How do writers create effect? Year 11 and ‘Enduring Love’

17 Nov 2017

opening enduring love

“I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man”

Ian McEwan ‘Enduring Love’

In the spirit of ‘Enduring November,’ a month that for us hard working teacher folk feels like a never ending marathon, a post on using Ian McEwan’s wonderful ‘Enduring Love’ with my Year 11 group.

Today saw the the beginning of the mock exam preparations, which this year will see my group sit both English Language papers. Last year there was a sizeable enough gap in the results of my year 11 group between Literature and Language for me to look closely at exactly how I was teaching the Language paper. Dave Grimmett’s posts have been very useful, particularly this on the problem with techniques, which gives excellent strategies to keep answers specific.

In this opening lesson I wanted to look at some generic skills to reflect on how a writer can create effects. Specifically we looked at this question:

How does the writer make the extract tense and dramatic?

This is a useful one to get them thinking again about reading for meaning skills and how a writer deliberately engineers a text in terms of language and structure to create impact. The opening of ‘Enduring Love’ is an excellent example of the use of both structure and language: with the juxtaposition between the delightful pastoral picnic and the tragic balloon incident brilliantly crafted.

We started the lesson with the hazy image that opens this post. Students had to be clear about exactly what the narrative issue was and begin to try to describe the event. The aim with this was to get them to think like writers from the start of the lesson and begin to reflect on the skill set a writer has to generate tension. This led into a dialogue about the methods that writer’s can employ to build drama and tension: structural points, techniques, word choice etc.

I then shared the first five minutes of the excellent film version with them, giving them the context of Joe and Clarissa’s romantic picnic. They had to again think like a writer as they watched it: how would they capture the drama in writing? I asked them to jot down some descriptions as they watched the clip, writing from Joe’s perspective.

We then analysed the opening and the drama that was so apparent (there were some good quips about how how convenient it was that James Bond happened to be the first on the scene!) This meant that they had absolute clarity about the plot before going near the extract – allowing us to focus entirely on looking on how McEwan had crafted his writing for impact in the extract. I also asked them to share some of the descriptions they had written down to see which methods and words they had started to employ.

They then were given this extract and asked to highlight 7-10 quotations they could use that create drama and tension.

What we saw when we stood from our picnic was this: a huge grey balloon, the size of a house, the shape of a teardrop, had come down in the field. The pilot must have been halfway out of the passenger basket as it touched the ground. His leg had become entangled in a rope that was attached to an anchor. Now, as the wind gusted and pushed and lifted the balloon toward the escarpment, he was being half dragged, half carried across the field. In the basket was a child, a boy of about ten. In a sudden lull, the man was on his feet, clutching at the basket, or at the boy. Then there was another gust, and the pilot was on his back, bumping over the rough ground, trying to dig his feet in for purchase or lunging for the anchor behind him in order to secure it in the earth. Even if he had been able, he would not have dared disentangle himself from the anchor rope. He needed his weight to keep the balloon on the ground, and the wind could have snatched the rope from his hands.

As I ran I heard him shouting at the boy, urging him to leap clear of the basket. But the boy was tossed from one side to another as the balloon lurched across the field. He regained his balance and got a leg over the edge of the basket. The balloon rose and fell, thumping into a hummock, and the boy dropped backward out of sight. Then he was up again, arms stretched out toward the man and shouting something in return–words or inarticulate fear, I couldn’t tell.

I then explained we would go through the extract in chronological order – they would see a quotation come up on the Powerpoint and have one minute to write a brief explanation about why it was tense/dramatic. This gave them the opportunity to practise condensing points about textual evidence quickly and using the words of the question:

  1. “a huge grey balloon”
  2. “His leg had become entangled in a rope”
  3. “In a sudden lull, the man was on his feet, clutching at the basket, or at the boy”
  4. “the wind could have snatched the rope from his hands.”
  5. “I heard him shouting at the boy, urging him to leap clear of the basket.”

Things got really exciting when I shared my nifty: How to set your examiner soaring tips. The idea is these will be repeated as we approach these questions so they know exactly how to get the marks. This was, of course, coupled with this image (given my Scottish credentials).

scottish hot air balloon


Begin with an immediate focus on the question

Work through the text chronologically.Select sensible examples and explain them briefly.

Focus on language – why are the phrases important?

Demonstrate awareness of the structure of the text.

Use: the writer uses, the line… 

Use: suggest/implies/reveals etc to show how the writer influences the reader.

They then completed their examples in around fifteen minutes. Having looked at some this afternoon, it is clear that a number are still suffering from ‘waffleobia’ something I wrote about in this post on preparing Year 9 for GCSE. They are still trying to relate everything back to techniques and not covering a wide range of evidence in their answer.

