Standard Lesson

What's the Purpose?: Examining a Cold Manipulation of Language

11 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Eight 50-minute sessions
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This lesson shares with students the power of language and its control over audience.  Students will analyze how stylistic devices can alter tone and emotions through a study of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and “A Christmas Memory.” Through comparison, students will note how Capote alters his style for different reader responses in his fiction and nonfiction. Students will have a stronger grasp of how close analysis can enable them to manipulate syntax, diction, and tone to achieve different effects on specific audiences for different purposes in their own writing.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Teachers will find this lesson valuable in teaching students to analyze the manipulation of language in the works of Truman Capote as discussed in the March 2011 edition of The English Journal. The article, “A Cold Manipulation of Language,” discusses the importance of identifying the author’s purpose through a close examination of diction and syntax. The activities in this unit will provide teachers the necessary lessons to guide students through this process.

Through a careful analysis of In Cold Blood and “A Christmas Memory,” students can recognize how authorial choices produce different reactions. Once readers contemplate Capote’s purpose in composing both texts, writers can practice altering language to experience the “conditions under which people learn to do new things with language” (NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing). The March 2011 issue of The English Journal discusses the importance of these decisions regarding diction and syntax in more detail. The conclusions always come back to the writer’s intentions and target audience. Teaching students to recognize different readers is challenging, and understanding how to write for that specific audience is even harder.

Regardless of the standards each school district uses, the English curriculum requires teachers to understand that language “varies in form, structure, and production process according to its audience and purpose” (NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing). In recent years, the emphasis on rhetorical strategy has increased, not decreased. Students must be taught how to write for a variety of purposes and audiences in order to meet these objectives.

Through noting Capote’s talent for rhetorical manipulation and purpose for doing so, students can demonstrate the understanding of writing for audience and purpose. More importantly, observing Capote’s success can instruct our students on how to improve their writing.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology



This is an interview by George Plimpton of the New York Times. It was printed in 1966, not very long after the publication of In Cold Blood. In this article, Capote answers questions about his writing style and methods.


  1. Distribute and provide reading assignments for In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Assign Part I before starting this lesson.
  2. Acquire a copy of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” from the 1963 copy of The Selected Writings of Truman Capote. Make a class set for your classes to share.
  3. Print the following handouts for students to be used throughout the lesson.

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • demonstrate knowledge of diction, syntax, figurative language, details, and tone.
  • compare and contrast writing styles.
  • discuss how an author can alter language for a specific purpose and audience.

Session One

Note: Generally, the background of the author is not taught until after the first discussion about the author’s purpose during Session Two to allow students to formulate their own assumptions about the author’s motives as they read Part I.

  1. After students have read Part I of In Cold Blood, have students discuss the major events in n small groups. To make this more interactive, teachers may opt for the Jigsaw Cooperative Learning technique. Students should discuss all of the major events from Part I in these groups.
  2. Next, have a discussion with students about the town of Holcomb, Kansas, the townspeople, and the family that is murdered. Make sure students have a firm understanding of  Part I of In Cold Blood by asking an array of questions about the people in the book. You may wish to have students take notes on the discussion, in addition to answering the questions verbally.  Questions to consider for discussion:
    • Describe Holcomb, Kansas. How does Capote describe the town? Note the diction that is used. Consider the description on page 4: “Down by the depot, the postmistress, a gaunt woman who wears a rawhide jacket and denims and cowboy boots, presides over a falling-apart post office. The depot itself, with its peeling sulphur-colored paint, is equally melancholy…” (Capote 4). What tone would you describe here? (Answer: nostalgic, melancholy, sad) Why do you think Capote might take the reader into the town for the first time and show them this scene – before he introduces the murders? (Answer: Create calmness before the storm. Allow readers to consider that this terrible murder could occur in their town, too.)
    • Nancy – Describe Nancy. (Answer: All-American girl) What details does Capote use to create that image of her perfection? (Answer: making a pie, sewing her own gown) What diction is used to describe Nancy?
    • Mr. Clutter – What details do you think are important that you learned about in this portion of the book? (Answer:  Miscellaneous things will be listed, but, ironically, none of them turn out to be important. Capote is “tricking” the audience, so I have the students write down this list to show his manipulation later when the items do NOT show up as part of the crime.)
    • Perry – Perry is one of the killers. Describe him in comparison to Dick. (Answer: He’s in chronic pain. He seems “slow.”) Who is in control? (Answer: Dick)
    • Dick – How does Dick compare to Perry in terms of strength and power? (Answer: He’s dominant.) Find diction to prove this. This book is a work of nonfiction. Define nonfiction and its characteristics.
  3. Assign Part II for reading before the next session.

