On to the first ‘whole of the passage’ questions, which is pretty tough considering the fact that this is still only worth 8 marks. We can question the examiner’s motives here for a moment, but there’s no point in getting too hung up on this, as we have a job to do.

You now need to think about the whole of the Source.

This text is from the opening of a novel.

How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?

You could write about:

·       what the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning

·       how and why the writer changes this focus as the Source develops

·       any other structural features that interest you. [8 marks]


By underlining the key words, you will know already that this answer is asking you to focus on the way in which the passage has been structured/presented to you in order to sustain your interest.

So, you are looking carefully at the techniques the writer uses to focus your attention on certain bits, and how they make you read quicker or more slowly by using sentence/paragraph length, punctuation and so on.

Remember: 8 marks. Even though it’s asking you to look at the whole passage, your answer shouldn’t be any longer than question 2. This is the single biggest mistake most students make, so if you don’t fall into this trap you’ll be at a real advantage.

Guess what. Yes, that’s right. Use the bullet points. No need for me to shout this time.

As you’re focusing on the ‘bigger picture’ here, on structure rather than individual words, you may wish to make notes in the margin of the question paper rather than making separate notes in a spider diagram. It’s up to you.

It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink.

The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat in a faint endeavour to gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while it swung between the numb fingers of the driver.

The wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road, and  sometimes they flung up the soft spattered mud against the windows, where it mingled with the constant driving rain, and whatever view there might have been of the countryside was hopelessly obscured.

The few passengers huddled together for warmth, exclaiming in unison when the coach sank into a heavier rut than usual, and one old fellow, who had kept up a constant complaint ever since he had joined the coach at Truro, rose from his seat in a fury; and, fumbling with the window-sash, let the window down with a crash, bringing a shower of rain upon himself and his fellow-passengers. He thrust his head out and shouted up to the driver, cursing him in a high petulant voice for a rogue and a murderer; that they would all be dead before they reached Bodmin if he persisted in driving at breakneck speed; they had no breath left in their bodies as it was, and he for one would never travel by coach again.

Whether the driver heard him or not was uncertain: it seemed more likely that the stream of reproaches was carried away in the wind, for the old fellow, after waiting a moment, put up the window again, having thoroughly chilled the interior of the coach, and, settling himself once more in his corner, wrapped his blanket about his knees and muttered in his beard.

His nearest neighbour, a jovial, red-faced woman in a blue cloak, sighed heavily, in sympathy, and, with a wink to anyone who might be looking and a jerk of her head towards the old man, she remarked for at least the twentieth time that it was the dirtiest night she ever remembered, and she had known some; that it was proper old weather and no mistaking it for summer this time; and, burrowing into the depths of a large basket, she brought out a great hunk of cake and plunged into it with strong white teeth.


The biggest challenge here is to take quite a long passage and find the main points to write a short paragraph or two. It is tempting to go through the whole thing and explain paragraph by paragraph: but remember, if you don’t leave yourself enough time for question 4 you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot.

Remember: there’s no point getting full marks for questions 1-3 and getting hardly anything for question 4.


So, what you do is this. Think about the passage like you would a movie, and the writer like the movie’s director. Where is the ‘camera’ at the opening? Is it a wide angle shot of the entire scene? Does it focus on particular details? Is it a closer-up shot of a person?

Where does the camera cut to? The same scene only closer, or wider? Another scene that maybe contrasts with this one?

As you go through, look carefully at where the writer wants you to look. He or she is guiding you through this scene just as a director would with a camera.


If we apply this to our two possible answers, we can see the candidates doing exactly this. Here’s the start of a 5/6 mark answer:

The main structure of the story, which begins with the weather, moves from the outside with the rain and wind that came ‘in gusts’ and which includes the driver and horses, to the inside of the coach and the individual characters who are the passengers. The reader is able to understand the extremity of the weather and then go inside to the relative calm and meet the passengers.

As the extract develops it changes the focus from the weather to the driver, then the horses, then the coach, then the passengers. The reader’s experience narrows down to Mary Yellan, whose thoughts take the reader back to the weather.

