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Writing about the Building Blocks

Identifying structural elements, and talking about effect - part 1 of 2

What shall I write about structure? What can I find to talk about? What literary terms are available to me to write about structure? And how can I talk about the effect of structure in text?

There are two broad categories of things to look for when thinking about structure questions. The first thing that you are looking at is form - what the text looks like on the page.

You will also be looking at sentence length and paragraph length on the page. Look for short sentences in particular. Examiners love it when you find short sentences and you will probably find that the extract you are dealing with has a short sentence on its own somewhere within the text. Obviously, it might be a bit much to say that this has been done on purpose, but it's *definitely* been done on purpose….

When you examine form, you are also going to pay a lot of attention to the punctuation on the page. Every ; , - ( ) ? and ! is going to mean something to you, and you are going to make a really big deal out of it!

At first it may be overwhelming to try and analyse punctuation, but you are going to treat it symbolically just like you do everything else. The main rule is this: when you look at the punctuation, think about the imagery or the emotion or character that has come before it, and then think about what comes after the punctuation. To help us understand how to do this, let’s use a few lines taken from the 2021 AQA Paper 1 English Language exam (you can find the full insert here and the question paper here)

Here’s the sentence (you’ll find it in line 1): ‘Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.’

Here’s our basic response: The semicolon here isolates the character. It draws attention to what will be the main theme of the rest of the extract – a contemplation of what the master will eventually be like. Let’s make it a bit more high level: The semicolon holds the character of the ‘Master’ separate from the text that is to follow, just as in the same way that we discover the character is isolated from the others, alone behind ‘glass’ and ‘white curtains’, the physical barriers reminiscent of social and cultural detachment.

Do this with all punctuation. Always think about what that punctuation is serving to highlight or hold separate from everything else in the extract from the other side and always try to analyse that in the context of the text. It will help to pay particular note to ideas of isolation, loneliness, and obvious examples of contrast or separation.

The second thing you're going to look for when considering structure in text is movement. This is slightly trickier. That's because to find movement we have to read underneath the text. It will not be visible immediately in the same way that identifying a semicolon is. By movement, we are looking for changes in perspective that have happened throughout the extract. It can be difficult at first to spot these shifts, so look for a change of:

  • Speaker,

  • Place,

  • Time,

  • Season,

  • Colour,

  • Atmosphere.

For example, does the extract start in a place where the colours are muted and grey and dark and rainy? Perhaps this extract then moves to the end to have colours in the imagery that are much brighter, vibrant, or enlivening. If so, we have a movement from a place of dullness to a place of vibrancy, or perhaps we have a symbolic shift from depression to happiness. Or, perhaps your extract starts in the night time: it’s dark, the stars are out, the moon is shining; by the end of the extract we see that dawn is breaking on the horizon. So, there's a shift here from a place of darkness and night to a place of brightness and morning. Perhaps this is symbolic of a shift from death to life, or perhaps it symbolises an awakening on the part of the narrator.

Remember the golden rule here – you cannot be wrong in English. Give yourself the space to experiment with these ideas in your practice essays, and just see how it goes! English is the successful arguing of your opinion, it is not the quest for absolute truth.

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