Move closer. How to use stylistics to improve your close reading skills.

This has been developed to help my OCR, A Level English Literature, students with their unseen American Literature extract close analysis question but the basic tenets can be applied to any close analysis work for exam or coursework. This is usually AO2 in an A level syllabus (AO1 is usually how you write, including the use of technical terms and understanding). This is not an exhaustive list of techniques but it is a way of extending the techniques you have at your disposal.


  1. Introduction: How and why a change of approach is useful to you. (Also includes ideas on use of existing knowledge).
  2. Technique: Type of text?
  3. Technique: Narrative voice and perspective?
  4. Technique: Representation of speech/thought?
  5. Technique: Verb processes.
  6. Technique: Creation of character?
  7. Technique: Motifs? If so what themes?
  8. Technique: Lexis and semantic fields?
  9. Technique: Class and other language choices?
  10. Technique: Allusions (religion).

     1. Introduction: How and why a change of approach is useful to you. (Also includes ideas on use of existing knowledge).

One of my big bugbears with the study of English Literature is how often how book-clubby it can be. Let me explain. In a book club people read the same book and then meet socially to discuss questions like, “did any themes emerge for you when reading the book?” or “do you feel different after having read the book?” Now in a huge number of ways book clubs are great things, both socially and culturally (and I really mean that – they help build community out of what is essentially a solitary endeavour), but they are not very analytical. Book club discussions often focus on the effect that the text has had on the reader but the form of the analysis (a discussion) is a very immediate thing and deep and detailed analysis of what has caused that effect on the reader is hard to do whilst juggling social niceties, and hierarchies, and personal status anxiety (and possibly a glass, or two, of wine).

There is a much longer piece to be written about why English Literature has this problem and about how the study of Literature often puts emphasis on reading as many texts as possible across an educational career and has the feel of Pokémon Go (gotta catch them all – it’s called a canon if you want to get technical) but there is another way.

What you can do is apply linguistic tools to analyse your text. This is called stylistics. It goes back, in some ways to the classical study of rhetoric but big Eastern European academics pushed it into a more linguistic direction (a good big name here is Roman Jakobson – who brought this approach to America when he emigrated in the 1940s).

I like to use architecture to explain this; or rather the differing approach of a decorative architecture student and a structural architecture student. Look at these two pictures. One is a Georgian building and the other is in Poundbury; The Prince of Wales’ new town made up of recently constructed buildings.



The decorative specialist will be able to write about the similarity in the use of columns, classical and rococo styling and so on but the structural specialist will note that the two buildings are nothing alike. One is made of stone but the other has a steel frame and cavity walls for insulation. One is rooted in the technologies of eighteenth century (new big windows to let in lots of light) but the other is a late twentieth century product (electric light, sophisticated indoor plumbing and adherence to building regulations). In short the decorationalist will see them as similar but the structuralist will see them as different.

Another important idea here is best understood biologically.

What’s the biggest organism on planet Earth?

African elephant? Blue whale? Giant sequoia (giant redwood tree to you and me).

Nope. It’s this . . .


The insignificant looking honey mushroom in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.  Remember those fairy rings of mushrooms you used to pay attention to when you were a kid? Those circles of fungi. You used to ask yourself why they were in a circle? Well it is because they are all one organism. Each mushroom is just the fruiting body of the fungus and they are connected by threadlike structures called mycelium. This is made up of branching hyphae, that do all the feeding and decomposing stuff that is the actual work of being a fungus. The mushrooms are just the spore makers. In the case of the honey mushroom the whole organism can grow to a whopping 3.7 square miles (or 9.6km if you are that way inclined).

How does this help us? Texts are like the mushrooms. Novels, poems and plays sprout up; but they are all linked by cultural threads. The mycelium of culture is the social context, the political context and the historical context that you are often asked to include in your answers. These cannot be considered as an add-on. This is the interconnected, living stuff that texts grow out of. This explains why a Burroughs novel, a Ginsberg poem, a Beatles song and a Truffaut film might create a similar feeling in the audience and why there might be similarities in their approach or construction.