Session Two

  1. Students will review the details that they covered yesterday by discussing the definition of nonfiction, characterization of various people, and description of Holcomb.
  2. Truman Capote gave a reason for writing In Cold Blood. In this article with George Plimpton, he explains his desire to create a new genre, a nonfiction novel: Truman Capote: His Life and Works. If possible, pull up the website “The Story Behind the Nonfiction Novel” on a screen with a interactive whiteboard or LCD projector. Explain to the students how Capote wrote the book as the events unfolded. Also inform them that Capote developed a relationship with the townspeople of Holcomb, including the killers and the investigators.
  3. Now that the students know that his purpose was to create a new genre, a nonfiction novel--discuss what this means. Ask the students to look for evidence that might indicate that there are some fictional elements to this book. As students discuss, write down their notes and ideas on the board or chart paper.
    • What details from the Clutters’ final moments does Capote include that would have been impossible for Capote to know? (Answer: Nancy’s preparation for bed that night. Mr. Clutter’s thoughts about Kenyon.) Is this typical of fiction or nonfiction?
    • Capote switches back-and-forth between descriptions of the family and the killers. How does the tone change each time? Would a nonfiction author typically do this? Look at one of the transitions. At the bottom of page 37, Perry is measuring tape to tie up and kill twelve people. What’s the tone? (Answer: Tense, intense) In the next scene, Kenyon is working on a wedding present for his sister, a mahogany hope chest. What’s the tone? (Answer: Sweet) How does this illustrate a change in Capote’s purpose? (He wants the reader to be sympathetic towards Kenyon.)
  4. If we assume that Capote’s purpose is to dramatize a book of nonfiction, what “proof” do we have to support that claim?
  5. Who was his intended audience? How do we know his audience is probably mature, educated adults? What other groups of readers was he hoping to attract? (Literary critics) What can we infer about his approach to writing if we know this about his audience?
    • What kind of tone will they expect to see in a book about a murdered family from Kansas?
    • What do you think they will expect to hear about the Clutter family? The town?
    • What do you think they expect to hear about the killers, Perry and Dick?
    • If you were writing this, what tone do you think would be appropriate? What diction would you consider? Discuss other stylistic choices that would be appropriate if your audience was a group of educated adults.
  6. Have students create two columns in their notebooks or use the ReadWriteThink T-chart printout. In one column, have them list the fictional qualities about the book. In the other column, have them list the nonfictional qualities about the book. At the bottom of the page, ask students to provide a short reflection about their findings.  Additionally, students can write about their current thoughts and emotions regarding the classroom discussion from today.
  7. Assign the Part II: Persons Unknown handout to be completed for the next session.

Session Three

  1. Begin a detailed class discussion about Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. In Part II, Capote focuses on the killers and their past. Readers also get a better understanding of the investigators who work on the crime.
  2. Have students compare the amount of information they know about Dick versus Perry. They will quickly discover that they know more information about Perry because Capote favors him. Discuss what his purpose was.
  3. If Capote’s purpose was simply to create a nonfiction novel, would this favoritism support his goal? (Answer: Yes.) However, is it possible that an author could have more than one purpose? Is it possible that an author’s purpose could change as he writes if he’s developing a relationship with the people during the process? Could Capote’s purpose change? (Answer: Yes) What could his purpose be in developing Perry Smith as a sympathetic person instead of a cold-blooded killer? (Students will give a wide-range of answers, but they usually decide that Capote develops a friendship with Perry Smith.)
  4. Distribute copies of Part II: Persons Unknown handout to every student. Students will be asked to identify specific stylistic devices in Part II for Dick and Perry for comparative purposes. They will find that Capote offers a kinder bias for Perry over Dick. The diction, details, and tone reveal his compassion.
  5. Students should revisit the text to look for details that Capote adds to show Dick’s cruelty – he hits dogs, leaves women, drinks, etc. Capote will include details about Perry’s love of nature, music, and dreams. The diction, figurative language, and tone will equally bias the reader to feel dislike for Dick and compassion for Perry. There are examples for both men on the worksheet.
  6. When complete, students will discuss their findings and Capote’s purpose in his manipulation of language. By this point, students will probably note the author’s emotional connection to Perry Smith.  Students should record their findings in their notebooks or on the reflection that they completed in session two.
  7. Students should read Part III and finish the Part II: Persons Unknown handout before the next session.

