Tag Archives: literary language

How to Write Sentences that Offer Unexpected Views

7 Jul
Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles writer who directs the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. Her Facebook posts about her son were republished in Rockwell's Camera Phone.

Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles writer who directs the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. Her Facebook posts about her son were republished in Rockwell’s Camera Phone.

I recently heard a discussion on a panel of writers, editors, and agents about the difference between literary and non-literary fiction. Someone said, as they always do when this question is posed, that literary fiction puts more focus on sentences, that it’s more interested in language. I agree with this statement, mostly, but it’s also vague. What does it mean to be interested in language? What do great sentences look like? The answer isn’t as clear as we’d like to think. Does language mean big words, as my freshman composition students like to think? Does it mean “poetic” language (whatever that means), as I often heard as a MFA student? Here’s another possibility: literary language is active on a sentence level. The very structure of the sentences elicits a response from the reader—not an intellectual response, though that may be the case as well, but an uncontrolled grunt or gasp. Good sentences catch our attention. Some of the most interesting sentences I’ve read lately were written by Natashia Deón. They were originally written as Facebook posts but were republished as stand-alone pieces in Rockwell’s Camera Phone, where you can read them here and here.

How the Sentences Work

Here is the first post, containing four sentences:

People will ask, “If your son uses more sign language than you know and doesn’t speak, how do you know what he wants?” This, just now, means, “Don’t go to the post office, mom, unless you leave your cell phone with me and another bowl of Cheerios. Dry. No milk.”

I’m claiming these are beautiful, interesting sentences, and perhaps you find this surprising. The language is straightforward, not lyric, and describes mundane things: sign language, post office, Cheerios. So what makes it noteworthy? The answer, in my view: The way the sentences pivot. The first sentence (“People will ask…”) asks a simple question. The second sentence answers it, and that answer is given in a direct way: “This, just now, means.” And what it means it something simple and clear: “leave your cell phone with me and another bowl of Cheerios.” But then something happens in the third and fourth sentences. The answer in the second sentence is clarified: “Dry. No milk.” Again, the language is simple and clear, but it has also moved in an unexpected direction. Remember, this information is being communicated from son to mother through sign language that only one of them knows. In other words, the first sentence has set up a problem: the speaker can’t understand the language her son speaks. But when we’re told what he’s saying, it’s incredibly specific. The incongruence between the problem and the answer isn’t clear until “Dry. No milk.” In that moment, the sentences pivot. They’ve been moving along in one direction and then, like a hinge, they swing open to offer a new view: the speaker intuits what her son wants because she loves and knows him well, not because of his literal ability to communicate. Here is another post, containing two sentences. Watch for the pivot:

There’s a tiny square of light that comes through our living room window in the morning at about 7:45 a.m. and stays for only about 5 minutes. Big Boy waits for it every day.

Again, the first sentence is clear and straightforward. So is the second sentence. But the connection is unexpected. The square of light is mundane and momentary, barely worth notice—except to the speaker’s son. The sentences are constructed and paired to highlight this unexpected connection. There is a pivot point, and the second sentence swings open.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure sentences around a pivot point, using the posts by Natashia Deón as a model. We’ll use two different approaches. Here’s the first:

  1. Pose a question. Make it something straightforward but not too simple, answerable with yes or no. Make it require explanation. Try beginning with “How do you…”
  2. Answer the question (Part 1). Make your answer just as straightforward as the question: “”Like this. Be specific. Imagine that you’re actually speaking to someone. If you answered them with metaphor or abstraction, they’d probably look at you funny. End the sentence with closure so that it can be read as a stand-alone answer. How do you ____? Like this: _____.
  3. Answer the question (Part 2). Add a clarifying note to the answer. This is your pivot. Add a detail that is unexpectedly specific or that shifts the answer in some way. For instance, if the answer takes place within a particular frame (day/night/in a house/in a park), use the pivot to shift the answer out of that frame. Here’s an example: “How do learn to keep your balance on a skateboard? Like this: Stand on it, every day. On the edge of your bathtub.” I don’t make any claim for these sentences’ greatness. But I hope that you can see the construction, the pivot.

Here’s a second approach:

  1. Make a statement about something that exists or happens in the world. It doesn’t really matter what the statement is about. The subject can be small (Water is dripping from the ceiling) or large (Greece is an island in Europe). It can even be vague (Love is kind).
  2. Make a second statement about the subject that contains a word or idea that isn’t implicit in the first statement. In Deón’s sentences about the light, the word wait isn’t implied by the first statement; the light is just predictably there. But when the second sentence introduces wait, we see the light in a new way, as something fleeting and worth seeing. That’s the power of the pivot. Here are two examples. Water is dripping from the ceiling. My brother won’t get out of the shower. The first sentence suggests urgency. The second sentence (and I make no claim for its artfulness) introduces the idea that someone could ignore the emergency. Greece is an island in Europe. When it’s underwater, the entire continent could go under. Again, this is not particularly artful, yet the second sentence does flip the relationships implicit in the first sentence. In the first, Greece is small, but in the second, it’s powerful. (And that is the extent of my political wisdom.) So, think about the relationships or attitudes present in the first sentence. How can you write a second sentence that introduces a contradictory or unexpected relationship or attitude?

Good luck and have fun.

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