The candidate uses the bullet points to first explain where the passage begins, then where it moves to (and why), before explaining the effect of this. We can see an understanding of how the writer ‘zooms in’ to the character at the end of the passage. However, it lacks much detail: it describes without explaining a great deal.


The higher grade (7-8) answer takes things a little further (as you’d expect). Have a look and think like an examiner: what makes this answer worthier of those top marks?

The text, about a journey, is structured to also take the reader on a journey: from the general to the specific; from the outside to the inside; from the weather, through the coach, the driver and horses, to the passengers.

There is also a constant reminder of the weather which permeates each part – the ‘little drips of rain’ that came through the roof and, later, ‘the rain oozed through the crack in the roof’ onto Mary’s shoulder – so the reader is constantly made wet and uncomfortable, just like the passengers.

Around the middle of the extract, the outside and the inside are made to coincide when the old man opens the window –this also moves the focus of the reader to the inside of the coach

The text narrows down to take the reader from the countryside of Cornwall –the wide ‘granite sky’ and the evening which ‘closed upon the hills’, to the inside of Mary Yellan’s head as she contemplates the weather and hopes for a ‘momentary trace’ of ‘blue heaven’.

Let’s look carefully at what it’s doing:

  • It uses semi colons (;) very effectively to list the overall structure of the passage clearly and succinctly;
  • It uses quotes well, showing an understanding of the effect of repetition (the rain);
  • It has a spark of genuinefor to you originality when it mentions how the inside and outside coincide;
  • It uses more sophisticated language (‘permeates’, ‘moves the focus’, ‘text narrows down’, ‘contemplates’);
  • Quotes feed nicely into each sentence – this makes every sentence flow;
  • Above all, it refers constantly back to ‘the reader’: to the effect these structural decisions have on the reader of the text.


Let’s look back to the opening of Of Mice and Men. This time a little more of the passage:

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees- willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.

There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.

Evening of a hot day started the little wind to moving among the leaves. The shade climbed up the hills toward the top. On the sand banks the rabbits sat as quietly as little grey sculptured stones. And then from the direction of the state highway came the sound of footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves. The rabbits hurried noiselessly for cover. A stilted heron laboured up into the air and pounded down river. For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool.

So, we are looking at how the structure of the passage interests the reader. Go through the above carefully, making notes on how the writer directs our attention as we read through the passage. Remember our film director technique. Take no more than 2-3 minutes to do this.

  • Where is the ‘camera’ when we open?
  • Where does it move to?
  • What does it focus in on?
  • Does it go from wide to close-up?
  • How does it move you through/into the scene?

You can even use the language of film: the grade 7/8 answer does (‘focus in on’). Try to write your response before looking at the example below (go on, I dare you).


Here’s a possible answer to this:

The passage opens with the general location: ‘a few miles South of Soledad’. From here, the writer draws our attention to the river: the fact that it ‘drops’ and ‘runs’ focuses the reader on its movement and leads us into the scene. We are then drawn to the contrast between one side of the valley and the other by the conjunction ‘but’: this suggests that this is an environment of contrast.

The writer then focuses our attention onto smaller details: first the ‘sycamores’, then their ‘branches’, then the ‘leaves’. We feel as if we are moving further into the scene, taking in smaller and smaller details. This is further emphasised by the repetition of the animals’ tracks, as our attention moves from the level of the mountains down to the ground where the animals live.

From here, we are then led to a specific feature of the scene (rather than the more general features above): the ‘path’. We are led along this path, and gain insight into the fact that humans have been here and have, like the animals, left their mark on the tree’s ‘limb’ which is ‘worn smooth’. This leads us to the introduction of characters into the story: however, we hear their arrival before we see them, and we notice the reaction of the natural world around them to their arrival. This is an effective way to structure the opening, as we are given a strong impression of the natural world before it is disturbed by the ‘two men’.

I hope you can see what I’ve done there. I have focused continually on where the writer is placing our attention, and why. This why is vital for the higher marks. I could have listed how the writer moves us into the scene, but unless I had said why he does this I would have only got around 5 marks.

Practice this. Take openings of books and write short responses to how they move you around and through the scene and what they draw your attention to. And why.

This is an extract from my book available for only 99p on Kindle: The Examiner’s Head


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