instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

5 Steps to a Five:
The AP Language and Composition Exam


Developing the Opening Paragraph
After you have marked your passage, review the prompt. Now, choose the elements you are able to identify and analyze which reveal support Capote’s view. To demonstrate, we have chosen structure, tone and selection of detail.

Now, it’s time to write. Your opening statement is the one which catches the eye of the reader and sets the expectation and tone of your essay. Spend time on your first paragraph to maximize your score. A suggested approach is to relate a direct reference from the passage to the topic. Make certain that the topic is very clear to the reader. This reinforces the idea that you fully understand what is expected of you and what you will communicate to the reader. As always, identify both the text and its author in this first paragraph.

Now, you try it. Write your own first paragraph for this prompt.

Write quickly, referring to your notes.

Let’s check what you’ve written:
Have you included author, title?
Have you addressed “Capote’s view of Holcomb”?
Have you specifically mentioned the elements you will refer to in your essay?

Here are three sample opening paragraphs which address each of the above criteria:


In the opening of In Cold Blood Truman Capote presents a picture of the town of Holcomb, Kansas. Through structure, selection of detail and a detached tone, he makes it clear that he views Holcomb as dull and ordinary.


Holcomb, Kansas. Holcomb, Kansas. Even the sound of the place is boring and uninteresting. And, Truman Capote seems to agree with this in his opening to In Cold Blood. I, too, would be inclined to pass by this sleepy, bland and undistinguished village. This view is developed through the author’s tone, structure and selection of detail.


“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Sante Fe tracks, drama in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped here.” This is the town of Holcomb, Kansas. Using a reportorial tone, specific structure and selection of detail, Truman Capote introduces the reader to this unremarkable hamlet in the opening of In Cold Blood.


In Cold Blood is a very appropriate title, for Truman Capote presents a cold and unemotional view of Holcomb, Kansas. His tone, structure and selection of detail create a distant and detached picture of this desolate farm community.

Each of these opening paragraphs is an acceptable beginning to this AP Language and Composition exam essay. Look at what each of the paragraphs has in common:

Each has identified the title and author.
Each has stated which stylistic elements will be used.
Each has stated the purpose of analyzing these elements.

But, look at what is different about the opening paragraphs.

Sample A restates the question without elaborating. It is to the point and correct, but it does not really pique the reader’s interest. (Use this type of opening if you feel unsure or uncomfortable with the prompt.)

Sample B reflects a writer who really has a voice. He/she has already determined Capote’s view and indicates that he/she understands how this view is created.

Sample C immediately places the reader into the passage by referring specifically to it.

Sample D reveals a mature, confident writer who is not afraid to make
his/her own voice heard.

NOTE: There are many other types of opening paragraphs which could also do the job. Into which of the above samples could your opening paragraph be classified?



What should I include in the body of the poetry essay?

1. Obviously, this is where you present your interpretation and the points you wish to make that are related to the prompt.

2. Use specific references and details from the poem.
    Don't always paraphrase the original; refer directly to it.

    • Place quotation marks around those words/phrases which you extract from the poem.

3. Use "connective tissue" in your essay to establish adherence to the question.

    • Use the repetition of key ideas in the prompt and in your opening paragraph.

    • Try using "echo words" (synonyms)
    (i.e. insight can be inference/observation/perception; fear can be apprehension/insecurity)

    • Use transitions between paragraphs.

To understand the process, carefully read the following sample paragraphs. Each develops one of the categories and techniques/devices asked for in the prompt. Notice the specific references and the "connective tissue." Also, notice that details which do no apply to the prompt have been ignored.


This paragraph develops poetic devices.

"...Black sneakers laced with white in a complex pattern like a set of intentional scars” is the jarring simile Olds uses to establish the relationship between the woman and the "boy" on the subway. Immediately the poetic device implies the bondage and pain of the oppressed minority and the deliberate complexity of race relations. This idea of interwoven lives is further developed by the metaphor which links both as "molecules stuck in a rod of light." The youth, however, is compared to a reptile with "hooded lids" and all the fear and repulsion associated with this creature is transferred to the boy who is hiding his true intentions with such a look. The woman follows her fearful insights with still another extreme simile - worrying about "this life he could so easily break across his knee like a stick." Still, she proves the complexity of her thoughts by creating a sympathetic metaphor to ponder "the rod of his soul - the heart of a seedling" yearning to grow into the light.


This paragraph develops imagery.

The images in the poem are predominantly drawn from the contrast between light and dark. "Black sneaker," "white laces," "rods of light moving through darkness" are all images which immediately establish the contrast which is at the heart of the meaning of the poem. This juxtaposition becomes reality in lines 20-22 when we learn that "he is black and I am white..." The problem is how the "white" profits from his "darkness." [23] What should be light, "the beams of the nation's heart," is murderous, and he "as black as cotton," absorbs this heat. This angry contrast leads the speaker to her insight about her life in lines 26-28. Empathizing with the black youth, the narrator moves beyond her prejudices and finds promise in the last three lines which see the dark being born into the light.


This paragraph develops organization.

The organization of "On the Subway" is rather linear. Olds' narrator proceeds from a frightened observer to a philosophical questioner to finally a mature, sympathetic forecaster of the promise of the young, black man. The first thirteen lines provide the interior monologue of a woman who sits across from a young, black male and looks him over from head to toe. Beginning in line ten with the words "or if," she begins to move deeply into the hidden person across from her, with this "introspection" ending in lines 14-16 with her questioning who actually has power over whom. Line 18 presents a true shift from personal observation to an almost societal conscience which is sympathetic to the plight of all blacks in American as seen in lines 21-26. Bringing the reader back to the opening section of the poem, the speaker intimates the promise of the young man with "the rod of his as the heart of a seedling/ready to thrust up into any available light." [32-34]

Refer to our list of recommended poets and try out some of the other possible poetry essay prompts, whether by yourself, with a study group or with your class. Look for poems similar in length and complexity.

NOTE: Take a look at the last line of Sample B on imagery:
    “Empathizing with the black youth, the narrator moves beyond her prejudices and finds promise in the last three lines which see the dark being born into the light."
This final sentence would be just fine as the CONCLUSION to the essay. A conclusion does not have to be a paragraph. It can be the writer's final remark, observation, or reference in a sentence or two.