Session Four

  1. Discuss the information that students observed from the Part II: Persons Unknown handout. Ask students to find additional textual proof that helps present Perry as a tortured soul. Discuss as a class: What do you think the audience’s reaction was when Capote presented this killer as an innocent victim of society? Is Capote being brave, stupid, or mislead? Why do you think he did this?
  2. Discuss purpose and transition into other reasons that an author may write a book. Share with students about “A Christmas Memory” and discuss how this short story had a rather innocuous purpose.
  3. Students will be given a copy of “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, and they will read this short story to compare style and purpose.
  4. Distribute the handout entitled In Cold Blood and ‘A Christmas Memory".
  5. Identify the audience for “A Christmas Memory.” Since it was originally published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1956, this will not be hard to recognize. (Answer: Young-middle-aged women) What was his purpose? (Answer: Entertain)
  6. Compare the demands of this audience to the readers for In Cold Blood. Compare. In the next session, the class will discuss “A Christmas Memory” and In Cold Blood.

Session Five

  1. Discuss the following in “A Christmas Memory”:
    • For “A Christmas Memory,” remind the class about Capote’s purpose and audience from Session Four.
    • Describe the characters. How does Capote create the characters? (Answer: Diction and syntax) How can you visualize them? (Find examples of figurative language, diction, etc.)
    • Describe how Capote distinguishes the little boy from the old woman in this story? (Answer: It’s through this syntactical list of details, such as this one for the cousin:  “In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry.”)
    • Discuss how Capote creates this character through the manipulation of language to entertain the audience he has selected.
    • What is the overall tone for “A Christmas Memory”? (Answer: Nostalgic) Why is that appropriate for his audience and place of publication?
    • Discuss the figurative language and symbolism that exists in this short story. (Ex: “moss drifts through the branches like gray mist,” “plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind.”) Does that add to the enjoyment of the story? How does this fictional work compare to In Cold Blood in terms of language?
    • What elements make this typical of a work of fiction?
    • After reading half of In Cold Blood, students should have a good understanding of Capote’s writing style. Ask students: What surprises you about the writing style in “A Christmas Memory”? How is the writing style of both selections similar? How is it different? Why? (Answer: Students will find few things that make the writing style similar, but may note the use of dashes that are used for dramatic pauses.)
  2. Return to the handout titled In Cold Blood and “A Christmas Memory” worksheet. Go over the examples with the class, and then have students complete the worksheet on their own. Assign students to read Part III before the next session.

Session Six

  1. Ask students to share ideas and observations from the handout that they completed on In Cold Blood and “A Christmas Memory”.
  2. Students should return to Capote’s purpose for writing “A Christmas Memory” (To entertain young-middle-aged women in a magazine). Students may share their ideas with their neighbors and write a summary of their conclusions to turn in to the teacher.
  3. How does Capote entertain and achieve his purpose in “A Christmas Memory”? How does he create the sweet, loving mood that he wants to create? How does this short story compare to the passages presented from In Cold Blood?
  4. Write this passage from “A Christmas Memory” on the board: “Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: ‘A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie's brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation!’”
    • What word would you use to describe the tone of this specific passage?
    • What’s the author’s purpose in creating that tone here?
    • How does the author use syntax to create that tone? Diction?
    • What punctuation adds to the effect?
    • With a partner, re-write this paragraph so that it reflects a kinder, gentler tone by manipulating the language.
  5. Have a class discussion on how Capote altered his writing style for these two texts.
  6. Assign Part IV for reading to be completed before the next session.

