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Structural and Style Elements

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Structural and Style Elements essay
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Structural and style elements give each literary text its own individual “feel.” A skillful author will choose which structures to use and which to leave out of a particular text and will develop a style at is suitable for the text. As you read each of the following selections, keep in mind that its structural elements and styles were deliberately chosen by the author to convey the her or his ideas to readers and to fulfill the purpose of the text.

When you hear the word structure, you might think about buildings. A building’s shape reflects its structure. Buildings come in all kinds of shapes, and their shapes contribute to their styles and meaning. Think of the soaring spires of a Gothic cathedral that reach for heaven or the functional concrete and glass cubes that make up many “modern” buildings. In the same way, the structure or structures an author employs contribute to the text’s style and meaning.

Here are the main elements of structure you will often come across in literary texts, and that you learned about in Lesson 6:

  • sequence—the order in which related events happen in a story
  • pacing (which includes concepts like scenes, acts, and summaries)—how quickly or slowly events happen
  • flashback—an interruption in a narrative’s normal sequence of events to portray an episode that occurred before the current point in the story
  • parallel plotting—a technique in which the narrative switches back and forth between two equally important stories
  • Here are some important elements of style you will often come across in literary texts, and that you learned about in Lesson 6:
  • syntax—the arrangement and order of words in a sentence
  • word choice—an author’s selection of words, phrases and idioms
  • sentence structure—the length and complexity of sentence
  • irony—the use of language to express something in opposition to the word’s literal meaning; a situation that is the opposite of what is expected
  • tension—the feeling of excitement and anticipation of what is to come, caused by a sense of danger or uncertainty; sometimes called suspense.

Identifying structure and style within a literary text can take a little extra effort but asking yourself some specific questions as you read can make the job easier. Here are questions that can help you recognize structure and style elements in many types of literary texts:

  • Does the story play out in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time to describe events?
  • Does the story follow multiple characters? Do those characters meet up at a certain point or do they stay separate throughout the story?
  • How does an author break up events within a text?
  • Does an author summarize events? If so, how does this affect the story’s pace?
  • Does the author use specific word choice or vary his or her sentence structure? If so, how does that contribute to the pacing of scenes within the text?
  • Is there any situation where something happens that is the opposite of what a character was expecting?
  • Does an author’s word choice support the atmosphere of a literary text? Do certain scenes make you feel nervous or scared?
  • Is an author’s word choice distinctly different from modern-day speech, putting the reader in another time period?
  • Does the author use words literally, or is there a nonliteral sense to the words that the reader must infer?

Let’s identify and analyze structure in Anthem, Chapter 2, Part 2. Read this excerpt from the text:

We have seen one of such men burned alive in the square of the City. And it was a sight which has stayed with us through the years, and it haunts us, and follows us, and it gives us no rest. We were a child then, ten years old. And we stood in the great square with all the children and all the men of the City, sent to behold the burning. They brought the Transgressor out into the square and they led them to the pyre. They had torn out the tongue of the Transgressor, so that they could speak no longer. The Transgressor were young and tall. They had hair of gold and eyes blue as morning. They walked to the pyre, and their step did not falter. And of all the faces on that square, of all the faces which shrieked and screamed and spat curses upon them, theirs was the calmest and the happiest face.

Prior to this paragraph, Equality 7-2521 is thinking about the Unmentionable Times, the Evil Ones, and the Unspeakable Word. The chronological sequence of events has brought him to this current moment of the narrative and to his particular thoughts. However, when he thinks about the Unspeakable Word, Equality 7-2521’s memory is triggered, and here the author employs a flashback. Equality 7-2521 recalls a past event, and the narrative takes us briefly back to the past.

But why? What does this flashback provide for you and other readers?

Flashback can be a sophisticated way to provide exposition—in this case, background information about the story and the world Equality 7-2521 lives in. At this point in the tale, you know that punishments for disobeying laws is severe and that certain infractions are deemed worse than others. Through this flashback, the reader learns how frightening and cruel the world of the story can be and how fear of punishment—and even fear for one’s own life—play a major role in how people are controlled.

But is there any reason why Rand placed this flashback here in Chapter 2? Could it have come at the beginning of Chapter 1, before you learn that Equality 7-2521 is writing this text or what life is like for boys growing up in this dystopian future? The author likely thought hard about the best time to incorporate this information into the narrative. She wants the reader to understand the extreme harshness of this world early on—but not so early that readers aren’t prepared for it and find the event described outlandish or included for shock value. Rand has already provided enough information in Chapter 1 to show readers that this world is strict and unforgiving.

Now that you have analyzed structure, what about style? Let’s look at an excerpt from “The Monkey’s Paw, Part 1,” which you read in Lesson 6. The man from Maw and Meggins, Herbert’s employer, has just told Mr. and Mrs. White that Herbert was caught in the machinery; they now realize that he is dead. What style element does W. W. Jacobs use here?

“I was to say that Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility,” continued the other. “They admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son’s services, they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation.”

Mr. White dropped his wife’s hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

“Two hundred pounds,” was the answer.

Unconscious of his wife’s shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor.

An unexpected event occurs in this scene. In fact, it is not at all what is expected. When Mr. White wished on the monkey’s paw for two hundred pounds, he expected to magically receive the money, no strings attached. He does, of course, receive the exact amount he wanted, but with a far steeper price than two hundred pounds. He has lost his son.

This is irony, and one of the best-known instances of it in literature. A seemingly harmless wish goes horribly wrong in order for the wisher to receive exactly what he wants. It is a classic “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

Let’s take a look at how the author manages this. The sequencing is chronological, with Sergeant-Major Morris just slightly diverting to the past to explain the history of the monkey’s paw. Herbert pokes fun at its so-called powers, such as when he says, “Well, I don’t see the money…and I bet I never shall” and “I expect you’ll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed…and something horrible squatting on top of your wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains.”

In fact, he is the one who encourages his father to make a wish for money to pay off what is owed on the house—specifically “two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.” It is all in good fun, with the slight exception that Mr. White insists the paw twitched in his hand after he made the wish.

Jacobs keeps the joke going the following morning when he says that the money might drop on his father’s head, implying some sort of injury; it is Herbert who receives an injury that leads to his death. He even says, “Well don’t break into the money before I come back.” Of course, he dies having never seen the money.

Irony (the kind in which something unexpected occurs) does not happen quickly. It can take a great deal of time in a text to accomplish this effect because the author must establish—sometimes more than once—why an event would be the opposite of what was expected. Then, the author must provide logical details that twist the plot in that opposite direction. This is one of the more difficult tasks for prose authors to achieve.

Here is your opportunity to analyze the specific use of structure or style.

Take another look at “The Monkey’s Paw, Part 2.” Reread the scene in which Herbert, now deceased, returns to his parents. Consider and answer the following question: How does the author create tension through word choice and sentence structure?

The structure and style of a literary text is not random. Structure contributes to style, and the author develops both to impact readers and convey meaning. Although analyzing structure and style in a literary text does take some effort, it ultimately leads to a deeper and clearer understanding of the narrative. These elements can be used to strengthen and clarify your own prose writing as well.

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