Week two: Here come the drums

This week, I learned that not everyone loves fiddling with sentences, and with the flow of a paragraph, as much as I do. You may find that you hate what follows; my workshoppers certainly did. Do it anyway. The torment doesn't last long, and the results can be interesting.

My workshoppers wrote stellar stuff last night. So will you. Hop to it.

Ebb and flow - the Narrative Sentence

Making stuff up, telling tales, is only part of a fiction writer's job. Fiction writers ask questions about the world around them: What if? and How? and Why? They point a flashlight beam at things readers might not ordinarily look at, or fear to see. They look hard at the things they see, and say what it is they've seen. They make things up in order to tell the truth.

Now suppose that I want to tell you about a room in my house-- say the den in which I do most of my work. I could describe it very simply: there's a chair for sitting and reading, a desk, a computer, wall-to-wall carpet. That doesn't tell you much, though, about what sort of room my den is. To explain that, I need to give much more specific detail. I could tell you, for example, that the chair is one of those light, lounge-type chairs from Ikea, with a footstool, and just my size; I could say that the desk is long, with a fold-up top and lots of nooks inside for keeping a random accumulation of pens and other objects-- a little plushie cat, a handful of horse chestnuts I found, fabric swatches for the window blinds I can't get round to ordering.

These details give some sense that my office is a comfortable, well-lived in sort of place, perhaps a bit cluttered. It even suggests a little about who I might be: quiet, sedentary, rather distractable. Simply adding detail, however, doesn't really get at what it's feels like to be in my office, or, more importantly, what it feels like to be me in my office. To do that, I need to think about not just what I describe-- though the choosing of details is an important part of the task. I also need to think about how I go about describing what I see.

Ursula Le Guin says: The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence (Le Guin 39). It's that narrative flow and rhythm-- one line into the next, one idea into the next, one detail into another-- which guides a reader through a story. To tell a reader what it's like to be me sitting in my den, I need to selectively arrange the details and moments I choose so that one flows effortlessly into the next. What I do with each sentence might create a cinematic sort of movement in the reader's mind, like following a series of cuts. Or it might feel more like being inside a character's mind, following his train of thought. It might be an entirely sensory feeling-- a permeating hint of sound, smell, image-- that provides a quiet backdrop to the story (much of the language in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for example, follows a rhythm rather like waves on a beach, to mirror the setting). With the language rhythms I choose, I create movement, or stillness: an atmosphere, a tone to draw the reader in to the story.

Think of it like this: You place the reader in the center of a white square, then draw a painted canvas about the boundary of the square to make walls, and a three dimensional space for the reader to stand in. She's not simply looking at a picture of a room-- she's in the room.

Take another look at Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour". What sort of feeling does the language she uses evoke for you-- is it melancholy, does it make you want to laugh, or wince, or grin ruefully? (There's no real right answer to that question, by the way.) Note also that there's very little dialogue; likewise, there are very few concrete physical descriptions regarding Mrs. Mallard's room (we know there's a chair, a door, a window, things outside the window). What is it, then, that tells you what it's like inside the room, or how the room seems to Mrs. Mallard? What does Chopin do instead to set the scene? What do we learn about Mrs. Mallard, and the world she lives in, as a result of how she sets the scene?

This next series of exercises explores how changing the rhythms of sentences and sentence lengths changes the atmosphere of a scene. It's a good idea to try to use the same paragraph in all three parts; that way, it's easier to see the difference.

Exercise: Narrative Rhythm

Part 1: "I Am García Márquez," Le Guin p. 34.

Even if you've done this one before, do it again: write a paragraph or so of narrative without any punctuation, line breaks, or paragraph breaks whatsoever. Read it aloud, to yourself or in a group. What feeling do you get from the scene? What might it suggest about the narrator, the characters, the setting?

Part 2: "Short and Long," Le Guin p, 47-48.

Now take your unpunctuated paragraph and rewrite it, punctuating it so that the finished result is made up entirely of short, simple sentences-- say seven words or less. Be warned: it is possible to do this exercise by simply sticking in punctuation where it ought to go, but you won't get much out of it doing things that way. Revise the paragraph: find better ways of stringing ideas and lines together. The flow of a paragraph containing short, choppy sentences is much different than the flow of an unpunctuated one; it may require you to rearrange things a bit in order to arrive at something you like. Now how does the passage feel? What's the difference? Do short, choppy sentences suit your scene better? Worse?

Once you've done that, rewrite (rewrite, don't just re-punctuate) the passage a third time, punctuating it so that it's one long sentence: use colons, dashes, parentheses, semicolons-- anything to link the ideas together. What's the effect of changing the language rhythm this way on your scene? What seems to fit what you've written best?

In a week or so you might go back to your paragraph, and revise it in any way that seems fit. Play with rhythms and sentence lengths; see what you like the sound of, and the feel of.

