writers will manipulate (i.e. control) your response to a text through the range of techniques they use. You have already looked at some of these techniques, but the most valuable weapon a writer has is individual words. Look at this fairly typical advertisement for a new house:
Individual words such as ‘large’, ‘detached’, ‘charming’, ‘convenient’
and ‘superb’ are all examples of opinions disguised as facts. There are
also whole phrases designed to influence the reader’s feelings:
However, note the words in very small print beneath the illustration – ‘Similar house types to be built’. This is not avoiding the truth, but it does point to the fact that the picture is not actually the house for sale.
The language of non-fiction, particularly that of advertisements, often appeals to our emotions, such as snobbery. The house advertisement on page 65 does that. Although the language is restrained (i.e. not ‘over the top’), it nevertheless suggests that this is a house for a successful businessperson.
Other types of non-fiction texts, such as autobiography or travel writing, often use language in a more literary way. This is intended to engage the reader’s imagination. As an example, Roald Dahl mentions in Going Solo:sinister vultures waiting like feathered undertakers for death to come along and give them something to work on.
Humour is often used in texts like these. It may be kindly or, more often than not, pointed and condemning. Read this extract from Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson:Bradford’s role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well.
When commenting on humour remember to explain the effect it has on the reader. Is it to make a sort of bond between the writer and reader? Or is it to make sharp criticism of someone or something? Or is it just to show off the author’s verbal dexterity (clever use of words)?
Verbal dexterity is often used by writers of media texts which advertise products. ‘Catchphrases’ which become associated with chocolate bars or soft drinks are important to the success of one kind of non- fiction writer. The idea is to fix certain products in our minds by coming up with memorable phrases. These ‘catchphrases’ rely on devices such as rhyme and repetition (‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’) or literary language that is slightly ridiculous (such as describing an Australian lager as the ‘amber nectar’). Alliteration, puns, onomatopoeia and (often far-fetched) imagery are all used by writers when advertising products.
If you are learning a new spelling first LOOK at it (to see if it reminds you of any other words or spelling patterns you already know), then COVER it (and try to ‘see’ the word in your mind’s eye), then WRITE it (from memory) and finally CHECK it (to see if you were right).
If you have to spell a difficult or new word from memory or from just hearing it, LISTEN to its sound (say it slowly to yourself several times) and think which letters might represent those sounds; THINK about spelling rules or patterns you know; WRITE down two or three spellings which might be correct then decide which looks or ‘feels’ right. Finally CHECK in a dictionary/spellchecker.
You won’t always be able to use a spellchecker or a dictionary or ask
someone how to spell a word, especially in an exam. So learn to:
Basic sentence punctuation requires an upper case (or capital) letter at the start and a full stop at the end. Longer sentences may need commas, semi-colons, colons, exclamation or question marks.
In Lord of the Flies, William Golding writes:He was old enough, twelve years and a few months, to have lost the prominent tummy of childhood; and not yet old enough for adolescence to have made him awkward.
Because the sentence contains two definite ideas – contrasting childhood and adolescence – they have been separated with a semi- colon. This shows a sophisticated grasp of sentence structure and punctuation. It is better than writing two separate sentences as the ideas are closely linked. The commas in this example are used to separate a descriptive phrase (which adds to the meaning, but is not indispensable) from the main sentence.
The other main use of commas is to separate a list, as in this example from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:Of all days Sunday was the day for formal afternoon visiting: ladies wore corsets, men wore coats, children wore shoes.
This example also shows the most frequent use of the colon, which is to introduce a list.
Question marks must be put at the end of direct questions. Exclamation marks indicate strong emotions such as anger or astonishment as well as humour. Remember that well-chosen words will convey emotion too, and do not rely on exclamation marks alone to affect your reader’s response!Punctuating speech
Another passage from Lord of the Flies illustrates the main rules.‘I don’t care what they call me,’ he said confidentially, ‘so long as they don’t call me what they used to call me at school.’
Ralph was faintly interested. ‘What was that?’
The fat boy glanced over his shoulder, then leaned towards Ralph.
‘They used to call me “Piggy”.’
Note that you should:
These have two functions:
You may well be asked to produce a piece of formal writing in your examination. In formal writing you must choose your words more carefully and precisely than you would if making casual notes or if in conversation with a friend. Consider this sentence from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks:
Note how the writer conveys the impression that this street is inhabited by well-off and important (perhaps even self-important), orderly and conventional people. All of this is done by using words such as ‘substantial’, ‘squared off’, ‘apportioned’, ‘civic’, ‘precision’ and ‘adjoined’. Not a word is wasted in suggesting the characters of the inhabitants before you have actually met them. Even the use of ‘houses’ rather than homes implies rather cold or unemotional people. Think how little you would be able to speculate about them if the author had simply written, The houses on the town side of the boulevard had large, neat gardens. There is nothing ‘flashy’ about this writing: merely well-chosen words which, together, give a clear viewpoint and invite some speculation.Narrative
When you are writing narrative, think about structure as well as vocabulary and style. For example, could you achieve a more striking effect by using flashbacks or multiple viewpoints than by writing a straightforward chronological account? Could you use an updated version, in a different setting, of a traditional or well-known story to convey a particular message? While you should always try to be original and fresh in your choice of language, reworking a traditional form is acceptable. It may help you present your ideas effectively.
