Everything I learned about writing is in the Norton Anthology

I don’t have a lot of “tricks” or rules when I write. Most of how I string words together is pure instinct. I don’t think about adverbs and dangling whatevers because, despite the English degree, I’ve lost what grammar rules I knew. I have just enough remaining to keep editors this side of abject despair. In case of emergency, I have some decent reference books.

On the other hand, I use my ears a lot.

One technique I think is very underused is being attuned to the effect of certain vowel sounds on atmosphere and pacing. For instance, these are the first two lines of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time

We hear the long “i” five times in those two lines, like a tolling bell under the rest of the sounds. As well as the (for want of a better term) harmonic value of the vowel, it slows the reader down. It’s stately and measured. This is totally appropriate to the situation of the speaker (standing around looking at an ancient vase) and also to the timeless dance of the figures around the artifact.

For descriptive passages, the value of this technique is obvious, but it could be used just as easily in dialogue or an action scene. Different vowels give different effects—imagine if all those long “i” sounds were shortened. The rhythm as well as the tone would be dramatically altered to a clippity-clop.

Another thing that I love to play with is meter. Yes, time for another quote, this one from Coleridge:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree;
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Cool imagery aside, look what he does with the structure of the words. He keeps pushing the verse forward by making one line complete the idea of the one above it. We keep reading to finish the thought.

Good prose writers do this, too. Forget the schoolroom lessons on how to structure a paragraph with an opening sentence, details, and summary sentence that make it a closed unit. Wrong! Bad!

What we’ll see in exciting prose is paragraphs that follow seamlessly one to the other, one thought picking up from the next just as in “Kubla Khan.” This may be achieved in several ways:

*Sometimes this is done by relentlessly following an action or idea with no real resting place between paragraphs (kind of an expanded version of what Coleridge is up to).
*Writers can use linking words (and then, just as, so, well y’know, etc.) to glue one paragraph to the one before it. This works especially well with a folksy narrative in first person.
*The first line of one paragraph can echo a word from the ending sentence above.
*Sometimes a question is asked and then answered
*Sometimes sentence fragments are split between paragraphs
*Sometimes one uses repeated initial words to bounce the rhythm forward
* and lots of other things—just go look for them.

When they want the flow to stop, often a short, sharp sentence will deliver the needed punch.

This is an excerpt from FROSTBOUND, in which I’m attempting some of this by using the beats of the action to keep the reader moving from paragraph to paragraph:

His quarry was only a stone’s throw ahead now, dark clothing a blur against the night. Lore lengthened his stride as far as he could, lungs straining against the chill air. The pavement was slick with frost, the sound of pounding feet magnified by the cold. He lunged forward, snagging the rough wool of the runner’s sleeve.

The figure jerked away, springing forward with a desperate burst of energy. Lore bounded, using both hands this time to grab the coat. The runner crumpled to the ground with a frightened cry, Lore pinning him with his weight.

They both grunted as they hit the ground. Lore rolled the figure over, smelling the sharp tang of smoke on his clothes.

“Madhyor!” cried his captive. Master.

With a wrench, Lore saw the runner was one of his own people.

Crafting the prose so that the eye keeps going forward is stock in trade to thriller writers. I learned the technique from poetry (see, that degree was good for something!) but the principle is exactly the same. If one wants to keep the audience up all night turning pages, tidy blocks of prose won’t do it. It has to spill forward in a rush, tumbling the reader with it.

And that, class, is the end of the lesson. I can put my Norton Anthology of English Literature away now.

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