If you have studied GCSE English at any level, 9 through to 1 or A* through to G, then you will have seen the word “Structure” pop up from time to time. How does a writer structure this, or that? How does this speech show a level of structure that is different from the rest etc?
Sometimes, when you read a text and then you get a “structure” question, the lights can begin to go out as you think to yourself what the hell is going on here. Don’t worry. It is normal to be like this for unless someone explains it in a way you can understand it, then it will always be something that is beyond you.
This blog aims to do just that, to explain one way of looking at a piece and then applying yourself to the dreaded “structure” question. It is not as difficult as you would think. So, you have a text. It has got words in it. Obvious, I know. But have you ever stopped to think how those words are put there, in the order they are in, on purpose? Well, if you haven’t, then you need to start thinking of it now.
Structure, you see, means just that, how a text is built and just like that other thing you build, a house, it has several elements to it. Just as the house has foundations, so too does a piece of writing. Now, as I type this, I am not consciously thinking I know, I will write a short sentence here … adding the words ‘he fell’ as one sentence just for effect. No, I am writing, thinking of four things as I write and that is structure. What is in the mind of the writer when he or she is writing?
PS. If I was writing a story for you, I would add very short sentences in there.
Think poetry for a moment. A good poem has a style, a rhythm, a pace and only so many words on a line can be there, or the intended effect is lost. The same is true with prose [stories] as well, or with speeches. Indeed, it is the same with anything ever written. So when you look at something new next, stop and think for a moment; what was this person thinking or planning when they wrote this? What was their reason for writing it? Was it to teach, to entertain, to persuade people [the MLK speech ‘I Have a Dream for example]?
What was the reason?
To analyse a text when looking at structure, try to do so in 4 ways. This is especially true of AS and A2 level English as it is here, in GCSE terms. Given a text, whatever it may be, think word, sentence, paragraph, text. Keep repeating it now…
How has the writer used words; individual, strong, stylistic words for effect? In the Bible, there is a 2 word sentence, “Jesus wept.” It is written for effect. It is written to convey the real bitterness and sadness of the event that has gone before it. It is a reactionary phrase, a reactionary verb phrase if you will. Likewise, if someone wrote “he then plunged to his death” on one line, for effect, instead of two words being used for effect it is now six of them but look at each one. The word plunged is a powerful word, evoking an image in the mind of someone drowning, perhaps in the fear of the moment when falling. That is what I mean by looking at certain words, at a word level of usage.
Then there is sentence level work in a given text. Just as very short sentences are used to great effect, so too can they be extended, built on to really impact on meaning. Consider Dickens for a moment where he describes the fruit on display in the shop windows in A Christmas Carol. He does so in extreme detail. There are pages of writing just describing something that can and will be eaten that day. It is really quite technical language as well so when ever I taught the text, I read that bit because the students, aged twelve, found it too hard. After 5 years of teaching it one lad asked me how many times I had read that bit. “Far too many” said I. So write about how a text has simple and then complex sentences [use of colons, semi colons etc, more than basic punctuation skills] for effect.
Explain that effect.
Then go on to paragraph level analysis, looking at how a paragraph is put together. It might start off simple; easy words to lure you in to reading it further and then gradually get more difficult to read. Again, Dickens can be like that. No room for laziness when it comes to Charlie Boy. So, look at the length of each sentence. I did this with someone recently and he saw that the four sentences in the one paragraph had exactly the same amount of words in them; fourteen words. As a paragraph therefore, it was an evenly spaced and well constructed paragraph. This is how you can analyse in close detail and reflect how the writer has planned the thoughts out well.
Then, look at the whole text level. Does it have moments of fun, levity, light heartedness? If so, then how does it build up to them? Does it do so using some of the ideas we have seen and looked at earlier? Is it a case of building up tension by lengthening the sentences? Or vice versa? If so then you have a technique being used so share it. Explain how this works and the desired effect, how you see it and do so, writing about how the writer has therefore, put all of this together to form what is good [or not] literature and be prepared to criticise it for your ideas are what get extra points.
But above all, do not forget that mantra; word, sentence, paragraph, text.
Safe writing folks!
Have a go at writing this, about how the writer, Charles Dickens, structures his opening to A Christmas Carol. [Use the mantra]. Post it underneath for me to share please.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.