How to Write Better Sentences 8—stress and flow

Dear readers, thank you for coming with me through the summer. Colleges return to classrooms come September 1st, and with them me. I plan to end this series by Labour Day, when I’ll be teaching again full-time-ish, and I have only two or three more posts remaining to round off this sequence of techniques. I may return to the series later, especially once I’ve taught a class over the autumn on this very subject, at Rutgers—you don’t really understand a thing until you’ve tried to pass it on. But for now, and unless the unexpected appears, we are coming towards the end. Other subjects will concern this blog come September.

However, if you’ve absorbed all the logical, syntactical and grammatical methodology in the previous posts, you still may not have a complete grasp on style. One huge area, as yet untouched in this series, is sound. Prose only pretends at silence. Unlike formal poetry, with its earnest signposts to guide the reader’s ear, prose acts all cool, hanging out back with a cigarette, not caring, apparently, whether or not you overhear its music. And often, literary prose does try to half-efface itself, by creating a rhythm that pulls the reader along effortlessly, a style that blends repetition and alteration. If a reader ever hears a specific sentence, in this type of prose style, it is only as part of a smooth-flowing passage, like a house glimpsed through a car’s speeding window.

This smoothness is called “flow” by writer and critic David Jauss, and flow works best when the sentences in a passage vary in length. And not just the lengths, but the way the sentences begin, whether they contain modifying phrases, whether they enumerate a list, or connect two clauses with “and.” The worst possible experience is reading a student’s essay where all the sentences are roughly one line long—one has the feeling of being repeatedly slapped in the face by a full stop. To see a dissection of a wonderful Saul Bellow paragraph, take a look at my essay in the Fiction Writers Review, where I try to show how Bellow, in one paragraph, weaves his narrative through a series of differing sentences, creating an effortless read.

But in case you think that variety in sentence types is just something the flowery fiction writers do, here is an example from Ernest Hemingway, selected by Jauss in his excellent essay, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Here, in the opening paragraph of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” none of the three sentences are simple, and, as Jauss points out, they are each structured differently. As a result we sense a similarity between these sentences, but the similarity is not so blunt that it blocks our reading. Every sentence is an unforceful surprise.

It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

However, if we want readers to really notice our prose, we can  amplify the sonic qualities of our words, by creating patterns of similar sounds. To create similarities in the opening consonants of words is called alliteration (the pink penguin plodded); to create similarities in vowels is called assonance (the reddish eddies meddled with Ted); similarities in word endings is called rhyme. To describe similarities in rhythm, we must first, however, understand the crucial idea of stress.

English is a language heavily dependent on syllable stress. Native speakers of English don’t notice it because it’s so natural, and only when we travel across the Atlantic (in either direction) do we become aware that some words can be stressed differently.

In London, the word “garage” is stressed on the first syllable: GAR-ige. In New Jersey, it’s more like ga-RARGE. AD-ult versus a-DULT.

Not all languages do this, this variety in stress; but all formal English poetry, and much song, is based around creating a regular alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables. Although things get complicated fast when thinking about stress, it’s possible to say, for the purposes of this post, that certain words are generally unstressed in English:

pronouns (she, he, it), conjunctions (and, if, then), and articles (the, a)

And certain words generally are stressed in at least one of their syllables:

nouns, verbs (‘be’ verbs are pretty close to unstressed, however), adjectives, and adverbs.

As a result, there is a real sonic difference between writing:

The man was huge and tough and mean.

and

The man was huge, tough, mean.

The first sentence is practically sung. The man may have those qualities, but I don’t feel too threatened. The second hits with one stressed syllable after another. I don’t feel so comfortable now.

In the next post, I’m going to show how authors have used stress to help compose their sentences, but before then, I imagine some readers may be thinking, “How can I begin to even hear this stuff?” If you want to train your ear, poetry is the best place to do it, and you can get used to hearing stress by reading aloud poems that use it as an organising principle. Free verse poets like William Carlos Williams may be less helpful for this process, as may be radical rhythmists like Gerald Manley Hopkins. No, to start hearing syllable stress, you want the Victorians. Here is the opening to Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” a poem about that unfortunate guy who asked the Gods for immortal life, but forgot to also ask for immortal youth, which to me is one of the most beautiful passages in English verse.

Look at the first line, and count the stresses.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The pattern of five stresses, five unstresses, is not perfectly followed through the poem, but it is followed enough that we hear it, and come to expect it.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,

Here at the quiet limit of the world,

A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream

The ever-silent spaces of the East,

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Other poets who are great for learning to hear stress include AE Housman, Longfellow, Shakespeare in his sonnets, and, if you ignore her use of dashes, Emily Dickinson. I can only promise that marking stressed syllables on lines of verse is one of the most enjoyable activities one can have alone.

In a week’s time, we’ll talk about how to use these techniques in prose sentences.

Best wishes,

Daniel

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