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Caging Unsuspecting Readers

Master authors use every trick in the book to capture and hold reader attention. What is known as ‘great writing’ or even ‘good writing’ is simply the use of certain subtle techniques at a word and sentence level, in the framework of larger structural arrangements, all of it aimed at ‘caging’ unsuspecting readers for the duration of a tale.

Take for example J. R. R. Tolkien’s children’s book, The Hobbit. Here is a passage from it, chosen at random:

’As he drew nearer, he saw that it was made by spider-webs one behind and over and tangled with another. Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders huge and horrible sitting in the branches above him, and ring or no ring he trembled with fear lest they should discover him. Standing behind a tree he watched a group of them for some time, and then in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves!’

What examples can you find in it of alliteration? ‘Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders’, ‘huge and horrible ‘, ’ring or no ring’, ‘silence and stillness’ are immediate instances. Alliteration and the repetition of sounds generally, as in assonance, use the rhythm created between the sounds to suck in attention from the reader.

The careful use of adjectives is another method - in this passage there are only a few: ‘huge and horrible’, ‘loathsome’, ’thin’. Listed apart from the text they might seem feeble, but their cumulative effect is to paint a picture in the mind of the reader, the more horrible, the better. Horrible pictures often attract more attention, almost against the will of the reader, than beautiful ones.

Different sentence beginnings are another small technique: ’As’, ‘Suddenly’, ‘Standing’, ‘Their’, ‘They’. Sentences that begin in the same way as those before and after themselves lull the reader into a half-sleep - varied beginnings and lengths wake the reader up and demand a little more attention.

Bilbo's story grows more serious as it goes along; matters are being dealt with by the end which are far more demanding than they were at the beginning. In the first chapter, Bilbo was a funny little creature who required plenty of comment from the author to get readers to follow him. Look closely at the following passage, from towards the end of the tale:

'I might have guessed it,' said Bilbo. 'Truly there can nowhere be found the equal of Lord Smaug the Impenetrable. What magnificence to possess a waistcoat of fine diamonds!'

'Yes, it is rare and wonderful, indeed,' said Smaug absurdly pleased. He did not know that the hobbit had already caught a glimpse of his peculiar under-covering on his previous visit, and was itching for a closer view for reasons of his own. The dragon rolled over. 'Look!' he said. 'What do you say to that?'

'Dazzingly marvellous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!' exclaimed Bilbo aloud, but what he thought inside was: 'Old fool! Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!'

Bilbo’s now has ‘reasons of his own’ which the author doesn’t bother to directly disclose to the readers who, in the first part of the story, he was cajoling into observing his protagonist as a jolly and humorous character like a children’s toy. Tolkien has held the hands of his young readers until he expects them now, like Bilbo himself, to stand on their own two feet and make conclusions of their own: Smaug is not just ‘pleased’ with Bilbo’s hyperbolic praise, he is ‘absurdly pleased’ and the readers are supposed to realise why that is absurd.

'Dazzingly marvellous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!' says Bilbo while thinking something quite different. Readers are meant to infer what the dragon’s bare patch means. It doesn’t come into play as a significant plot point until a future chapter, but Tolkien expects us to have the maturity now to grasp its meaning.

In brief, master authors are using many tools to get readers to stick with them so that they can bring them on to the more mature and meaningful effects of their stories as a whole.

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