When we refer to a writer's style, we mean the way authors or playwrights use various literary techniques to establish tone and convey theme. To make this process as simple as possible for students, we limit our discussion to what we call the "four pillars" of style analysis: diction, imagery, language, and syntax. We'll look at each of these pillars individually in the sections below.
To understand the significance of diction, or word choice, students first must differentiate between the denotation of a word and its connotation. By denotation we mean the definition found in the dictionary; by connotation we mean the attitude or feelings associated with the word. To make this difference clear to students, we provide three pairs of words that have similar denotations but very different connotations:
In the first example, if we refer to a dog as a "mutt," there is an element of disrespect in that designation, implying that the dog is of an inferior type. In the second example, two groups could be engaged in the exact same behavior that shows they find something funny, but the group described as "giggling" seems young and immature compared to a group that is "laughing." Boys and girls "giggle," whereas men and women "laugh." In the final example, if a teacher is described as "strict," it implies that she maintains order and discipline in the classroom. Even though a "strict" teacher may not be as much fun for students, the adjective carries an element of respect. If a teacher is described as "rigid," however, she may be so disciplined in her approach that she is seen as closed-minded and inflexible, which are obviously negative attributes.
Once students have been introduced to the concept of diction, we analyze a short passage from a literary work they are reading. For instance, in the opening description of Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator tells us that "Billy has come unstuck in time." When we ask students if the word "unstuck" has a positive or negative connotation, there is usually a pause. On one hand, being "unstuck" implies liberation and freedom, words that have positive connotations, but to be "unstuck in time" also implies a helplessness and lack of control, which is reinforced by the word "spastic" in the following excerpt.
Similar to our interpretation of AP prompts, we encourage students to look at words as not necessarily positive or negative, but as sometimes positive and negative. For Billy, becoming "unstuck in time" is a coping mechanism that helps him deal with the traumatic experiences in his life. By taking a passive, fatalistic approach to life, Billy protects himself from feeling pain in any particular moment. With that "freedom," however, comes a corresponding lack of control and disconnectedness from the reality of his own experience. Moments are seen as transitory and impermanent, and the result is that Billy suffers from perpetual anxiety, or "stage fright," since he has no idea "what part of his life he is going to have to act in next."
The purpose of identifying tone is to determine a narrator's attitude towards a subject. So how does the narrator feel about Billy's being "spastic in time"? As a temporary coping mechanism, it appears to be a successful strategy; as a way to live one's life, however, it appears to be an abject failure. To be "spastic" is to lack control and agency over one's own life. While we understand why Billy responds to trauma in this particular way, we should recognize that Vonnegut does not want us emulating Billy. Our job over the course of the novel is to determine what we can learn from Billy's experience and find a better way to deal with life's difficulties on our own.
When we refer to an author or playwright's use of imagery, we mean descriptions that include any of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Sensory details not only make the reader experience a scene more vividly, but they also serve to establish the narrator's tone, or attitude, towards the subject.
In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, we are introduced to Tayo, another character who suffers from traumatic experiences in World War II. Silko uses imagery to immerse us in the opening scene so that we can vicariously see, hear, and feel what is going on inside Tayo's head as he lies sleeplessly on his bed after returning to the Laguna Pueblo reservation:
Visually, we can see the "old iron bed" that Tayo "tossed" restlessly upon, but the more dominant sensory detail is the "coiled springs" underneath the mattress that "kept squeaking even after he lay still again." In many ways Tayo is like those "coiled springs" under constant tension. The incessant squeaking triggers "humid dreams of black night," which combines a visual darkness with a tactile humidity that reminds him of the Pacific jungles that still haunt him. From out of the darkness comes a series of "loud voices" that are figuratively "rollling him over and over again" as if he were "debris caught in a flood." Silko makes us experience Tayo's hellish dreamscape through her use of vivid imagery—a disorienting combination of sight, sound, and touch that makes us intimately aware of Tayo's inner distress. Tayo cannot control the shifts that occur inside his mind that combine his present reality with his traumatic past. We know from Silko's use of imagery in the opening description that Tayo's life is in the balance, for he is currently helpless in confronting the confusion and despair that threaten to engulf him.
When the AP refers to language in its prompts, they mean figurative language. To simplify this concept for students, we focus only on the three types of figurative language most often used in literature: metaphors, symbols, and allusions.
