The Power of Close Reading Part 2


Yesterday, we looked at the opening of E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India — not just ‘looking at it’, but performing a close reading of it, in order to glean things from it that might be useful to us as writers.

What kinds of things was Forster doing in that passage which could teach us something?

1. He put theme front and centre.

Though the bulk of the passage was on one level about the background to the city of Chandrapore, the whole thing revolved around the ‘extraordinary’ Caves of Marabar and was told in such a way that the grand ideas behind the descriptions poked through.

2. He used language intensively.

Forster’s use of adjectives and verbs was careful and intentional — and the emotive power rose in a crescendo in order to make a point.

3. Descriptions matched tone.

In other words, if he wanted to describe a particular part of the landscape, for example the British ‘civil station’, Forster would use unemotive and relatively cold terms; but while depicting the Indian zone, his language was much more evocative and exotic.

4. He came full circle.

Starting with the Caves and ending with the Caves, Forster shows a mastery of form — the casual reader might not notice the shape of the novel’s opening, but on an imaginative, subconscious level the shape was nevertheless there, instilling confidence in the author as a storyteller.

There are probably more things that the passage told us, but let’s take these for a start. What can we learn as writers from them?

i) What is our theme? How are we making that theme central to our writing, so that it ‘pokes through’ every scene in some way?

ii) Are we using language intensively and carefully enough? Are our choices of verb and adjective simply based on what first pops into our heads, or are we being selective and consciously creating an effect on readers?

iii) When we describe something, are we falling back on basic observational ‘facts’ (‘This was this way, that was that way…’) or are we using description to convey a sense of more than what was present to the eye?

iv) What’s the shape of our work? We don’t necessarily have to come full circle as in this piece by Forster, but we should be going somewhere. Are we conscious of shape as we write, or is this something that we can carve out later while editing? How does that shape reflect our theme?

Take a look at some of your own fiction and subject it to scrutiny using these questions. You might be surprised by what comes up.

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