Six impossible things

The Lego Theory, Part 4

Before I go on, I would like to remind everybody once again that the vast majority of authors do not consciously and deliberately micro-manage their writing to wring every last bit of strength out of every word’s position, rhythm, etc. Most of the time, we work by feel – this way feels better/stronger than that way. I personally find that it helps to know why things work, especially when one is struggling with those one or two places in a piece that just don’t seem to be working, but I rarely do this kind of conscious analysis on my own stuff, and when I do, it’s pretty much always in a revisions pass.

Back to phrases.

I’ve already talked about position and rhythm. The third key property of phrases is length. Theoretically, you can string together as many nouns or verbs, or stuff in as many adverbs and adjectives, as you want in a phrase, but it doesn’t take long to overload something this short. If you have to wade through six or seven adjectives/adverbs to get to the noun, you can lose track. On the other hand, you can manipulate how much impact a phrase has by making it longer (less) or shorter (more).

Length gets more important the further up the chain of units you go, in part because the amount of flexibility you have increases. A phrase can only get to five or six words before it starts to collapse under its own weight and becomes useless; two words is as short as you can get (I think; I’m not sure a single word counts as a “phrase,” no matter how much information and context is packed into it). But sentences can be as short as one word or go on for hundreds of words, and so can paragraphs, allowing the writer a lot more room to create different effects by changing the length of a sentence or paragraph (of which more when we get there).

Next on the “properties” list comes contrast. At the phrase level, most of the contrast comes from word choices – putting a long word next to a short one, or a color adjective next to one for smell; changing the rhythm in a longer phrase; and so on. But once again, the further up the levels you get, the more possibilities for contrast you have – not just word choice within phrases, but the contrast between two phrases, between phrases and sentences, between different kinds of sentences, and so on.

Many writers think of contrast (if they think of it at all) as a matter of content– the difference between action scenes and emotional ones, for instance. That’s certainly one aspect of contrast, but it only becomes important when you get way up in the middle levels and start talking about types of scenes. Contrast can be really useful at much lower levels of structure. Think of that big red Lego dinosaur. Now picture it with just two of the red Legos replaced by pale pink ones. You can get this same effect in prose by suddenly changing one or more of the properties (rhythm, length, etc.) through a change in word choice.

Contrast loses most of its impact if there is too much of it, too often. Two pale pink Legos on a giant red dinosaur would stand out because of the contrast. If, however, the dinosaur is built of Legos that change color every two or three blocks, none of the colors would stand out much and instead you’d get a confetti effect. I’m not sure what you’d call this in prose, but it certainly happens now and again, and if for some reason the writer is actively trying to make contrast less important in a piece, using a confetti effect is at least as useful as trying to avoid any contrast at all (and possibly much easier to do).

Phrases and their properties are important because they are a big part of what creates complexity in clauses and sentences, and all of their properties – position/order, rhythm, length, and contrast – apply to every unit of English from phrases on up. In other words, just as the first word in a phrase is a little stronger because of its position, so is the first sentence in a paragraph, the first paragraph in a chapter or scene, the first chapter of a book (hence the whole concept of the “hook”), etc. There’s a rhythm within phrases, within sentences, within paragraphs. Shorter sentences and paragraphs have more impact than longer ones (if they aren’t used so much that there’s no contrast, see confetti effect, above). I’ll talk about this more when I finally get to some of the things you can do with all this stuff, which will probably be after the next post, if people are still with me.

On to clauses and sentences. I warned you this was going to be long.

  1. It may be long, but I am learning a lot. Thank you.

    • Joelle – You’re welcome.

      Alex – You’re getting ahead of me a little – I’m going to talk about variation in the next post, when I get to sentences. 😉

  2. I have a real challenge with sentence and paragraph length. I tend to fall into patterns of length and so it all ends up feeling like the reader is riding a horse. When editing I have to go through and break things up or merge them. And I have to get rid of words like “so” and “Then” to stop my writing from sounding like a police report. 😉

  3. I’m really enjoying these posts in general and the Legos analogy in particular. I find that I have to pay the most attention to varying my sentence length. Left to my own devices I will always write long sentences, which usually start or end with phrases. There’s nothing like a mile long senetence to convolute an issue or muddle an action.

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