New writers are often told that they must read, read, read in the genre they want to write. All that reading won’t do a bit of good if you don’t take the time to analyze what you’ve read.
The three passages we’ve been working with describe three different times and places. They elicit separate moods, preparing us to enter the writer’s world. Surprisingly, they accomplish these tasks by using similar techniques. I’m going to use the first two passages to show you what I mean. After that, why don’t you try doing the same exercise with the Jean Fritz entry.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s opening sentences are very, very simple. The hundred or so words I’ve quoted have a readability level of slightly above a 4th grade level. The individual word readability is probably much lower than that and most likely measures higher because Ingalls uses longer sentence structure. I’ve used color to emphasize several words that elicit feeling. Then, I’ve used bold print to show the repetition of phrase or sentence structure:
“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Picture yourself reading that passage aloud. Better yet, try it. Emphasize the blue words. Slow down when you get to the repeated phrasing. Feel the delicious scariness!
* * *
“If, instead of a pencil, I held a brush in my hand, I would paint the scene: the scene of Autumn Street…and Grandfather’s house would loom huge, out of proportion, awesome and austere, with the clipped lawn as smooth and green as patchwork pockets on a velvet skirt. The rough pink brick of the sidewalk, bordered by elms, would wind the length of the street, past the Hoffman’s house, past the bright forsythia bushes that grew around the great-aunts’ front porch, past the homes of strangers and friends and forgotten people, finally disappearing where the woods began.
…I would blur the woods. I would blur them with a murky mixture of brown and green and black, the hueless shade that I know from my dreams to be the color of pain.” Lois Lowry
There is scariness here, too, but Lowry's passage also hints at horror.
Try your hand at the last one. Color the words that elicit emotion. Underline the repeated phrasing:
* * *
“In my father’s study there was a large globe with all the countries of the world running around it. I could put my finger on the exact spot where I was and had been ever since I’d been born. And I was on the wrong side of the globe, I was in China in a city named Hankow, a dot on a crooked line that seemed to break the country right in two. The line was really the Yangtse River, but who would know by looking at a map what the Yangstse River really was?
“Orange-brown, muddy mustard-colored. And wide, wide, wide. With a river smell that was old and came all the way from the bottom. Sometimes old women knelt on the riverbank, begging the River God to return a son or grandson who may have drowned. …but I knew who busy the River God must be. All those people on the Yangtse River! Coolies hauling water. Women washing clothes. Houseboats swarming with old people and young, chickens and pigs. Big crooked-sailed junks with eyes painted on their prows so they could see where they were going…” Jean Fritz
Go back in your own work and follow these techniques used by these masters. Choose your words as carefully as a poet. Try your hand at adding repeated phrasing. Does this type of emphasis work for you and your work?
These suggestions are just a couple to look for when you model successful writers. You might also go back and find metaphors or similes, alliteration or assonance. Let the masters show you the way to your own success.