How to Control Narrative Pace with Sentence Structure

4 Feb
Jennifer Dubois' novel Cartwheel has been called...

The writing in Jennifer Dubois’ novel Cartwheel was described in The New York Times as “a pleasure: electric, fine-tuned, intelligent, conflicted.”

Maybe you’ve had this experience: you’re deep into a gripping novel, hooked by the plot and dying to know what happens next, when you realize that you aren’t actually reading the book anymore. Instead, you’re skimming pages. The writing is still strong; you’d like to slow down and enjoy the sentences, but you can’t. You need to find out what comes next right now.

As a writer, this might seem like a victory: you’ve written a page-turner. But this type of reading also makes many of the actual words in the book superfluous. Wouldn’t it be nice to set an intriguing plot into motion and keep the reader’s attention on each sentence and detail?

This is precisely the feat that Jennifer Dubois has pulled off in her novel Cartwheel. It was inspired by, though not based on, the Amanda Knox trial, and has been called a “tabloid tragedy elevated to high art,” by Entertainment Weekly. You can read the opening pages here (click on “Look Inside”).

How the Story Works

If the plot of Cartwheel pushes us forward, making us want to turn the page, the sentences slow us down, directing our attention to nuances. The sentences are not long or difficult to read, but they are structurally complex, filled with interruptions and asides. Notice how many of the sentences in the first paragraph do not move in a straight line:

Andrew’s plane landed at EZE, as promised, at seven a.m. local time. Outside the window, the sun was a hideous orb, bleeding orange light through wavering heat. Andrew was still woozy from his two Valiums and two glasses of wine, the bare minimum that he needed to fly these days—to anywhere, for anything, though especially for here, for this. The irony of being a professor of international relations who was terrified of international travel was not lost on him (no irony was lost on him, ever), but it would not be helped. Neither could it be mitigated by the knowledge—always understood but now finally believed—that the things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about.

The sentences use punctuation (commas, dashes, and parentheses) like detour signs. Some of these detours are long (“no irony was lost on him ever”), some are short (“as promised”), and some are a string of short detours (“to anywhere, for anything, though especially here, for this). The information they deliver varies widely. The phrase “no irony was lost on him ever” tells us a great deal about character. “Always understood but now finally believed” neatly lays out an eternal, psychological truth.

But what about the first one: “as promised”?

Planes land according to schedule all the time. Or they don’t, and no one is put out except in minor ways. Or the consequences are serious (missed connections, overnight stays in unfamiliar cities) but so common that they’re rarely noteworthy. If this paragraph was being discussed in a workshop, someone would almost certainly suggest cutting the phrase. And yet those two words—”as promised—perform an essential function. They force the reader to slow down, if only a little, and this is important because subsequent sentences will ask the reader to slow down even more. To some extent, the entire novel is about slowing down. It’s told from the point of view of multiple characters, each perspective often correcting or complicating the others. As much as the story moves forward, it also moves downward, deepening our understanding of the characters. If we’re racing along, flipping pages, we might miss most of what the novel offers. And so the sentences slow the reader to the pace required to truly enjoy the book.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing three short sentences that contain detours, using the opening paragraph from Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois as a model:

Sentence 1: Taking nothing for granted

  1. Write a sentence about a character entering a scene. This kind of sentence tends to drive writers crazy: walking characters through doors or into rooms, moving them from one place to another, sitting them down to a meeting or dinner or date. It’s a mechanical part of any story. Keep it simple, and then we’ll add to it.
  2. Suggest that some part of that sentence could have happened (or did happen) differently. Here is what Dubois writes: “Andrew’s plane landed at EZE, as promised, at seven a.m. local time.” The “as promised” suggests that the plan could have arrived late or early. It’s a small detail, but it makes a mechanical, dull sentence take the reader by surprise and, perhaps, a bit uneasy. So, if your sentence is “He walked into the room,” you could change it to “He walked—tripped, really—into the room.” Notice what a difference this makes, how it catches your attention.

Sentence 2: Adding a postscript about desire

  1. Write a sentence about something a character needs or wants. The desire could be for anything: a Coke, a different job, somebody to love. It might be helpful to locate the character in a place, like this: “The sun was shining down on the stadium, and she desperately needed a Coke.”
  2. Add a note at the end about the desired thing. Here is what Dubois writes: “Andrew was still woozy from his two Valiums and two glasses of wine, the bare minimum that he needed to fly these days—to anywhere, for anything, though especially for here, for this.” The passage after the hyphen makes it clear how much he needs the Valium and wine. So, if your sentence is “She needed a Coke,” you could add, “She needed a Coke—right here, right now, even if it cost her twenty dollars.” This kind of postscript mimics the way we often talk in real life—children and adults alike.

Sentence 3: Interrupting your own train of thought

  1. Write a sentence about a character’s personality. You might identify a trait or a tendency that exists despite the difficulties it causes: “Another drink would cause him to start shooting off his mouth, but he walked to the bar anyway” or “She’d been told that correcting people in public was unbecoming, but Afghanistan and Iraq were definitely not neighbors.”
  2. Add an aside that interrupts the flow of the sentence entirely. Dubois writes, “The irony of being a professor of international relations who was terrified of international travel was not lost on him (no irony was lost on him, ever), but it would not be helped.” The parenthetical aside gives the character a measure of self-awareness, which can be useful later in a story when the character must make an important decision. An easy way to add an aside is to let the character comment on his/her own trait or tendency. So, my sentence about correcting people in public might become “She’d been told that correcting people in public was unbecoming (those twerps who worked as aids to powerful men were always insisting on manners), but Afghanistan and Iraq were definitely not neighbors.”

By writing sentences with detours, you may find that your story becomes looser, with room for characters to move about and think and forget, even momentarily, about the plot you’ve put them in. Perhaps you’ll write a page-turner that makes the reader stick to every word out of fear of missing something great.

Good luck!

4 Responses to “How to Control Narrative Pace with Sentence Structure”

  1. Victoria K Gallagher February 11, 2014 at 8:02 p02 #

    Thank You. This has been an enjoyable and a learned, read. It’s great the way you have dissected each point into small chunks, which for me, is easier to understand. You’ve helped a lot, Thanks!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Jennifer Dubois | Read to Write Stories - February 6, 2014

    […] To read the opening pages of Cartwheel and an exercise on controlling narrative pace with sentence structure, click here. […]

  2. Meetup 141: Narrative Pace – Sharath Komarraju - July 21, 2014

    […] it thoroughly. In summary, we looked at ways to deliberately control the pace of our writing. Sentence structure, word lengths, and effective paragraphing were discussed as possible methods by which an author can […]

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