Textual cohesion

In another post I described the effects of choosing one word over another, and how such choices can evoke quite different scenarios and feelings. But authors think about more than the choice of one word over another; they look all the time for how to connect the ideas and keep reinforcing the feelings they’ve evoked in their readers. Over the course of a paragraph, or a few paragraphs or chapters you can use cohesive devices (such as repetition) to create coherence (so you can understand the piece).

One great example I found recently of how an idea is developed was in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It’s a fictional retelling of the story where two babies, twins, were born to Mary, and she named one Jesus and the other Christ. One section of the story has Christ witnessing Jesus’ baptism:

So John held him, and plunged him under the water and lifted him up again.

At that moment Christ saw a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. It might have been an omen. Christ wondered what it might mean, and imagined what a voice might say if it spoke from heaven and told him.

Then Christ goes home to Mary and tells her about what he saw:

‘It flew right over my head, Mother. And I thought I heard a voice speaking from heaven. It was the voice of God, and it was speaking to me – I’m sure of it.’

Soon afterwards, he goes into the desert to look for Jesus, and asks him if he has heard the word of God yet:

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Because something happened when you were being baptised. I saw the heavens open up above you, and a dove came down and hovered above your head, and a voice said “This is my beloved son”.’

On the first reading of this, where there was a little more text between each of these events than I have provided here, I didn’t see the development in Christ’s mind from something he imagines might have been said, to something he thinks he hears, to his report of actually hearing a voice saying something. Only on the second reading did I pick up how clever Pullman had been – the character is not aware of this development, and at first neither was I.

The piece is cohesive because alongside the stepped development of one idea – from Christ imagining possible conversations to believing he has heard God saying something – there are also repeated elements that almost provide handrails to the steps: ‘a voice’ and ‘from heaven’ (‘the heavens’ in the final example) occur in each of the three sections, guiding the changes and supporting you as you follow the character through the three steps.

This technique is used to develop arguments in all kinds of writing. The better it is done, the more persuaded you are by the writer, and the harder it is to see how you were persuaded.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s