Punctuating long sentences: a few hints
  • Dashes, semicolons, colons, and parentheses keep clauses distinct from other clauses.
  • Colons have two purposes: they set off a main idea from something which further elaborates on that idea, or they signal the beginning of a list. For example, here are some numbers: one, two, three, and seven hundred ninety-seven.
  • A semicolon is end punctuation; it goes where a period would go. The clauses on either side of a semicolon should be directly related to each other in some way, usually in that one elaborates upon the other. The structure of a clause on one side of a semicolon also should (ideally) mirror the structure of the one on the other side.
  • A semicolon can also separate elements of a list the way commas do, if each list element is long, or already contains commas. For example: here is the first item in my list, and you'll notice it's very long; a second item follows, and it too includes a comma; here's a third.
  • Dashes and parentheses are similar, and can contain a sentence fragment, a list or even a single word. Dashes signal something like a tonal interruption. Parentheses, meanwhile, signal something more like an aside to the reader, or a whisper.

Say it once, say it twice, play it again: Repetition

Repetition in fiction writing-- or in nonfiction, or poetry-- isn't the same thing as redundancy. Redundancy usually means the unnecessary overuse of a word, or the restating of an idea the text already makes evident. Rather, repetition is a rhythmic device: it can give emphasis to an image, create a mood, or lend a certain sound to a passage. Used wisely, it can be an effective way to establish the tone of a story, or reinforce its thematic elements.

Here are a couple of brief examples. The first is simply redundant, involving the ineffective and completely unnecessary repetition of a word:

A Redundant Bus Ride

Adria took a seat on the bus, faced the front. Her face reflected in the window beside her as she watched the streetlights go by. It was late. She couldn't face the long walk home from the bus stop, or the look on her mother's face when at last she arrived. What would her mother say, when she arrived?

The second passage works a little better; its repetitions reinforce the main character's plight, and hint at how she must feel.

Repetiton on a Beach

She'd waited three days without a sign of any other living thing-- not a boat, not a person, not even an animal of any kind. For three days she wandered up and down the beach, up and down, back and forth along the long, grey line of sand stretching from one end of the narrow island to the other. It had not stopped raining in all that time. She shivered, hunched her shoulders, kept walking. Three days. And three days. And three more days. Could she wait that long?
Now you try it.

Exercise: Narrative Repetition

Parts 1 & 2: "Again and Again and Again," Le Guin p. 56-7.

Write a paragraph to a page of narrative which repeats one of the following:
  • a noun, verb, or adjective
  • the structure or rhythm of a particular sentence, or part of a sentence
This exercise involves turning your mind's ear up to eleven. It's about the way sentences sound next to each other, and the effect of repeating sounds. It's also an exercise in finding the important bits, or the interesting bits, of a paragraph which are worth re-emphasis. Don't simply use the same word over and over again-- find a reason to repeat. Reinforce an idea, create a rhythm; whatever you repeat will affect the mood of the passage.

Bonus points for using both sorts of repetition at once.

The third part of this exercise calls for the use of structural repetition: where something echoes something said or done in another part of the story. This last part may take you some time; feel free to use it in your work on the assignment for next week.


  • Read Gabriel García Márquez "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," and Le Guin Chapters 3&4.
  • Le Guin exercise p. 56-57, "Again and Again and Again": Write a short narrative passage, up to 1000 words, which makes use of some of the repetitive elements Le Guin discusses in chapter 4. This assignment does not need to follow directly on the heels of the previous one, unless that seems appropriate to you; feel free, however, to use the same characters and narrative situation you used before, or even to expand what you've written already. Jump in anywhere, or write something completely new.

Nota Bene: The links to the exercises go back to the notes I made on each chapter of the book a while ago; there you'll find the instructions for each, and what I came up with when I did them myself. That stuff-- which has a lot to do with my own writing and teaching prep, and not much to do with then workshop proper-- may or may not prove useful to you. Often it's much better to do things on your own first, rather than checking ahead of time to see how someone else did them. As I've said, there's no real right or wrong here; the point is to use these exercises in ways which are helpful to you.


spacedlaw said...

Not sure I shall have time to do any of this before December, you know. I started a bit on the first workshop part, but I shall be shortly wy behind. Good that the assignements are not going anywher: I shall be able to visit them later.
Good thing about the punctuation rules. They are what I understood them to be in a instinctive sort of way, so that's good news.

Jess said...

Yep, it'll be here! Lots of time to come back if you can't do it now. :)

Often helps if you read a lot to begin with-- you become used to the way certain marks are used once you see them often enough. I like to recommend Virginia Woolf especially, because she does some very complicated, unexpected things with punctuation-- but all very carefully thought out.

Dragonsally said...

I'll be doing all this in december too- if my hands still work after typing 50,000 words that is. Wish I'd had time to read LeGuins book before I started nano...

Jess said...

Well, as I say-- this stuff isn't going anywhere. :) You could try a chapter a week, or every couple of weeks, with Le Guin (that's actually what she recommends in the introduction). They're very short, and it's really an easy read. I'm just powering through with the workshop because we've only got six weeks to get it all in.

As for NaNoWriMo, ladies: 2000 words a day is not as much as you'd think. We all easily hit that figure daily just commenting on Lorraine's blog! ;)

Today's word verification word is toroo. Say it with me: toroooooo.

Dragonsally said...

torooo - sounds remakably like the Aussie farewell of hoorooo
Good idea Jess.

oh, we should all post the word verifications. zoommoni

zoo mummy?
zoo money?

How easy is it to come up with ideas, eh?