Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stop and Go Sentences

I remember intensely studying Banana Yoshimoto's novella Kitchen and trying to figure out why her story was so unputdownable. The plot was forgettable, at least to me. The characters were also forgettable. Yet, each time I read it, I found myself propelled from beginning to end. That's how I figured out that she was using a great technique on the sentence level of her prose.

Take this generic passage as an example:

The family lived in a house. It was an oddly-shaped house with two large bedrooms at either end and a squat windowless kitchen in the center. Emil Lacadally chose it because of its symmetry, a quality which he valued over anything else when it came to matters of architecture.

Taken step by step, the sentences do not propel the reader forward. Each one holds its own idea and doesn't lead into the next, even though they logically follow each other. The first sentence sort of just sits there with nothing of interest contained inside of it. The second sentence is a bit more interesting, but it also feels like a complete thought that doesn't push the story forward. And so on.

The paragraph could be rewritten like this:

The family lived in an oddly-shaped house. Two large bedrooms sat at either end, and a squat, windowless kitchen was wedged in the center--it was the obvious choice for Emil Lacadally. He loved symmetry. It was a quality he valued over anything else when it came to matters of architecture.

Here, the first sentence prompts the reader to ask the question, "How is the house oddly-shaped?" The second sentence answers that question, and sets up a new question: "Why is it the obvious choice for Emil?" The third sentence answers THAT question and prompts the question "Why does Emil love symmetry?"

Instead of each sentence feeling self-contained, it instead pushes the reader forward by setting up a question that the reader wants answered and answering the question that was set up before it. I'd argue that, even if the story itself is boring, this type of knitted prose can successfully snag a reader. It's hard to find a stopping place in a paragraph like this.

And, notice that the second sentence is actually two independent clauses. It could have easily been broken up into two sentences, but I think this construction, avoiding the momentum-stopping period, helps to keep that forward movement going. (And, yes, I'm pro-semicolons!)

There's also a level of predictability in this. The reader can sort of predict what the next sentence will be about, assuming that they expect their questions to be answered. This creates a logical flow pattern for the prose that feels smoother and faster-paced. If you are able to write these sort of "go" sentences and mix them up with "stop" sentences like in the first paragraph, you will gain a good level of control over manipulating your reader in the best sense of the word.

So, if you want self-propelled prose, consider having each sentence work to answer the question set up before it and inspire a new question to be asked. Be sensitive to a reader's expectations, and work to meet them. This is an easy technique to master, and I've found a lot of use for it in my own prose.


  1. lol- it doesn't sound easy- but I'm going to try it out in my revisions and see what I can do with it.

  2. This is a great post, Davin! Very interesting. I love Banana's style, and I love YOUR style. Many times it depends on the scene and how you want to lead your reader whether or not you use short sentences, long ones, etc. In fight scenes or action-packed scenes I always use shorter sentences, paragraphs, etc. But I have to be careful to not let it get too choppy.

    I think to reach the level you're talking about here takes a lot of practice and persistence as well as experimentation for each writer.

  3. Summer, It's probably easier than you think it is. Give it a try! And you should post your passage here. I'd love to see it!

  4. Michelle, I think the ultimate goal is to be able to vary the sentences and have them propel when you want them to and stop when you want them to. This technique is just one part of that. I think it's cool, though, and Yoshimoto does it really well. Thanks for the compliment!

  5. My friend, let us drink in honor of semicolons! Also, while I'm not necessarily working that magic on the sentence level, I've been trying to make my writing flow from question to answer. It seems a good idea.

  6. Hmm, I think I know what you're talking about and I think the theory is awesome. I'm not sure the examples is clicking for me at all, but that may just be because I'm utterly interested in Emil and his house to begin with. I'll tinker on my own and see if I understand what you're saying.

    I think to some extent I do a little of this naturally, but I haven't thought of it in quite the same terms and that's what I need to try and see if I get.

  7. Nevets, for me it's a matter of anticipation. In the first example, I'd argue that you can't anticipate the next sentence based on the one before it. "The family lived in a house" does not make you ask any questions. The second sentence puts a new idea in your head: it was oddly shaped. But, there was no reason for you to wonder if it was oddly shaped based on the first sentence.

  8. Justus, I'm constantly drunk thanks to the semi-colon. Because every period needs a friend. ;

  9. Davin, you're a bright guy, so you have until my death to become a published author. If you fail, I'll haunt you so hard that you'll be begging for Casper. Bwahaha!