It also helps to explain why you might need to rely on existing knowledge. If a text does not anchor meaning, then you fill it in with your own cultural knowledge. If a text says, “it was a bustling Ottoman market” then you picture the scene with whatever scraps you have gleaned from books, films and paintings (and if you don’t know that the Ottoman Empire was the huge Turkish-centred empire which lasted over 600 years then you’re a bit stuck). If the writer adds that, “the ruby colour of fez hats, carpet patterns and spices punctuated the dusty palette of the scene,” then we might need to embellish or re-imagine the location. How much the text relies upon existing knowledge, and how much is new knowledge is a bit of a tricky thing to work out as it is contextual. When Byron name-checks “Macassar” hair oil in his mock-epic poem Don Juan (possibly the earliest branded product reference in Literature) it is existing, and very common, knowledge for his eighteenth-century readers. Today, less so. One of the recurring bete-noires of the English teacher is the flat refusal of some student as to the commonality of a piece of knowledge (“Elvis? Can’t be famous. I’ve never heard of her.” – I kid you not). This is why really good general, cultural knowledge is essential in the study of English Literature. Genres like fantasy however, often have to create detailed story-worlds which are alien to the reader and so rely on far less existing knowledge than more realist texts.

Throw in a few techniques from semiotic study (the study of signs and the making of meaning) and you should have some good techniques to use to unlock any text you are given. These are tools. Analysis is a skill and a craft. Any crafts-person has tools and if you find yourself using tools you gained years ago it might be a good idea to get some new ones and sharpen up the old ones.

  1. Technique: Type of text?

If you are given an extract to analyse spend the first few minutes working out what sort of thing it is. It might sound a bit redundant but in doing so you will begin to identify some key areas to explore. Identifying form, genre, use of person and key tense considerations are a good start.

This novel extract is a first person, past tense account of . . . it appears to be either a romantic or gothic text because . . .

In a later post I will talk more about tenses and modality. For linguists there are only two tenses; past and present and everything else is altered through modality. For grammarians there are thirteen tenses (covering such niceties such as events that have happened in the past and still happening (past continuous), event that happened in the past and stopped happening before narration (past perfect) and events that might happen in the future if conditions are met (future conditional).

  1. Technique: Narrative voice and perspective?

When we read we use the encoded text to create a voice in our heads. The type of voice we create depends on the encoding that has been done by the writer and the anchorage given in the text to limit the decoding. For example, if a text says, “ever since I was a young girl, so many years ago” we will hear a female voice, and probably an adult one given the temporal clues. We don’t know accent because this information has not been anchored.

We also have to deal with the way that third person texts can stretch the narrative perspective. Who is talking and what do they know? The most extreme form is the omniscient narrator who appears to know both the inner workings of every character’s mind and their entire life history. You can do more analysis later but your work on person and perspective and anchorage will help to shape your analysis.

  1. Technique: Representation of speech/thought?

There are two continuums of representation of speech and thought. What you should be able to see when you look at these lists is how the further up the list the text-choice is the more important the character/voice/concept is. By identifying the representation, you will also identify importance.

rep speech

rep thought

Remember that all writing is artificial (it is not a real thing but is a representation of real things). The job of the writer is often to try to reproduce real things, such as thought. If you look at the modernist writing of James Joyce at the end of his novel “Ulysses” you can see that he is drawing attention, through the use of free direct thought, without punctuation, to Molly Bloom’s total significance. Her thoughts exist without the mediation of a narrator or even the usual rules of writing to limit their meaning:

“and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Ulysses: James Joyce

  1. Technique: Verb processes.

Daily teacher/student interaction. “What are verbs?” – “Doing words!”

Some A level students seem to feel satisfied with this. Just to be clear, never be satisfied with an explanation you learned in primary school. Verbs are better considered as part of a verb process

There are four types of verb process:

  • Material verb process: Doing! Primary school stuff. Eating, running, giving, murdering, graffitiing (that one is hard to conjugate!). Also – looking.
  • Mental verb process: Stuff in your head. Thinking, feeling, wondering, remembering, loving, hating. Also seeing (note the difference? One is material and the other mental. “I looked at it but did not see it.” Clever eh!).
  • Verbal verb process : Why there are over 300 words in English that you can use instead of said.
  • Relational verb process: Hard one this. This is to do with existence and relationships, being and relating: Be, seem, befriended, differ, abounded.

