Unpicking language in literature: why the blue curtains do matter

As a teacher, the thing I find myself saying over and over again to students is, “develop your language analysis”. Every year, every student, almost every piece. It’s not that they’re bad at it – far from it, mostly! But it’s always the thing that makes their explanations more precise and, in the exams they do, will get them better marks.

The thing is, we’re trying to make the implicit become explicit. The feeling that you get when you read gets unpicked, understood, and stitched back together again. I usually get shown this meme at some point in the year too:

When we read, we’re in the blue circle. we absorb the atmosphere, the description, the language, and we imagine the result. But when you’re reading in depth – as a student, a wannabe writer honing their craft or a real literature nerd, you’re usually somewhere in that centre bit where the two things overlap. Because it does matter, in good writing.

An author is creating a scene, an image, a character. It needs to be as visual as they can make it – particularly in more modern books, where often there’s a deliberate effort to create an almost filmic level of description. The best description can also tell us something about the world, or the character. This is the opening paragraph from The Hunger Games:

Opening of the Hunger Games

The description of the “rough canvas cover” of the mattress is important. It tells us that there’s no luxury in this place, that living is hard – canvas is a rough material anyway, hard-wearing and roughly made. It’s more often associated with sacks or other heavy duty containers than a duvet, comforter or sheet. It suggests poverty, and hardship, and a place where things have to last and while there is some comfort in the existence of a mattress, it’s scarce.

If those two words were missing, you’d still get that impression later, and it comes in through the reaping at the end of the paragraph. But they add something. This is the part about making the implicit explicit. Over the first two pages, the impression of hard living comes through – the next page is a detailed description of District 12, the miners and the fence. in comparison, the fabric of the mattress seems unimportant. If it wasn’t there, you probably wouldn’t lose much. But if it were something else, it would jar with what we later learn if Katniss is sleeping on 400-count Egyption cotton, or silk sheets, we know the writer’s made a mistake. It wouldn’t (hopefully) make it through editing. Indeed, when she moves into the fancy new Capitol-sponsored home in Victor’s Village, the focus is all on the decor. Its colours, its materials and fabrics all contribute to its contrast with the rest of District 12.

It also doesn’t matter that, as a normal reader who’s picked up the book for fun, you don’t notice this, annotate and highlight it, and wonder what’s to come to support or contrast to it later. It matters that you’ve read it, it’s seeped into your subconscious and your imagining of the scene, and creates an impression for you of poverty which is the whole point, actually, of the book.

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