When authors or playwrights use metaphoric language, they are comparing one thing in terms of another. Similes are metaphors using "like" or "as" to make the comparison more explicit; personification is giving a non-human entity human characteristics. An element in a literary work may be symbolic if it represents something larger than the element itself. Allusions are indirect references to something outside the literary work for the purpose of comparison. The four most common types of allusions that we discuss with students are literary, mythological, historical, and biblical.
In the final soliloquy of Macbeth, William Shakespeare uses all three types of figurative language to show Macbeth's hopelessness and despair after receiving word that Lady Macbeth has died, most likely by suicide. As Macbeth faces his own imminent death as he prepares to defend Dunsinane against his fellow countrymen who have rebelled against his tyrannous rule, he contemplates the absurdity and meaninglessness of life:
When Macbeth says, "Out, out, brief candle," he seems to welcome the thought of his own death, comparing life to a symbolic candle that burns itself down into nothingness. Shakespeare has Macbeth follow this line by stating, "Life's but a walking shadow," which seems to be an allusion to Psalms 23:4 in the Old Testament:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
The irony of this biblical allusion is that instead of being comforted by the presence of God in the face of death, Macbeth finds himself utterly alone and in despair. Macbeth's only solace is that perhaps there is no God nor any purpose in life. Instead of a life of goodness and faith, Macbeth has embraced evil and a belief in "nothing." The final metaphor that Macbeth uses is one of a "poor player," or actor, who "struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more." By having Macbeth equate life to acting upon a stage, Shakespeare seems to imply that we all play roles in life, some that may not reflect who we really are. In this final soliloquy, Shakespeare perhaps wants us to remember that Macbeth was once admired and respected for his courage and virtue. Shakespeare suggests that Macbeth's life is a tragedy because he was once capable of goodness. By seeing himself as an actor upon a stage, we imagine that the real Macbeth could have been someone far different from the villain he portrayed.
For most students, the most daunting and least utilized pillar of style analysis is syntax, which refers to the way that words are structured and organized in a text. When we refer to syntax, we think of how sentences and paragraphs are built—which includes everything from word order and arrangement to verb tenses and punctuation.
An examination of a writer's syntax requires a subtle and nuanced reading of the text, so we advise students not to put too much pressure on themselves to include a syntactical analysis in their essays. If they focus only on diction, imagery, and language, they should have plenty to discuss. That being said, if they can include elements of syntax in their analysis, it will be impressive to the reader because it is so rarely done.
The first thing we tell students when analyzing the syntax of a passage is to look for any structural elements that seem unusual or interesting. For instance, in the final chapter of Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine, the narration shifts from the third-person limited perspective of the mother and her children that was used in the previous chapters to the first-person narration of the father in the final chapter.
From what we know about the mild-mannered father from the previous chapters, we understand that he is in no way guilty of any of the crimes to which he now confesses. In fact, the seemingly never-ending laundry list of supposed crimes he has committed embodies all the accusations that were made against Japanese-Americans in World War II. By shifting to first-person narration, Otsuka gives us an opportunity to enter into the psyche of the falsely accused. The short, terse sentences reveal the pain and bitterness of being considered disloyal simply because of one's racial identity. Furthermore, by having the first-person narrator address the abstract "you" in this final chapter, Otsuka makes all Americans who failed to intervene on behalf of Japanese-Americans complicit in the crime of their internment. Otsuka's shift in style also represents a shift in tone. The readers being addressed as "you" are now put in a defensive position, feeling attacked for things for which we may not feel personally responsible. Now we know, Otsuka seems to suggest, how it feels to be falsely accused. The father also reveals his anger and frustration when he sarcastically repeats, "You were right. You were always right." Despite his innocence, the father knows that he will always be viewed as suspicious, regardless of what he says or does.
When first introducing the "four pillars" of style analysis to students, we focus on one element at a time so as not to overwhelm them. Once students are comfortable, however, we have them work in small groups to work on all four elements at once, as they do when analyzing the following passage from our unit on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale:
Once students understand the fundamentals of style analysis and how diction, imagery, language, and syntax help authors establish tone and convey theme, they are ready to write an AP Passage Analysis essay, which is the ultimate assessment of a student's ability to read a passage closely to determine the author's intent.