So what can you do with it? Well look at these two bits I marked up for some students from Margret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The notes link to each of highlighted sections in turn. They are both from the same section where Offred is allowed to walk to get some items from the shop.

handmaids 1

It’s all material and relational; doing and existing. She’s walking through the neighbourhood and things are happening or have changed (or have not). Now look at this. When Offred remembers her past something changes.

handmaids 2

Suddenly Offred uses verbal and mental processes. In the past she was free to talk and think. The verb processes structurally tell us something massively important about the story-world.

  1. Technique: Creation of character?

Now armed with new skills to explore the verb processes used you can begin to say interesting things about your extract. Action sequences will create character using material verb processes. A character who is observing the world and describing it will use material and relational verb processes. Dialogue heavy text will lean in verbal verb processes and highly introspective characterisation will be mental verb process heavy.

Another thing worth looking for, as mentioned earlier, is the voice of any character. There is more on this later but if a writer uses non-standard English forms to create character then it is worth analysing.

Character is also created by body language. The way that the writer describes the bodies of characters is important. Luckily we can abduct terms which are usually used to describe things like dance or theatre here. Kinesics is the term used to explain movement (like kinetic energy is movement energy). Are the kinesics terms slow or fast, gentle or dramatic etc? Haptics are used to describe touch; the difference between prodded and hugged for example and proxemics describe closeness; he leaned in, she shuffled away from them etc.

The final consideration in this section concerning the creation of character concerns the function or role of the character within the text. One way you can think of texts is as structural machines.

This sort of work can give you lots of useful terms to help define what is going on in your extract. If you like this kind of stuff one of the places you can go to is this website as it is full of interesting notes on the way narrative and character elements are reused and recycled, especially in popular culture, and the term trope is a useful one if you are stuck when describing such an element.

The character types and functions described by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp have been the starting point for lots of explorations along these lines.

propp 1

These were refined by Algirdas Greimas. His theories identified that the actant is the character who moves the narrative along. The actant has an object; something to achieve and the narrative has a character who is the subject of the text. The other character types are senders, receivers, opposers and helpers.

An extension of this set of ideas is the, now very fashionable, concept of the monomyth. Popularised by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a thousand faces” it is a way of describing narratives as dispirit as the bible or Iron Man. The hero’s journey identifies the shape of monomyth stories and identifying what characters or events within the hero’s journey are being used can help you in your analysis.

hero journey

  1. Technique: Motifs? If so what themes?

One of those book-clubby issues I wrote about earlier is when students write about themes without recognising their building blocks. Themes are the big concepts that the text expresses. These can only be built out of concrete things within the world of the text.

To use an accessible example lets look at Suzanne Collins’ novel “The Hunger Games.” In the first paragraph of the novel the, still unnamed narrator tells the reader that “this is the day of the reaping.” The material verb “reaping” has become a noun, a concrete event in the world of the book. The name of this event is linked to the creation of bread, or rather the harvesting of the wheat for the making of bread. This is a motif. Bread is regularly referenced (Peter is a baker and gives her bread, even the name of the country is “Panem” – the Latin word for bread). Eventually all these motifs build into the theme. Themes are not simple (unlike when you thought you had them down when you were younger and would shout out theme ideas like “war” or “love”). Themes are complex ideas built out of complex references. In this case it links back to the Roman writer Juvenal. His comment on Rome’s use of appeasement “panem et circenses” (“bread and circuses” – for those of you without Roman history the bread piece is easy, give people food, the circus is where gladiators, prisoners and animals are killed as spectacle) is fleshed out by Collins by putting emphasis on the first word. Even the title of the book does it; “hunger” first “games” after.

Another good example would be in Margret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” where the first page, again sets up a sequence of motifs that builds into one of the most important themes of the book.

