Lesson Two

Understanding Writing, or

Understanding the Clues to What You’re Reading

Ideally, everything about a book, magazine article, TV show, movie, or music (and I’m sure a bajillion other things) should guide you down a path of discovery and understanding. The title should reflect the contents. Artwork should clarify and enhance what has been written. Even the form of publication will offer clues to the author’s intent.

This relatively simple idea may seem confusing and hard to grasp, at first. After all, we’re told to not judge a book by its cover. We’re told to have an open mind. We’re even told that some things, like fiction, are simply too broad for true understanding. Lies. All of it.

Instead, when reading, a properly written and formatted and planned piece of work will guide you down a path of increased understanding (see, Introductions).

If→Then

Every aspect of writing should lead you down a path of If→Then. Or, if this happens then this other things happens. Over and over and over again.

One way to begin looking at this is The Hobbit, or, There and back again by J.R.R. Tolkien. The title tells us two things:

  1. We’re dealing with something called a hobbit; and,
  2. We’re going to go somewhere and come back.

This is a story about a journey, a quest, and the title (whether or not we have enough information) tells us as much.

Everything that follows, from the title, the picture, everything will lead to an eventual and purposeful ending. Period.

Logical and not (necessarily) Obvious

Our basic structure for reading is If→Then, which should result in the reader questioning why the author has included some bit of information or dialogue or detail. Why does the title of The Hobbit include or, There and back again? And what should I understand or know moving forward?

This isn’t just true of novels or short stories, though these are often the easiest to illustrate. The principle extends into essays and news articles. It’s a core principle of articulate communication patterns and practices.

(see also, Show vs Tell

The Power of Three

The power of three follows a simple business practice (McKinsey) in which company problems are distilled or simplified down to three key parts. In distilling, an individual can go up to four. However, anything more than three parts is strongly encouraged to become a new problem set.

So to with writing, especially in terms of essays and argumentative writing, should The Power of Three be applied. An essay or argument is a factualy piece of writing that heavily relies on the facts, data, and information presented as a foundation for what is produced. Successful presentation of material requires that the essay or argument is simplified so the necessary supporting material can be applied.

(see, Wikipedia article on Outlines)

Outlining, as a general rule, should look a lot like:

  1. Thesis*
    • First Point
    • Second Point
    • Third Point
  2. First Point
    • sub-point one
    • sub-point two
    • sub-point three
  3. Second Point
    • sub-point one
    • sub-point two
    • sub-point three
  4. Third Point
    • sub-point one
    • sub-point two
    • sub-point three
  5. Conclusion*

The reason sticking to three (and no more) points isn’t just about proper business practices, it’s about focusing effort and understanding, focusing argument and proof, such that research and writing are limited to only a few items; and so that an audience can more easily understand and follow your essay or argument.

The Power of Maybe

Needs additional content.

The Simile and Metaphor

If the purpose of writing is to (as clearly as you can) convey information or ideas to other people, then the simile and metaphor are a pair of your best friends. What the simile and metaphor do is create a comparison between two things. For example:

The sun is like a ripe orange.

Your hair is like fine silk.

You stand in beauty like the night.

In each case, something is like something else. These aren’t exact 1:1 comparisons. They’re not perfect, nor do they need to be. Instead, the comparison is meant to convey an idea of what the writer is thinking in terms of the object of what’s being written about.

In this case, the use of “is like” is being used as a simile. Or these two things are kind of like each other in this simple way.

However, a metaphor is something more complex and can be a bit confusing and harder to notice. Like the simile, a metaphor compares two things, but in a much broader and longer way.

On Plot

Plot is, simply, the sequence of main events or actions that take place between the beginning of a story and the end.

That’s it.

Case Study | Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series is seven book long. They are as follows:

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  6. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows

Each book can, to some extent, be read without any of the other books. Yet, the Harry Potter story, as a whole (meaning Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort) requires all seven books. This means that the entire plot of Harry Potter is seven books long.

The plot structure of the series, with each individual book, look like:

  • Harry Potter is at the Dursely’s and wants to leave
  • Harry Potter is taken to a magical place where magical things happen
  • Harry Potter realizes there’s a problem and needs (or wants) to fix it
  • Harry Potter and his friends begin to investigate the problem while attempting to study and have social lives
  • Eventually, Harry Potter and friends understand the problem is really big and really hard
  • Harry Potter is forced into a situation where he has to decide to fight or run away
  • Harry Potter decides to fight because, well, he’s Harry Potter
  • Against all odds, Harry Potter succeeds (often with the help of friends) in defeating the enemy and ends up saving the day
  • Harry Potter returns home

You may notice that this builds out each individual book pretty well, while not being specific to any single book. Yet, there’s the basic plot structure of the Harry Potter series of books. Only, there’s an even bigger plot structure (which is why this series was picked) in which Harry has to fight his way to survival.

  • Harry Potter lives an uncomfortable, but normal life.
  • He’s introduced to magic and invited to be part of the magical world.
  • There’s a lot of resistance to Harry joining the magical world, both with his non-magical family and members of the magical community.
  • When Harry cannot be dissuaded from pursuing magic, his enemies start to try and defeat him using various means including:
    • Magical artefacts
    • Other witches and wizards
    • Relationships
    • Outright threats
  • However, as Harry progresses he starts to find the magical items that both increase Voldemort’s power and are there to kill him.
  • At the same time, both through experience and formal eduction, Harry learns more and more about magic - and himself - so that he grows as a wizard and someone capable of defeating Voldemort.
  • The more Harry succeeds, the more Voldemort is desperate to stop Harry, forcing the actions of Harry’s mentors and teachers as well as Harry.
  • Eventually, Harry has to decide either to continue his education or dedicate everything he has to defeating Voldemort so that his life might return to normal.
  • Except, Voldemort has gained considerable power amongst the wizarding community that Harry finds it nearly impossible to complete his mission.
  • In the end, with the help of Harry’s adopted family (Hermione, the Weasely’s, his Hogwarts friends and teachers, and his mentors) Harry stands up to Voldemort and is able to defeat him.
  • The world returns to a more peaceful state and Harry Potter is able to begin his life anew without worry of being killed.

There it is, seven books in a plot progression.


* — The thesis is a presentation of how the argument will form following a top-down approach to presentation of ideas, data, information, events, and so on.

— The conclusion should be a restatement and reflection or review on the introduction and evidence presented in the essay or argument.

— The original, British publication had the title as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was changed for the American audience because: Americans.