So on Monday I will be photocopying some of the answers that suffer from particularly shocking cases of wafflobia, then comparing them with my own answer below. Hopefully this spot the difference approach will help to show them how to be more specific and concise in their analysis.

Tension and drama are created as there is an immediate revelation to open the extract: “what we saw when we stood from our picnic was this,” this builds a sense of urgency in the opening of the extract. The writer then describes the “huge, grey balloon”, with the adjective “huge” building drama as it captures the enormity of the balloon as it approaches. This is reinforced with the fact it is then paralleled with “the size of a house”. Using this at the start of the extract immediate implies the grave danger that those inside the balloon face. Tension is then generated with the description  “his leg had become entangled in a rope” The verb “entangled” builds drama as it implies an inability to help to get the balloon under control. The writer then uses a collection of verbs to convey the power and threat of the wind: “wind gusted and pushed and lifted the balloon”, all implying the force that will leave those in the balloon powerless to escape and building tension.

The reference to the “child, a boy of about ten” builds significant drama as readers understand the danger of the situation. The noun “boy” in particular implies vulnerability and the fact that he is at the mercy of the wind. The writer then introduces a break to the pace of the extract, with “In a sudden lull, the man was on his feet, clutching at the basket.” The use of “sudden” conveys the speed at which the man will have to move, as does the desperation implied in the verb “clutching”. Tension is further built when we see the futility of this, as he quickly finds himself “back on his back, bumping over the rough ground”, the verb “bumping” again illustrating the fact he has no control over the situation. The writer then uses personification with “the wind could have snatched the rope from his hands.” This implies the malevolence and ominous control that the wind has over the situation.

Drama is then explicitly created through the man “shouting at the boy”, which captures his growing desperation and anxiety, coupled with the fact the narrator has started to “run” towards the incident. We then see the writer employ more dramatic verbs as the boy is “tossed from one side to another” returning to his vulnerability and reiterating his inability to take control of the situation. The instability of the balloon is further generated as the writer uses the description of “lurched across the field.” This rapidly increases the pace of the action. The writer then describes the boy vanishing and appearing “then he was up again, arms stretched out”, his physical position building drama as he appears to be grabbing for him in desperation. Finally the writer concludes the extract with the sensory description of the boy shouting in “inarticulate fear”, highlighting the sense of finality and panic.

On Monday we will do an examiner’s report on this response – slowly unpicking exactly what it is that I have tried to identify in the example. We will then apply this to the next extract from the novel to see if they can try to be more specific in their evaluation of how tension is created:

I must have been a hundred yards away when the situation came under control. The wind had dropped; the man was on his feet, bending over the anchor as he drove it into the ground. He had unlooped the rope from his leg. For some reason–complacency, exhaustion, or simply because he was doing what he was told–the boy remained where he was. The towering balloon wavered and tilted and tugged, but the beast was tamed. I slowed my pace, though I did not stop. As the man straightened, he saw us–or at least the farmworkers and me–and he waved us on. He still needed help, but I was glad to slow to a brisk walk. The farm laborers were also walking now. One of them was coughing loudly. But the man with the car, John Logan, knew something we didn’t and kept on running. As for Jed Parry, my view of him was blocked by the balloon that lay between us.

The wind renewed its rage in the treetops just before I felt its force on my back. Then it struck the balloon, which ceased its innocent, comical wagging and was suddenly stilled. Its only motion was a shimmer of strain that rippled out across its ridged surface as the contained energy accumulated. It broke free, the anchor flew up in a spray of dirt, and balloon and basket rose ten feet in the air. The boy was thrown back, out of sight. The pilot had the rope in his hands and was lifted two feet clear off the ground. If Logan had not reached him and taken hold of one of the many dangling lines, the balloon would have carried the boy away. Instead, both men were now being pulled across the field, and the farmworkers and I were running again.

I got there before them. When I took a rope, the basket was above head height. The boy inside it was screaming. Despite the wind, I caught the smell of urine. Jed Parry was on a rope seconds after me, and the two farmworkers, Joseph Lacey and Toby Greene, caught hold just after him. Greene was having a coughing fit, but he kept his grip. The pilot was shouting instructions at us, but too frantically, and no one was listening. He had been struggling too long, and now he was exhausted and emotionally out of control. With five of us on the lines the balloon was secured. We simply had to keep steady on our feet and pull hand over hand to bring the basket down, and this, despite whatever the pilot was shouting, was what we began to do.

Hopefully this introduction to writer’s effects will begin to help them to feel clearer about how to structure their responses. We will now look at a range of different extracts and do lots of practise in picking out suitable evidence and condensing analysis into succinct points.

Thanks for reading. And, while we might want to make our own hot air balloon escape out of November – remember the delightfully optimistic words of Nelson Mandela:



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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