GCSE Secondary English

Packing a punch: how a writer’s use of language can create effects!

shutterstock_571622035Picture yourself (if you dare!) in the following scenario …

It is late at night and you are sitting up in bed, alone, riveted by a good book. So absorbed have you become that you that are blissfully unaware of the isolation which completely surrounds you and which clings to you like a second skin. Outside, in the mid-winter chill, a heavy darkness devours whatever it can whilst nocturnal creatures hoot, bay or otherwise make their plaintive cry to the moon.

Suddenly, something bizarre begins to happen. The words that you are reading become blurry and the page itself seems to break apart as if opening up into a portal. Before your stunned eyes, an arm reaches out of this whirling pulp fiction vortex and a hand slaps you right across the face!

It is the writer’s!

Sound like a story from Stephen King? Well, regardless of who may have written it, you are unlikely ever to forget the way in which you were affected by the author of this particular text! But can a writer affect a reader just by words alone?

The examination boards certainly seem to think so and appear to be obsessed with challenging our young people to consider how this might be achieved. Unfortunately, too many candidates only have a very superficial understanding of the way in which an author’s use of words and phrases can influence a reader. Consequently, they often trot out such vague generalisations as: ‘it puts an image in the reader’s head’, ‘it makes the reader feel emotional’ or, even worse, ‘it gives the reader an impression of what is going on’.

So what is this nebulous image that the student has disdained to divulge? Which elusive emotion is it that the reader is supposedly experiencing? And, indeed, yes, just what on earth is going on!?
Such bland and unfocused ‘explanations’ as these could refer to any one of millions of evocative words or phrases whereas a well-targeted response will be specific to just one particular word or phrase and will outline one or more very precise ways in which this particular instance of the writer’s use of language may affect a reader.

It might help students to answer such a question more directly, and astutely, if they firstly consider the various possible ways in which a writer’s use of language can affect a reader:

• Intellectually – by conveying ideas / impressions / suggestions to the reader
• Imaginatively – by conveying sensory impressions to the reader, especially visual and auditory effects
• Emotionally – by creating feelings within the reader, e.g. excitement, fear, pity, anger, suspense

(Of course, the feelings experienced by the reader will often be very different to those being portrayed within the character, e.g. a character’s trauma may well lead to a reader’s excitement and suspense, i.e. an adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride for the reader at the character’s expense.)

• Aesthetically – by appealing to the reader’s sense of what is beautiful
• Physically – much more difficult to achieve, but a terrifying roller-coaster of a read jam-packed with horror and gore might create such physical manifestations as goose bumps or, in extreme cases, even nausea, and particular words or phrases may help to generate the moments of high intensity which make this possible.
• Transformationally – in the sense of life changing? It can happen! Examples include: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (the Bible), ‘All men are created equal’ (the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776), ‘I have a dream’, (Martin Luther King, 1963) and, for the more mathematically minded, E=MC2! (Albert Einstein, 1905)

So how should a student approach such a question?

• Use PEE
• Remember that when asked to analyse a writer’s use of language to create effects, all of your points should refer to effects that have been created for the reader
• Keep quotations (evidence) as short as possible
• Be very specific and focused when explaining the possible effects of the word or phrase you have just quoted
• Find as many valid effects as you can in your explanation
• Consider such aspects of a writer’s use of language as imagery, punctuation, sentence structure, dynamic verbs, vibrant adjectives, sound qualities such as onomatopoeia or alliteration, and the use of multi-sensory language for vivid effect, etc.

A good writer will draw you into the story through a variety of techniques, especially plot, characterisation, dialogue and description. The quality of the writing itself will almost certainly be so adept that the words will become invisible and the page will magically transform into a window. You will quickly forget all the bugbears of your own life and, as the fetters of ‘real’ place and time imperceptibly slip away, you will readily ‘lose’ yourself in the world of the story.

But the illusory realm of the novel is, of course, built on a foundation of words and phrases even though you may have become so engrossed in the plot that you cease to notice them. Admittedly, they may not literally leap out of the page and slap you right across the face but if they can make you lose all sense of ‘reality’, then they are certainly having a considerable effect!

* The exemplar A* answer which follows is in response to an examination-style question which requires the candidate to analyse a writer’s use of words and phrases in order to create effects. The text being used is the dramatic (and somewhat surrealistic!) scenario which opens this blog:

The author begins by making a direct address to the reader (“you”), thus instantly involving the reader in what is about to be written. The phrase “if you dare” would certainly create suspense by suggesting that this could well be an exciting and thrilling read. The ellipsis after this challenge has the effect of further drawing the reader in. The author has also written the passage in the present tense, thus bringing the reader even closer to the event by creating the illusion of immediacy.

At the beginning of the next paragraph, the phrase “late at night” definitely helps to set the scene and establish an eerie atmosphere because it intimates danger, as does the heavily punctuated reference to being “alone”. The frequent mention of the main character’s preoccupation with his / her book also adds tautness to the writing as the reader has already been strongly encouraged to believe that this character should really be much more vigilant. 

The author achieves the effect of the character’s abstraction through use of the semantic field “riveted”, “absorbed” and “unaware”. Of course, the fact that the reader is encouraged to imagine that he / she is this unnamed character only serves to intensify the reader’s empathy and, consequently, sense of unease. The author then further ratchets up the tension, and thus the reader’s emotional engagement with the writing, by use of the simile “the isolation which completely surrounds you and which clings to you like a second skin”. It encourages the reader to imagine how vulnerable the main character is by the fact the he / she is all alone and far removed from any possible source of help. Furthermore, the reference to “a second skin” may well conjure up in the reader’s imagination a fleeting impression of nakedness, thus further increasing the sense of this character’s vulnerability.

Having suggested that the character is in danger, the author then resorts to classic gothic elements in order to further enhance the reader’s perception of foreboding: “mid-winter chill”, “darkness” and the notion of night creatures being excited at the sight of the moon. The writing has been very visual so far but, at this point, the author begins to appeal to the reader’s imagined sense of sound. References to the “hoot” of an owl and the “bay” of a wolf or stray dog encourage the reader to put a mental soundtrack to the images that are already being streamed within the mind.

The author uses actual, rather than imagined, sound qualities in the alliterated phrases “second skin” and “darkness devours”. This gives a poetic flow to the writing, thus appealing to the reader’s aesthetic sensibility. The metaphor “darkness devours” is further satisfying in both an imaginative and intellectual sense because it suggests that the night itself is also a nocturnal predator. Because the darkness is depicted as being so pervasive, it implies that there is danger everywhere and thus adds yet more menace to the writing.

Peter Morrisson

View other articles in this series
Hammering it home: how writers use imagery to create effects!
Kicking the habit: analysing a writer’s use of language rather than just explaining what it means!

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