If you are writing poetry, you are quite likely to use traditional structures and well-known forms. William Blake, for example, contrasts the simple, nursery-rhyme-like form of this verse to highlight a deep and challenging idea in A Poison Tree.I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
In poetry you are using fewer words than in prose, so remember that choosing precise vocabulary is most important. As an example, take this line from Gillian Clarke’s poem Sunday:
The cats jump up on windowsills to wash And tremble at the starlings.
The word ‘tremble’ is original but accurate in its picture of cats watching birds. It makes us think, because it is a word which usually suggests fear rather than aggression. Here it applies to both the actions of the aggressors (the cats) and the feelings of the potential victims (the starlings).Non-fiction texts
You need to be equally precise when you are writing some types of non-fiction. Your personal writing needs to evoke people, places, events and feelings through the vocabulary and imagery you use. Your descriptive or informative writing must be clear, to the point, and sensibly structured if its purpose is to be understood.
Your response to other people’s writing, and the style of your own writing, must take account of its intended purpose and its target audience. This means thinking about formality and informality in your use of language. For example, think about how you might aid characterisation by using non-standard forms of English in dialogue in a story. Also important is the extent to which you can show your knowledge of, and control over, a range of different sentence structures.
Note the effective contrast in this extract from Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave between informal, non-standard English in the spoken words to the formality and variety in the descriptive writing:‘It was a funny feeling though when he’d gone; all quiet, with nobody there, and up to t’knees in tadpoles.’
Silence. The class up to their knees in tadpoles. Mr Farthing allowed them a pause for assimilation. Then, before their involvement could disintegrate into local gossip, he used it to try to inspire an emulator.
Showing a range of techniques
If you can vary the structures of your own writing, you are likely to gain a high grade in your examination. The aim is not only to show your skill in varying sentence structures, but to match them to the needs of the moment. Barry Hines does this by gradually lengthening the sentences. This reflects the tension of the moment, which the teacher tries to capture and maintain.
In writing fiction, then, make the sentence structures play their part in creating mood and conveying atmosphere. Look at this passage from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies:
Wave after wave, Ralph followed the rise and fall until something of the remoteness of the sea numbed his brain. Then gradually the almost infinite size of this water forced itself on his attention. This was the divider, the barrier. On the other side of the island, swathed at midday with mirage, defended by the shield of the quiet lagoon, one might dream of rescue; but here, faced by the brute obtuseness of the ocean, the miles of division, one was clamped down, one was helpless, one was condemned, one was –
The rhythm of the opening words in the Golding extract reflects the movement of the sea itself. Then the long, unfinished sentence mirrors the difficult nature of the idea with which Ralph is grappling. The mounting panic in his mind is mirrored in the repetitive structure of the closing phrases. Long sentences, carefully used, can be most effective. Combined with the use of the present tense, this technique can give immediacy and forcefulness to writing, especially in a piece of non-fiction. As an example of this, read this extract from Hong Kong by Jan Morris:
I leave my typewriter for a moment, open the sliding glass doors and walk out to the balcony; and away from the hotel’s insulated stillness, instantly like the blast of history itself the frantic noise of Hong Kong hits me, the roar of that traffic, the thumping of that jack-hammer, the chatter of a million voices across the city below; and once again the smell of greasy duck and gasoline reaches me headily out of China.
Note the use of semi-colons by both William Golding and Jan Morris. This adds to the effects achieved by both writers in building sweeping sentences which carry the reader along on a flood of ideas and descriptive details.
Another way of achieving immediacy is by using ‘ungrammatical’ sentences. For example, this is how Dylan Thomas begins The Outing: A Story:If you can call it a story. There’s no real beginning or end and there’s very little in the middle.
When you plan your own writing, you must have an overview of the whole text – not only its content, but how it moves from the beginning to the end in a way which will engage readers.
When you have finished a piece of writing, you must check and revise it to ensure that the overall structure and effect is what you intended. Careful planning will help greatly. This means thinking about the content of different sections of the text (such as paragraphs), the progress from one section to another, and the beginning and end in particular.Paragraphs
These organise meaning and make your text accessible to the reader. A paragraph will usually be one or more sentences which are connected by:
Use paragraphs flexibly. They do not have to be so many lines or so
many sentences long. Variety in paragraph length – just as in sentence
structures – can contribute to the tone or atmosphere you are trying to
create. Look at the extract from Examination Day by Henry Slesar
(overleaf). A boy in a future society is about to undergo an intelligence
test to decide if he is allowed to survive or not. The tension is created
by each event being in a separate paragraph.
Dickie saw a boy leave his father’s side reluctantly and walk slowly towards the door.
At five minutes of eleven, they called the name of Jordan.
‘Good luck, son,’ his father said, without looking at him. ‘I’ll call for you when the test is over.’
Beginnings and endings
Opening paragraphs need to grab your reader’s attention. Use them to state an idea boldly, to introduce a memorable character, to start a dialogue which sets up a conflict, or to intrigue your reader with something unusual. This is how Margaret Atwood starts The Big Man:
Julie broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp.
Endings need plenty of thought as well. You can do various things with an ending. You might neatly round off a story, as Penelope Lively does in The Darkness Out There:She walked behind him, through a world grown unreliable, in which flowers sparkle and birds sing but everything is not as it appears, oh no.
Or you can try the more risky, but often effective, technique of leaving the reader wondering and wanting more. This is how Charlotte Perkins Gilman ends Turned:
He looked from one to the other dumbly.