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Show and Tell

Recently, I've had to focus the majority of my criticisms on writers' openings. It's not a secret that the way in which a writer performs an opening sets a precedence. While not a comprehensive list, I usually give some examples of focal points by which my writers might base their opening sentences:

  • Setting: One of the more common types of openings give a sense of the space that the stories inhabit. Impactful immediate worldbuilding gives a sense of scale as well and, in many cases, can establish relatability with an audience who has inhabited or seen many different types of spaces.

  • Character: In this opening, we prioritize a given "who." As in an opening that establishes a setting, one that focuses on character ideally presents a notion on the worldview and interpersonal relationships of people of importance [or unimportance depending on the angle].

  • Action: This is one of the most difficult types of openings as it should do the work of worldbuilding and some extent of character development at once. Incorrectly done, this can be jarring, and can fail to establish the intended tone and purpose. Well done, an opening like this will usually use this as an opportunity to show how time passes in the created world (even if it is a representation of the one we inhabit). A sword fight might establish a fast-paced environment or, otherwise, something that directly contrasts from the norm.

  • Moral/Principle: These are our "truth[s] universally acknowledged," something that is carried through and considered through the extent of the journey. This is also very difficult to do because it can come off as insincere. Done well, it can bring in the point of conflict early and can provide a satisfactory thought experiment, for example. It will give a sense of how an established culture lives in accordance with or in contrast wish a status quo.

A memorable foundation of a writer's intentions can set expectations and provide the necessary framework that all other words will in some way be in conversation with. Francine Prose, as we've established here, is a big proponent of not just reading, but highly intentional close reading. In the second chapter, we focus solely on word usage and finding meaning in every individual word.

She says, "Part of a reader's job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you" (Prose, 2006).

Prose is very intentional about her word choices. She immediately gives readers a "job", as in, by virtue of reading and being a reader, they must hold responsibility. The subject is the reader. The focus is on the reader. They are the ones who hold this particular responsibility, and that responsibility is to find, specifically, "why" writers endure.

Reason, in this case, has to be found. It cannot be obvious and can only be achieved through close reading. The reasons why a writer endures can have to do with their lives intertwined with a body of work and not solely a single body of work. However, every single body of work is essential in this process. Endurance, also, does not solely measure the immediate impact of a given set of words, but its memorability and effect over time.

Next, we have the comparison of the minds of human beings to computers. It is through this method that Prose acknowledges not that humans are not capable of change over time, but that there are implicit biases to which people naturally hold on to and use as a framework for what they read. Through the rewiring and unhooking, readers are encouraged to both acknowledge and attempt to think past any preconceived notions of what reading has to be or has to yield.

Prose emphasizes the word, "opinion", tactfully here. Preconceived notions also dictate that machines cannot fully have the capacity to form distinct opinions outside of the capacity that's programmed into them. We are not machines, we are humans, and therefore capable of forming an opinion. However, we can also be rewired and connections can be unhooked, metaphorically. Machines can, in fact, be programmed to hold opinions. How necessary are these opinions? What opinions matter?

We continue with our extended metaphor, and this time, we are rewiring such that we are connected to a terminal, incidentally a terminal that implies the existence of other terminals, that "lets." In other words, it allows. It does not force because this kind of responsibility cannot be forced. The act can only be completed with intention to complete it. The act is to connect the reader to the terminal that allows them to see reading as something that will "move or delight." Hopefully, the work has an emotional impact. Otherwise, ideally, the work should have a positive impact.

A work does not have to have a deep emotional impact in order to create a positive impression. Works of literature often find themselves under the constraint that they must be constantly stimulating or deeply inspiring. Under these constraints, they are not allowed to be simple pleasures.

I theorize that we are reverting to technology because it's easy to have clear cut expectations of technology. The creator of that piece of technology will have the most specific expectations because they will know and will have planned the exact functions that the technology will perform. The expectations change only when the piece of technology is rewired. It's not that expectations or biases are removed through the rewiring. It is that we can acknowledge limitations in perception, and through that acknowledgement, see past them.

Before delving into Prose's own close readings of literature, she leads, beautifully, by example. Every single word holds some form of significance and can create meaning when that meaning is wanted. However, per her point, while every word can create meaning, we have to make the choice to create that meaning. She encourages readers to move slowly and take in each individual word, emphasizing that literature was meant to be paced.

Her next step is to move to sentences, and so far, this presents as an interesting guide! I look forward to following along and attempting more of her close reading methods.


Thank you so much to everyone who has given feedback on Purposeful Prose so far!

I thought that this was an interesting way of working in communication with Francine Prose's work, but let me know what you think! If you want to add to the conversation, and maybe add your own close reading to the mix, you can become a member of Purposeful Prose and post comments on articles and make use of my forum!

If you would like to follow along on this journey through Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, I suggest purchasing the title through your local independent bookstore or where your purchase can benefit local independent bookstores across the US!

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.

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1 Comment

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Jun 30, 2022

The focal points that you shared pair beautifully with Prose's thesis of close reading. (Love the reference to Austen!) Thanks so much for sharing and highlighting this work. Well done!!

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