A lot of students panic when an exam question asks them to look at structure, and feel far less confident with this concept than they do with language. However, structure is actually much easier to get to grips with then students anticipate. Once students start to understand it, they are able to use these ideas in order to add more depth to their analysis. Here are a few pointers on how to help your child feel more comfortable with structure.
What is structure?
Structure refers to the building blocks of a text - how it has been put together in order to tell the story effectively. Whenever a writer sits down to produce a text, they always start by planning out the structure. The writer makes decisions about the order in which to place events, thinking about how they are going to provide a compelling experience for the reader. Structure comes under what we call “whole text analysis”, and it is about looking at the bigger picture. Students tend to prefer “word level” analysis, where we look at individual vocabulary choices or literary techniques the writer has selected, but in reality, stories are told through the bigger picture created by a text’s structure. This is why effective literary analysis will always consider both language and structure.
Start with what you know
A good place to start with structure is often film. Students tend to feel more confident talking about film, and it often engages them more quickly.
Get your child to map out the story of the film, paying careful attention to the specific order of the events. Have a look at what comes up when you do this. For example, does the film begin with a flashback? Is there a big gap of time between events? Do we move backwards and forwards? When do we meet our key characters? Once they begin to pull apart the film’s events, they will start to see how the decisions that are made about structure can have an impact on how we view the story.
For example, in Titanic, James Cameron chose to begin the film not with Jack and Rose embarking on the Titanic, which may have seemed the more logical place to start, but instead with a modern day research team, desperate to uncover an artefact from the wreckage. It is clear that whilst they know a lot about the technical history of Titanic, they have little empathy with the tragic fate of the thousands who died on board. By then introducing the team to the elderly Rose, who is able to narrate her own doomed love story, they are finally able to move past their obsession with the necklace, and understand the real tragic nature of the sinking. The audience goes on a journey with the research team, and like them, we are drawn into Rose’s narrative and into a true understanding of the horrors that so many people faced that night. This is a layer of the story that may have been lost without the choice to begin in the present day.
Moving on to written texts
Once students start to understand how structure works, they can apply the same principles to written texts. With shorter texts, a good way to get to grips with structure is to go through the text and write a topic sentence for each paragraph. This will help students see how it has been put together.
When studying longer texts, a good technique can be to produce a structure map. Get a roll of paper, and for each chapter (or scene if it is a play), make notes on what happens and which characters feature. Making structure visual in this way can really help, and again students can see patterns and start to discuss some of the choices writers have made. For example, with a text like Jane Eyre, why does Bronte spend a considerable amount of the text exploring the events of Jane’s childhood? Why do we need to see her experiences of suffering and endurance, and learning how to accept her fate without complaining? Can we link this to the way in which she behaves as an adult, and the anger that she has learnt to repress? As you can see, structure can open up some fascinating questions for debate.
Mapping structure in this way can also show students the ways in which texts use a circular structure. For example, in Of Mice and Men, at the beginning of the text, George instructs Lennie to return to the Brush area if he gets into trouble. We can see the technique of “Chekov’s Gun” being employed here, where attention is drawn to a particular object or place that is going to be of significance later in the story. We know from this moment that the two characters are destined to return to this point, and that their story and dreams are doomed from the outset.
Avoid the vague comments
One of the pitfalls that students fall into when discussing structure is not being specific enough with comments. Sometimes students will say a writer has made a certain decision in order to make the “writing flow more” or to “get us to read on”. Sadly, these comments do not really help to develop insightful analysis, as they can be applied to any text. What writer ever sat down to write a text that no one wanted to read? If you see your child doing this in their writing, try to encourage them to be more specific, and make stronger links to the story. For example, instead of:
“Stevenson does not tell us straight away that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, because he wants us to read on.”
“Stevenson allows the reader to slowly piece together the clues about the true nature of Jekyll and Hyde’s connection, in order for us to step into the role of the detective, unravelling the mysteries. We can see how hard Jekyll has tried to repress his true nature and hide it away from the world, but Hyde becomes a force in the novel that cannot be contained.”
Students need to engage with the writer’s purpose, and understand how the story structure is one of the most important tools they have in order to achieve this.
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