  1. Technique: Lexis and semantic fields?

I’m not going to spend too long on this one ‘cos you know lots about this already. Just keep a weather eye out for word use. Remember that lexis describes all the words in a language. To help you say something useful it can be used to define the language that refers to something (the lexical field of war – casualties, no man’s land, bombarded, shrapnel – or the lexis of seafaring – anchored, all hands to the pumps, in the doldrums – for example). Semantic fields are groups of words that are closely linked in meaning (like words related to looking for example: search, gaze, peek etc.) Spotting these patterns helps refine your analysis.

  1. Technique: Class and other language choices?

Another one for building on your general knowledge and previous skills. Look at this extract. It is the opening paragraph of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“YOU don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly — Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is — and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that  book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Twain

There exists a language Continuum:

Standard English (at one end)________________ Completely different language (at the other).

Standard English can be understood by all English speakers and writers anywhere in the world. At the other end is language which is so far removed that it cannot be understood by any English speakers.

Clearly this extract is not standard English, but it is also clearly not another language. Understanding how this helps to shape meaning is one of the most important parts of the OCR A Level task and it isn’t easy. You might think that you know about American culture because you’ve seen a few movies but identifying an accent and class from writing is far more difficult.

Breaking the rules of standard English to help anchor characterisation is a well-known writer’s tool. In fact it became such a part of American Literature that its hackneyed overuse was often disparagingly referred to as adding “local color” to a story. Twain’s use is far more nuanced. In the extract Twain is very careful to create the narrative voice of an uneducated Missouri 14-year-old boy. The use of words like “without” and “ain’t no” fit within the dialect of the blue collar white and black South. This is an important part of Twain’s conceit as Huck’s escape with the runaway slave Jim is the novel’s central action. An interesting addition to the first-person nature of the text is that Huck is clear in his attempts to distance himself from Twain’s writing but by mentioning his own name in the paragraph Twain reminds the reader of the artifice of the novel! Twain “stretched” the truth but Huck is more honest in his innocence.

To help define the way language choices have been represented there are a variety of terms you should be aware of.

An idiolect is the language spoken by one person; their own style.

A sociolect is the language shared by a group. Of those here are some definitions:

  • Slang: spoken between peers.
  • Dialect: local language variant spoken intergenerationally.
  • Argot: Occupation linked spoken language.
  • Jargon: Written occupation specific language (esp acronyms).
  • Pidgin: Trading/slave language – hugely simplified – lasts one generation.
  • Patois: Pidgin language with added syntax (grammar)
  • Creole: Combination of multiple languages.

Language tells other people about class, education, employment, regional identity and plenty of other things. Take it into consideration in your analysis.

  1. Technique: Allusions (religion)

Allusions are those moments when a writer makes a direct reference to another narrative. This can be symbolic or be used to bring the weight of another text (or cultural force) into play. Allusions are those things which clearly root the text into the structure of culture that I mentioned earlier.

Religious allusion is the big one here and it really pays to be able to spot it. If you would like a quick crash-course in Christianity a good place to go is here

as it contains a) the key stories and people, and b) lots of Lego renditions of events constructed long before the Lego movie and using whatever seemed to work (honestly the depiction of blood in Lego form is awe-inspiring).


Without an understanding of this your understanding of books like The Grapes of Wrath will be shallow and one-dimensional. The title itself alludes to three reference points. One from Isaiah, in the Old Testament, one from Revelations, in the New Testament and one from the Battle Hymn of the Republic; a patriotic song.

Whilst mentioning The Grapes of Wrath it might be worth mentioning the other way that a text can mean more than it appears. Some references (like the Hunger Games bread allusion) help to create a key to understanding the bigger meaning. These books can be referred to as a roman a clef (literally a book with a key) or as an allegory. Spot the key, spot the allegory and you are have unlocked far more meaning in your analysis.

So there you have it. Some more tools for the old tool-box. Good luck and good analysis, analysing, whatever!

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One thought on “Move closer. How to use stylistics to improve your close reading skills.

  1. Pingback: Media Studies is being treated differently to other A levels. Why? – and what it means for teachers and students. – Mr G's English, Film and Media.

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