Session Seven

  1. As a class, re-consider Capote’s purpose for writing In Cold Blood since answers may have (probably have) changed after completing Part III. Have students develop a list of all past and present assumptions regarding Capote’s purpose (answers Below):
    • Capote’s purpose may have changed during the writing process as he developed a relationship with the people involved with the case.
    • Capote may have deliberately manipulated the audience by showing sympathy for the killers, especially Perry, to create more publicity for his book.
    • His original goal was to create a “nonfiction novel,” and he never promised to deliver a journalistic account of the event. His manipulation of the events was strategic in order to create a new genre, just like he promised.
    • Perhaps Capote did feel an emotional connection to Perry Smith, and that is why he portrayed him with empathy. (Was he in love with Perry Smith?)
    • NEW - Capote’s purpose was to evoke some level of understanding for the killers so the execution would seem horrific and inhumane. The book is merely a protest against the death penalty. This is illustrated ONLY at the very end of the book. Students who did not finish the book will not know this information.
  2. Since the class has discussed all of the ideas except the last, have students generate a list of details, diction, syntax, tone, and figurative language to support the idea that Capote was protesting the death penalty. (Some answers will include: the title, dramatic sentences, details that were included, etc.)
  3. Discuss the last scene in the book where Capote depicts Al Dewey and Susan Kidwell meeting in the cemetery and reminiscing about the Clutter family. This event never took place. Ask students to write a response to these questions:
    • What effect does this detail have on the reader?
    • Why do you think Capote ended his nonfiction book with a fictional event? What was his purpose in ending the book this way?
    • How else could he (and should he) have ended the book?
  4. Discuss the final assignment with students.  Students will write a RAFT that requires them to address a specific audience for a direct purpose, much as they learned Capote did through this writings.  This assignment allows students the freedom of choice, while still showing that they have learned about audience and purpose.  To help students organize their writing, you may wish to use the RAFT Writing Template to model good qualities of writing and to further explain how a RAFT is done.
  5. Share the RAFT Scoring Guide with students that will be used to assess their knowledge through their RAFT writing.  You may wish to have students create a class example and then collaboratively grade the example RAFT for further clarification.  Either way, allow time for students to ask questions about the assignment and how they will be assessed.

Session Eight

  1. Allow time for students to continue working on their RAFT.  Once students have completed a draft of their writing, have students switch assignments with a partner and grade each other's assignments using the RAFT Scoring Guide assigned for this lesson.
  2. Allow students to make corrections suggested by their peer(s) before collecting a final draft of the writing assignment.  If time allows, have students share their RAFT with their classmates by reading aloud or posting them around the room for a gallery walk.


  • In addition to “A Christmas Memory,” teachers are encouraged to bring in excerpts of the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” also by Capote. Teachers may use excerpts of this novella to compare Capote’s writing style with “A Christmas Memory” and In Cold Blood. Unlike the movie, the story has a bleak and depressing tone, which makes for an excellent comparison to “A Christmas Memory” since it is also a work of fiction.  (Please note that some portions of the short story may be inappropriate for young students.) To compare the writing style, create a column of three passages from the works and ask students to analyze the rhetorical strategies (diction, syntax, etc.) to note any differences, much as they did for In Cold Blood and "A Christmas Memory". Have students discuss the tone of the selections. Students can consider and ponder the author’s purpose and audience when composing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Teachers may opt to show scenes from the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's"  to discuss the differences in tone between the movie and the story, the movie being far different than the text.
  • Have students write an in-class essay explaining the stylistic differences between Capote‟s In Cold Blood and “A Christmas Memory.” Cover two rhetorical strategies from the list (details, diction, figurative language, tone, or syntax) and how they are manipulated for different purposes in these texts.
  • To segue into more RAFT writing, have students select a specific audience from a list. The list can include unique audiences such as: a boy scout group, a courtroom, a kindergarten class, a bar, or an environmental convention. Assign students the task of writing a short speech for this audience about the importance of conserving energy. Have the students consider the age, knowledge, and bias regarding the issue while composing the speech. Ask students to write and deliver a 3-4 minute speech to the audience that they selected.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Students will write a RAFT that requires them to address a specific audience for a direct purpose.  This assignment allows students the freedom of choice, while still showing that they have learned about audience and purpose.
  • Teachers should assess the student’s current level of writing abilities regarding style, focus, organization, and mechanics using the RAFT rubric. Students should be given oral or written (descriptive feedback) from the teacher and allowed an opportunity to re-write the RAFT to do corrections.