  10. I think the basic idea has nothing to do with sentence length. I think it's more about introducing mystery (even small ones, like "why an 'oddly-shaped' house?") and then resolving that mystery, so the reader is always wondering and then having that wonder satisfied. So you can do this on every level of the story, from premise down to sentence level.

  11. For me, each sentence has the same anticipation: okay, there must be something interesting going on here, or else why tell me that the family lived in a house, oddly-shaped or not?

    But that's a factor of how I read (which is always for author's intent) and my own interest in people's houses (which is next-to-none).

    I think fundamentally, though, I see your point and agree you want a significant portion of your sentences to make the reader want to read the next. I appreciate, though, that you recommend variation. Without the stop sentences, the reader would get exhausted.

  12. Well, varying sentence length is just basic good writing, because when the sentences are all about the same length, it gets monotonous (more than exhausting). I am a fan of very, very, very long sentences, but I break up the rhythm with short sentences.

    I kind of think that what's even more important to Banana's style (and Davin's as well) is that the paragraph--rather than the sentence--is the basic unit of composition. Each paragraph goes somewhere, and that's the propulsive force in the writing. And each paragraph links into the following paragraph, making it seem inevitable.

  13. "I think the basic idea has nothing to do with sentence length. I think it's more about introducing mystery (even small ones, like "why an 'oddly-shaped' house?") and then resolving that mystery, so the reader is always wondering and then having that wonder satisfied. So you can do this on every level of the story, from premise down to sentence level."

    Scott, this is exactly what I was trying to get at. Thanks. For me, I see the examples as going down to the sentence, but it can be applied to every level. Except maybe the word level. Unless your word is really cool.

  14. Davin, I agree with Scott, as well, which is why I think the "level" you're talking about here takes a lot of practice. It's not just the act of stringing sentences together and determining which length would work best. It's much deeper than that and involves every aspect of the story and it eventually shows up in the basic sentences.

  15. Michelle, don't worry about the run-on. Scott likes very very very long sentences. I think this could take a lot of practice to really perfect it. But, to me, the basic idea is a simple one. I think I feel that way about anything that I can do personally. :P

  16. Michelle, Davin made a mistake as well, so we'll let you go this time. I never maek mistakes, honestly.

  17. All my mistakes are intentional, though.

  18. So maybe it's such a simplistic observation that it's not worth making, but what I keep coming back to is this: it's not enough for there to be a mystery in the go sentences. It needs to be a mystery the reader cares to see resolved.

    In the example, I find the first paragraph self-contained, and I'm not interested to read any further. There is a question implied about why he like symmetry in his architecture so much, but it's not a question that moves me.

    In Kitchen, I found myself not caring about the mystery of the sentences or paragraphs either. Don't get me wrong, when all's said and done I think there are some wonderful things about that story, but for me it was neither the mystery or her stop-and-go sentences (which sometimes felt herky-jerky to me).

    All of that is a crazy way of saying that, yes, I think you need to have both mystery and drive with rest stops -- but that, really, it's not enough if the reader doesn't have an investment in seeing that mystery resolved.

    As I said, maybe that's just too simple to be worth saying.

  19. Nevets, I don't think that is too simple to be worth saying. I think it's an interesting point to make. I personally would disagree to a certain extent, but I think I'm in the minority on that. I find that mystery keeps me going, even if I'm not caring about it. It's a manipulative jerk that way.

  20. He enjoyed run-on sentences because of something mysterious that lurked in his psychological makeup, and although she was sometimes nervous that she would awaken some kind of sleeping lion, or even dragon, still she felt that it was important for their relationship to always be open; her fear, it may be said, also came from a deep wellspring in her own personality, one that both attracted and repelled the male inclination toward the use, and love, of run-on sentences.


  21. I follow mysteries with no investment all day long in my straight job, so it has no doubt jaded me. I used to be far more curious.

    Then the world killed my sense of wonder.


  22. I've deliberated often on the need to build conflict and voice incrementally.

    I've deliberated often on how each sentence, each paragraph, and each scene should stand on its own for interest and potency.

    I've never put the two together like this. Very enlightening. Very enlightening.

  23. I'm going to have to read The Kitchen. I love prose that leads me forward.

  24. Too much thinking for me. I love the concept, though. The sentences did draw me in.


  25. Oh, and Happy birthday Domey - late, I know, but that's just how things go for me.

    That's so cool that Mr. Big Wig reads the Lit Lab. No way to hide who you really are ya know. Domey and Davin have equal parts in your extra-ordinary person.

    I hope you get your dream job. Sounds interesting - and a lot of responsibility.

    Good luck.


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