Analysing structure in literary texts

Exploring structure through patterns and attention

Goals

  • Understand a method for analysing structure in literary texts.
  • Analyse the use of structure in a real text.

Lesson plan

  • This lesson is focused on the GCSE English Language 'structure' Assessment Objective.
  • It begins by considering what is meant by 'structure', and then introduces an analytical method for exploring the structure of literary texts.
  • This approach is then applied to a short extract. 
  • Some further texts are provided at the end, for use in the classroom.

Structure in GCSE English Language

Part of the 2015 English Language GCSE specifications requires students to:

'Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views'.

This requirement is Assessment Objective 2, and is assessed by an exam, where students explore the language of a given text. Across three UK exam boards, the 'structure question' looks like this:

  • AQA: How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?
  • Edexcel: How does the writer use language and structure to show the change in the narrator’s mood?
  • OCR: Explore how the writer presents character/setting/event. Support your ideas by referring to the language and structure of this section, using relevant subject terminology.

What exactly does 'structure' mean?

AQA suggest that 'structure' and 'structural features' can be things such as:

  • beginnings and endings of texts
  • topic change
  • aspects of cohesion
  • perspective shifts
  • things that attract a reader's attention

It is the final two bullet points that we wish to look at here.

The idea of attention was explored in the lesson on foregrounding. Put simply, foregrounding is the way in which certain parts of a text stand out. Things in a text stand out because of the way in which linguistic patterns are created and broken (in foregrounding theory, this is called parallellism and deviation). The thing(s) that are foregrounded stand out against a background.

The concept of foregrounding, attention and structure can be explored through a very simple question: what do you notice?

Structure in a text

Let's look at how this works in a text. The following extract is taken from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a 19th-century horror novel. 

I can say now neither what determined nor what guided me, but I went straight along the lobby, holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window that presided over the great turn of the staircase. At this point I precipitately found myself aware of three things. They were practically simultaneous, yet they had flashes of succession. My candle, under a bold flourish, went out, and I perceived, by the uncovered window, that the yielding dusk of earliest morning rendered it unnecessary. Without it, the next instant, I saw that there was someone on the stair. I speak of sequences, but I required no lapse of seconds to stiffen myself for a third encounter with Quint. The apparition had reached the landing halfway up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where at sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from the garden. He knew me as well as I knew him; and so, in the cold, faint twilight, with a glimmer in the high glass and another on the polish of the oak stair below, we faced each other in our common intensity. He was absolutely, on this occasion, a living, detestable, dangerous presence. 

People

Our attention is initially drawn to the human narrator. This suggests that people - with their complex range of feelings, thoughts and emotions - are an important part of the text. This focus is achieved through the use of the singular first-person pronoun I. The choice of this pronoun means that the text is ‘filtered’ through the perspective of the narrator. As such, we as readers ‘move’ through the structure of the text along with the narrator, sharing in what they see, think and feel. These things are very much the focus at the beginning of the extract, in clauses such as found myself aware, how he perceived the light of the dusk, and saw that there was someone on the stair.

It is at this point - halfway through the extract, as the morning light begins to fill the room, that the narrator catches glimpse of another character, who quickly becomes the focus of our attention. 

This new character is initially introduced through the highly generalised pronoun someone. The fact that the narrator (and we as readers) don’t know who this ‘someone’ is works to build a growing sense of tension. We as readers feel tense; so too (presumably) does the narrator. But we don’t have to wait long to find out who the someone might be, as in quick succession, the referent becomes increasingly specific: the apparition, he, and finally a living, detestable, dangerous presence. As such, our attention becomes more and more focused on the ghost – just as the narrator’s attention would have done. 

You might argue that Henry James structured the way the ghost is introduced like this on purpose. The writer wanted to reveal the ghost slowly, with a sense of underling tension and foreboding. Note how the writer forces us as readers to shift our attention as the text develops: we initially focus on the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and movements, but this shifts to the apparition by the end of the extract. 

Places

The physical description of the building is also important in the overall structure of the text. Various preposition phrases help to build a rich, fictional world that allow us to place the narrator within a specific location:

[along [the lobby]]

[over [the great turn of the staircase]]

[by [the uncovered window]]

[on [the stair]]

[on [the spot nearest the window]

Note also here, how the level of specificity changes, allowing us as readers to mentally construct different parts of the story world. We imagine the narrator moving along the lobby until he eventually reaches the ghost on the spot nearest the window. The overall effect is one of ‘zooming in’ – the text begins with a single character wandering throughout an empty, spooky building, but ends with two characters fixed on each other on a staircase.

Because the physical building is described in detail, it (arguably) creates a text that is highly immersive – it feels as if we are there, and it feels as if we are the narrator encountering the ghost on the stairs. This sense of immersion is a highly desirable effect for writers of horror fiction!

Taking it further

We hope that the idea of attention and patterns is a useful tool for exploring the structure of texts. You might like to try it yourself with your students – the texts on the pdf attached to this lesson plan might be a good starting point.

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