Six impossible things

The Lego Theory, Part 6

A quick recap, for those who are getting a little lost:

Fiction (and the English language generally) is built up by combining smaller units into larger and larger ones according to various rules and principles, the same way you build large, intricate Lego models by putting a few relatively simple blocks together into more and more varied shapes.

Moving from smallest to largest, the basic building blocks of fiction are: words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, sections, books, multi-book story arcs.

Each building block has properties that writers can use to make their prose more effective. So far, I’ve talked about specificity, sound, and strength/significance; position/order, rhythm, length, and contrast; variation, and complexity.

And I’m only up to sentences, and I’m not done with them yet.

There are two more properties of sentences that I still want to mention, and the first of them is pattern. It’s a little more complicated than some of the other properties, because you can create a pattern out of any of the properties I’ve talked about so far, and not just one at a time, either. Even in a short, simple sentence like “he hunted,” you have the alliterative pattern of the opening h’s. More commonly, you see patterns of repetition made by using the same words or structure in the phrases and clauses that get put together to make a complex sentence:  “He hunted them with sharpened forks, with crumbling sealing-wax, with enameled thimbles, and with opaque glassware.” “I told you in French; I told you in German; I told you in Japanese and Arabic and Thai.”

Patterns, especially simple, repetitive patterns, give more emphasis and strength to whatever is included in the pattern. Setting up a pattern and then breaking it, partially breaking it, or extending it, can make a sentence work even better, especially if there’s a subtle pattern underlying an obvious one. In “I told you…,” I was deliberately setting up a repetitive structural pattern: “I told you X, I told you Y” – and then extending it with “I told you A and B and C.” What I didn’t realize until I got to this paragraph and looked back at it was that I also had a pattern of syllables going, from one-syllable “French,” to two in “German” to three with “Japanese” and “Arabic.”

And as soon as I realized that, I tried changing the last one to “Mandarin,” to carry the syllable pattern one step further, but I didn’t like it. I tried a couple of other languages…and then I realized that the problem was that following the pattern of syllables had set up a rhythm, and that the reason I wasn’t happy was that all of my three-syllable language choices meant that I was ending the sentence on a weak beat. Going back to a one-syllable language brought the whole pattern back around to the beginning while also providing a more emphatic closure by ending on a strong beat.

In a story, which word I’d pick would depend on what came next. If it was “…And you didn’t listen, not once!”, I’d go with “Thai,” because the stronger ending shuts off the list of languages in preparation for moving on to the next part of the complaint. If what came next was “I sent you notes, I sent you letters, I sent you articles and novellas and haiku,” then I’d probably go with “Mandarin” at the end of the first sentence, because I wouldn’t want to shut off the pattern just yet.”

Which brings me to the last property of sentences that I want to talk about: content. It’s last because it’s the thing most people think about first when it comes to writing sentences. After all, the whole point of a sentence is to get an idea or image across to the reader.

What people sometimes forget is that you can look at content in much the same way as any other property of a sentence: as a way of adjusting how much impact you want a sentence (or paragraph or scene or whatever from there on up) to have on the reader. People tend to react more strongly to sentences about exploding volcanoes than they do to sentences about doing the dishes. Yes, you can use other properties and word choices to make the exploding volcano feel less important and the dishes feel more important, but you have to work at it.

As you move further up the levels, into paragraphs and scenes, content (like variation and complexity and contrast) becomes more and more important because there are so many more ways to use it over a wider and wider range. The context – the wider content of the paragraph and the scene and the overall story – has a lot to do with whether the volcanic explosion is a sudden, high-impact shock, or whether it comes as almost a relief after a long, slow build-up of expectations, or whether it’s just one more disaster in a string of disasters that’s gone on so long it’s become the norm.

I can stop here, or I can do one or two more posts. Really, from sentences on up, it’s more about what kinds of things you want to build with your Legos than it is about the individual blocks and groups of blocks.

  1. According to my Creative Writing last semester, in certain types of old English and Norse poems, the poet would use an alliterative pattern instead of rhyming. Your post made me think of that. 🙂

  2. Please continue with the explanation, it’s very interesting.
    I’m not a writer, but I really like this structured explanation of how language works and how it can be used to better express what one wants it to say.
    Though it won’t be easy to learn to look at anything I have to write or say in this thorough way, it would be really useful on some occasions!

  3. Please at least do paragraphs and scenes — I have been looking forward to the bigger building blocks since you started. I love this series.

  4. Oh, please do continue! I’m learning so much and I’m very curious as to what exactly are the properties of the larger building blocks.

  5. I know I am finding this series very helpful, so I would appreciate however many more posts you want to give us in it!

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