How to read a dystopian extract – what to look for

Reading Time: 3 minutes

For a while now I’ve used the SCATI approach to dystopian wider reading, which I first read about here: https://jwpblog.com. Like most teaching approaches, I’ve evolved it a bit since then, and have also started to use it as a way to structure the GCSE question 4. As a revision exercise, I created a series of further points of ‘things to look for’ in dystopian fiction. Yes, it’s a checklist, but quite a large and varied one, or at least I think so. Given that close language analysis / writers’ methods is the dominant objective for this question, I think this kind of focus works very well indeed no matter what the target mark. Setting, characterisation and imagery easily lend themselves to discussing purpose and impact. Tone (which I also use to cover narrative voice and perspective) is more challenging, and you need to think carefully what you can say about how it’s being used, but it is very effective when done well. Action can lead to description – which is why the prompts lead you to think more about the relationship of actions to the genre conventions.

Not every dystopian extract will fulfil this criteria. In fact, I would say out of Setting-Character-Action-Tone-Imagery, in an exam situation you probably want to write about three of them. Some might be more extensive; I tend to go for five smaller paragraphs rather than three huge ones simply because it’s easier then to 1) stay on track, and 2) it’s easier to write in a more coherent and controlled way. So, I might have two on setting, two on character and one on tone in a typical essay. There are, though, no hard and fast rules – just ideas to think about and feel confident that, if you get stuck, there is a formula to get you started.

AObreakdown for dystopian extract question

Setting

  • Futuristic or archaic?
  • Historical or future from the writer’s present?
  • Fallen utopia or dystopia proper?
  • Indoors / outdoors?
  • Public / private?
  • Rural / urban?
  • How is the familiar made unfamiliar?

Characterisation

  • Attitude
  • Names
  • Place in dystopia – controller, victim, willing participant, passive bystander?
  • Relationship to others?
  • Appearance especially clothing
  • Language including dialect, accent representation, how they speak and who they speak with

Action

  • What actually happens?
  • Everyday occurrences or shocking climax?
  • End or beginning of a novel? You might be able to suggest, but be tentative
  • Actions of the character including interactions – are they typical? Challenging the status quo or accepting it?
  • Change of place, time, or character

Tone

  • Satirical purpose
  • Narrative approach (e.g. limited, the first-person in the action)
  • Narrative approach (e.g. several layers of narrative, reported messages or documentation to distance the narrator)
  • Illusion of truth through manuscripts, retrieved data, transcripts etc.
  • Emotive response

Imagery

  • Nature
  • Religion
  • Science
  • Common literary symbols e.g. dark / light / birds / colours / doors and windows / allusions to other texts
  • Semantic fields

Context

  • How closely reflective of the writer’s society or social situation?
  • What aspect of the time it is written in is this reflecting?

What do you think?

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