Critical Reading: Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Before I even distribute Lord of the Flies, I will ask you questions about the book, and I will expect you to answer them correctly. The questions all have the same answer, and they’re part of the same trick question.  On one level, the answer to every “why” question about a book is, “Because that’s what the author wanted to happen.”

cryingAs readers, we’re supposed to love our characters, feel hurt when the author crushes them with a burden almost too difficult to bear, rejoice when they overcome their suffering. We wonder why they made decision B when decision A was the obvious choice, why they can’t see the big picture as clearly as we can, and we get angry at their stupidity. But their missteps aren’t their fault; the author made them make mistakes.

As critical readers, we need to recognize the fallacy of free will in literary characters. We need to understand that every choice in a novel is a product of much deliberation by the author, and frequently a product of the collaboration between author, trusted friends, agents and editors at the publishing house. Because every detail matters to the author, every detail serves a purpose in the story.

And in the word Purpose, we begin our discussion of Beginnings. First, we focus on you.

Every reading assignment you have can be broken into a Beginning, Middle and End. You’ll see the visual depiction on the back of the first LotF handout; in words, the BME idea goes like this:

Beginning: You recall, identify, recognize your purpose for doing the reading

Middle: You read and notice details, especially those related to your purpose

End: You think about how the details you noticed related to the purpose

Now let’s talk about Beginnings and Purpose from the perspective of the author. If you’re writing a novel, what do you have to do in the Beginning?

Establish setting

Establish initial characterization, which means establishing some forms of tension within the main characters

Present the incidents of the story, aka the Plot

I will paraphrase Aristotle and tell you that the definition of Beginning is the part of the story that isn’t caused. This means that it’s a waste of your time to wonder why there are no adult survivors on the wrecked plane, or why the boys were on it, or where they were going, or anything else that preceded the action of the story. You already know the answers to those questions anyway: because the author made it that way.

So your purpose, as you begin, is to notice what the author is establishing at the beginning of his novel. What does he want you to pay attention to? What does he want you to know beyond the literal things he tells you?

My advice: the easiest way to see what he wants you to pay attention to is to look for repetitions. Second, look for patterns of similar language, or for contrasts. You’ll know a character is a main character when you see some inconsistency or inner tension.



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