Reading As Writers: Big Picture and Closeup

Last month I posted about a schema model for reading and writing: the idea of Big Picture and Closeup literary elements and writer’s tools. In working with my classes since then, I realized I had forgotten to place a couple of terms on the chart: Conflict for Fiction (which is both Big Picture and Closeup)and the idea of Sentence Effects (sometimes called Sentence Fluency) in all kinds of prose (which is Closeup). Here is the revised chart:

Elements run through
the entire text and
influence all of it.
The ideas or story of
a text. The parts a
writer might plan
before writing.
Main idea/
Controlling idea
Key ideas
Organizational patterns
Choice of audience
Choice of purpose
Plot structure
Can sometimes
be Big Picture and
sometimes be
Closeup; can sometimes
be both at once!
Rhetorical devices
Irony: dramatic,
Point of view
A tool that you
can find on the
page and point to.
Not the ideas or
the story, but the way
they are expressed
or told
Research from sources
Moment-by-moment narration
List-of-event narration
Figurative language
Hypothetical scenarios
Sentence effects

So the question is… how is this mental model useful?

I’m going to start demonstrating its usefulness, not directly with writing, but with reading- specifically looking at getting students to read as writers. In fact, I’m going to make the claim that one of the most important reasons to engage students in literary or rhetorical analysis is so they can turn around and use those tools as writers themselves! So much of the time we ask students to analyze the choices writers make only to turn around and take away any choices they might want to make themselves. But if we turn every text into a mentor text (whatever else it might be) then every text becomes a chance to look at what the writer was up to: why might they have made those choices and what effects did they have on us as readers?

If we are reading non-fiction, we might start with the big picture: How did the author focus the topic? What was their central idea or claim? What key ideas did the author use to make their point? What organizational patterns did they use? There are many organizational patterns to choose from, some of which can be combined: chronological, chronological with insights, spatial, comparison-contrast, affected people, end-reveal, cause-effect, problem-solution (and more). How did each key idea transition and flow into the next one?

We might then go to the closeup elements: What kinds of details did the author use most, and why? Did they rely a lot on sources? What did those sources consist of? Statistics? Stories or anecdotes? Examples? How exactly did the author make those abstract Big Picture ideas concrete? Where did the author use long, medium, and short sentences – and fragments for effect? Why did they use them?

This doesn’t need to be a massive worksheet. Ask students what stands out as the most important Big Picture and Closeup tools. Talk about how the Closeup details support the Big Picture ideas, and how the Big Picture ideas are made concrete by the Closeup details. That’s how writing works. Writers take big ideas and make them concrete so we can picture them, understand them, relate to them.

We are currently doing work with definition essays in my class. We recently read an essay called “Players” by All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten author Robert Fulghum. His definition of a “player” is not what the students expect. Fulghum gives his definition in the second sentence – a player is a person willing to jump into a game of imagination. I ask students how many people “get” the definition. Almost nobody does, and the ones who think they do – “They play cops and robbers!” – are incorrect.

But then we begin to read the essay. Fulghum gives example after example (and some non-examples to boot) of being a “player” and interacting with other players: the bus driver who pretends to agree to drive to the beach with him, the lady at the print shop who claims she is with the Irish Republican Army and is missing a bazooka, the woman who wants him to jump out her birthday cake and go-go dance naked. Every example makes the idea of a Player more and more concrete until when I ask again if they know what a Player is, every hand goes up. That’s how writing works. Our details are not “fluff” – as I have heard students refer to them.

The Closeup details are what make our abstract ideas come to life, make them understandable.

So Big Picture, this essay is focusing on a definition – players – and on making that definition concrete. It’s organized around repeated examples and non-examples. Closeup, the author uses a lot of dialogue, description, moment-by-moment narration, and sentence fragments for effect. But the two standout elements would be repeated examples and dialogue.

My textbook includes the essay “Is Survival Selfish?” by Lane Wallace. Big picture, it’s focused on a question, not a claim. It is organized around repeated examples and is an “end-reveal” essay. Interestingly, since it is presented explicitly as a mentor text by our textbook, and ends with an ambiguity. Is survival selfish? Well, it depends… Also interesting is the fact that the repeated examples the essay is built around are all narratives. We often discount narrative as a mode of writing students should leave in the past as they move on to more sophisticated things like argument, but my students noted that every single argument we read during the first quarter of the year was organized around examples (Big Picture) and that those examples were almost universally narrative in content (Closeup). (For more on how important narrative is to all kinds of writing, and to our lives, please get yourself a copy of Thomas Newkirk’s Minds Made for Stories and read it. You’ll be glad you did!)

Fiction is actually more complex to look at, but works much the same way. In order to keep analyzing fiction from becoming overwhelming, I will often ask students to decide in their small groups what the most important Big Picture and Closeup elements of a story are – and what makes them most important?

Which Big Picture element seems to drive the story? A complex plot? A strong theme? A compelling character or set of characters? A setting?

Which Closeup element is the one the author uses most? Which creates the most vivid impression? Which element, if taken away, would leave the story an empty shell? Dialogue? Moment-by-moment narration? description? Interior monologue? Figurative language?

I use several Ray Bradbury short stories with my classes. “Kaleidoscope,” from The Illustrated Man is about a group of doomed astronauts floating through space to their deaths. Students debate – is the setting more essential, or the characters? There is no right answer. They also debate which Closeup element stands out: the dialogue? The interior monologues of the main character, Hollis? The descriptions of floating through space?

If setting is most important element at the Big Picture level, then wouldn’t description matter most, Closeup? If character is most important, Big Picture, then wouldn’t characterization through both dialogue and interior monologuesmatter most?

In “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about an automated house dying after a nuclear war, setting reigns supreme Big Picture, yet it seems to me moment-by-moment narration, not description, that makes the story run Closeup.

But note, there are no set-in-stone correct answers. The point is to have productive discussion and thinking about the things students read.

Asking students to consider the most important elements, Big Picture and Closeup, in either fiction or non-fiction means they are thinking about and talking about all the writer’s tools – but only have to write about two of them. It limits the amount of writing they have to do on single mentor text – they don’t have analyze the essay or story for 20 different elements. On the other hand, focusing on the writer’s tools that matter most to a piece of writing also sets them up to write longer analyses and to think about them differently.

Because literary and rhetorical analysis are, at least in my mental map of things, descriptions of how Big Picture ideas are made vivid and concrete by closeup elements. Or, to put it another way, analysis describes how the Details create the Big Picture ideas. We are reading a story, scene after scene of descriptions and actions and characters talking, and we suddenly realize that this story is about something more than itself: it has a theme.

Good student writers read a lot. Really good student writers read and notice what writers do. Great student writers, the ones whose work I can’t wait to read, notice what writers do and begin to see how it all works together.

Looking at what how Big Picture and Closeup Elements work together can lead to more engaged, better analysis. More importantly, it can give students a way to think about their own writing that can take them beyond rigid rubrics and make them set their own goals for their writing rather than checking off the boxes I’ve set up for them.

But the un-rubric will have to wait for next month.

Image via Created by David Lee Finkle, copyright 2016.

Do you have a mental model for how our Writer’s Tools all fit together and work together? How do you share it with students? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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