Tag Archives: writing with style

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!


How to Describe a Thing Without Naming It

14 Jan
Justin Carroll's story "Darryl Strawberry" was published in Gulf Coast 26.1. The story is about neither the Mets nor Darryl Strawberry.

Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” was published in Gulf Coast 26.1.

The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.

A perfect example of the effect of viewpoint on prose style is Justin Carroll’s story, “Darryl Strawberry.” It was published in Gulf Coast, and you can read the first pages here.

How the Story Works

Every story contains a moment of necessary description: of a room, a table, a character. The way we often begin the passage is by identifying the thing being described: kitchen, table, the person’s name. This direct approach has two potential problems, though. First, it can be boring. Second, it aligns with our preconceived ideas of a kitchen, table, or what we already know about the character. Because it’s predictable, the passage can have a tendency to hew to and repeat predictable words. So, to write lively, unexpected prose, we need to find a less direct approach.

The following passage from Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” illustrates this less direct approach. This passage comes after the main character, Kidd Fenner, has found a note from his son that says, “I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?” Fenner then gets in the car, and this is the scene that follows: (Notice the important, even necessary, words that Carroll avoids.)

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line. On nice days, he and Nora picnicked by the fence and gave Henry encouraging fist pumps before he stepped onto the mound. Christ, Fenner wonders, how long since then? No more than two years ago, which might as well have been forever.

The words that he avoids, of course, are baseball and field. In short, Carroll has avoided naming the thing that he is describing. The result of this, at least in my reading, is that I was momentarily disoriented. (Since when does a Safeway parking lot have bleachers? But the details quickly oriented me. Dugout is pretty place-specific.) Because of that initial confusion, I paid closer attention. If Carroll had written baseball field in the first sentence, I would’ve scanned the rest, thinking, “Of course a baseball field has bleachers and a dugout.” An editor might have encouraged Carroll to cut those details and skip right to the line about encouraging fist pumps. If that had happened, what would be lost? Perhaps a sense of intimacy. The details draw us into a small but important moment. If the prose had just barreled onto the field, we might not appreciate or even notice that moment because we wouldn’t be paying attention.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing a description that makes the reader pay attention, using “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll as a model:

  1. Choose the place. It can anywhere: indoors or outdoors, a room in a house or the house itself, a public place such as a store or a particular part of that place such as an aisle or the parking lot.
  2. Write a sentence that names the place. Be direct and simple: “The parking lot was full,” or “The kitchen was warm and full of inviting smells.”
  3. Ban yourself from using any of the words (minus articles and linking verbs) in that sentence. You’ve established the most predictable words that can be used to describe your place. Now, you can find better words.
  4. Decide where your narrator or observer will stand and write a sentence that states this. Even if your novel is in third person, even if it doesn’t privilege the point of view of one character, you can still position the point of origin of the description. If the observer is in the middle of your place, the description will read differently than if the observer is standing at the side or edge or watching from a distance. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer, Kidd Fenner, is “parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot.”
  5. List, with brief descriptions, the most outstanding elements of the place. By outstanding, I mean, literally, the elements that stand out. Choosing those elements will depend on the limits placed on your observer. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer is limited by lack of light. But not all limits must be physical. They could also be emotional or mental: in other words, give your observer a pair of rose or other-colored glasses. Don’t dwell too long on any particular element of the description. Keep listing and describing new elements until you feel the urge to comment upon one.
  6. Comment on a description. In “Darryl Strawberry,” after the observer notices the mound, base paths, and fence, he remembers giving his son fist pumps before he pitched. Then, he thinks, “Christ…how long since then?” It’s memories and comments like those that are the description’s entire reason for being. They advance both the story and our understanding of the characters and their conflicts. That advancement can only happen, though, if the prose forces the reader to pay attention.

This same process can be used for describing a person—or anything, in fact. The goal is the same: avoiding predictable sentences in order to write unexpected ones. You may find that you’ve written at least one sentence that surprises you. If it surprises you, it will likely surprise the reader as well.

Good luck!

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