Monthly Archives: April 2022

Parataxis, Hypotaxis and other fun ways to help your writing do what you want

Elana Arnold

Intention and Attention. Two grabby words that author Elana Arnold used to start a recent SCBWI talk on grammar and syntax—two very non-grabby words, even for those of us who love words and writing.

But Arnold encouraged those listening to pay attention anyway, as she explained things like parataxis, hypotaxis and other ways to help make your writing what you intend.

“Just centering these words (intention and attention) lights up our brains and gets us to notice things we might not otherwise notice and might get us to try things we might not otherwise think to try,” Arnold said.

Arnold covered a lot of ground in her talk, but parataxis and hypotaxis were new to me. I use them all the time but never knew they had specific names. 

So what are they?

Parataxis: a literary technique in writing or speaking that favors short simple sentences or phrases without conjunctions or use just coordinating conjunctions And what are those you might ask (as I did)? They are things  like and, but, or, as, for, so, yet to connect two parallel words or clauses or sentences.

It’s the para part of parataxis—the root of which means side by side. It suggests that each element mentioned is equally important. Nothing subordinates or goes beneath anything else. The two statements go side by side. Okay, some examples.

Elana used her own picture book An Ordinary Day.

It was an ordinary day in the neighborhood.

There was Mrs. LaFleur, overwatering her roses.

There were Kia and Joseph, attempting to catch lizards

There was Magnificant the Crow letting everyone know that she saw what they were doing and that she did not approve.

Across the street, two houses sat unusually quiet.

At almost the same time, a car pulled up to each.

From one car came a woman. She had a stethoscope draped around her neck and she carried a little bag. From the other car came a man. Like the woman he wore a stethoscope around his neck and he carried a little bag.

The book follows this pattern of simple, mostly declarative sentences as it eventually makes the case that this actually an extraordinary day in the neighborhood involving two equal mysteries.

According to Arnold, parataxis gives your writing some effects to pay attention to:

– It can add mystery because you’re not giving the reader information as to which thing is more important so it allows the reader to figure it out themselves.

– It can help your writing feel simple and straightforward, which is often a great tool when you’re writing about something that is not simple and not straightforward.

– It’s a great way to trim fat. It create a choppy staccato rhythm. So you can use it to give a character a distinctive way of speaking in contrast to a character who uses hypotaxis—which we’ll get to in a minute. 

Arnold says when she first wrote An Ordinary Day, she wasn’t thinking: Parataxis, I’m writing parataxis. But later, after her initial draft, she realized what she was doing and in rewrites handled this element more consciously creating an straightforward, but powerful children’s book about the two biggest mysteries in life: birth and death.

Okay, now for:

Hypotaxis: As all you smart people out there have already figured out, it’s kind of the opposite.

Hypotaxis is subordination of one clause to another within sentences or a passages. The technique uses subordinating conjunctions like: although, after, before, because, how, if, once, since, so that, until, unless, when.

Here’s a definition that I found on the MasterClass website: Hypotactic sentence construction uses subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns to connect a sentence’s main clause to its dependent elements. By explicitly defining a clear connection and order between the clauses through syntactic subordination, hypotactic sentences establish a hierarchy of importance, essentially ranking each clause in the sentence.

And here is an example of it’s use, also from MasterClass:

Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. Samuel Johnson

So what does Hypotaxis get you? It can help create a sense of interconnection and dependence. An if/then relationship that Arnold used in another soon-to-be-released picture book. The conjunction “because” used over and over in a “this is the house that Jack built” structure shows all the steps it took for a child to end up with wooden blocks he plays with.

Arnold was running out of time, so couldn’t go into this technique in depth, but I feel that it can buy you a more discerning voice. It can ask the reader to make fine distinctions and follow complex reasoning. It’s a good voice for figuring out how the world works and what one’s values are. And as you can see from the Samuel Johnson example, it’s a great tool for irony and cynicism. 

But it’s also a valuable tool for simpler writing. Many a picture book as been moved along by conjunctions like then, when, because, if…

I like how Arnold ended her talk. She noted that when she’s evaluating her writing “my very favorite question is does this satisfy me?

“If the answer is no, this is not yet satisfying to me, then, the question is, how can I move one notch closer to being satisfied by the syntax and then your whole job is to just get one tick closer to satisfying, and then the next time you go through it, just one tick more. ‘No’ is not a bad thing; that means that there’s room to play.”

Happy writing!

ELANA K. ARNOLD is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets. 

My Brain on Spring

My brain in winter mode –
Professor Richard Macksey’s home library in Baltimore, MD…
My brain in spring mode: Skagit Valley Daffodils (Edmund Lowe, photographer)

At the coming of spring, I go from mostly INSIDE myself (blanket, book, sofa, the smell of hot cocoa, and a mental image of the personal library. above) to mostly OUTSIDE myself (garden, seed packets, blue sky, the smell of fresh dirt.) Sweet peas (pretty) have been planted; raspberries (yumm) have been transplanted (fingers crossed); sugar snap peas (yumm again) are in; tulips, grape hyacinths and forsythia are blooming under pink cherry and white almond trees. Even my daphne bushes survived the big freezes (multiple) of Winter 2022.

As the weather warms and flowers bloom, I’m inclined to share more. So here are a few links, and my reasons (other than red tulips in bloom) for sharing them:

  1. I love the work of local photographer Edmund Lowe (see photo of the Skagit Valley daffodil fields, above.) When I look at his photos I not only see his world, I also hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. All art is a conjuring of the senses, isn’t it? No matter the medium (including writing!) we want to link our bodies to the story. Here is a link to his website.
  2. I want to share Julie Danielson’s examination of Corinna Luykens and her 2017 book, The Book of Mistakes. At Danielson’s blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Luykens makes an artist’s case for having fun and letting go of anxieties, specifically those that involve making mistakes with your work. An accidental smudge, a disproportionate head? Serendipitous mistakes, says Luykens, often take you exciting places. And if you’re interested in children’s literature in general, check out Danielson’s blog . It’s not to be missed.

3. Another sharable favorite: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis. This is my kind of book, 100%. How did I manage to miss a careful reading of Carson Ellis in all my years with kids books? Her work is relatively new to me, and I’ve had a ball reading it (Home is the most popular, I think, but don’t miss In the Half Room.) Imagine being a fly on the wall when Du Iz Tak was pitched to its editor: “Well, it’s a story told completely in a made-up bug language. No, there’s isn’t a translation; no, there isn’t any explanation. It’s all just bug gibberish.” Of course, the read-aloud inflections and the illustrations provide clues about what these strange words mean. Many picture books stay soft and quiet, but this one makes you laugh out loud. Here’s a link to the Kirkus Review, which locates a deeper meaning. Personally, I’m satisfied with the wordplay.

4. From the Archives: a fascinating look at the life and work of Ursula LeGuin, by Julie Phillips, in the New Yorker a few days after Le Guin died. “An author’s business is lying,” she wrote for the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reade this article and see if you agree. If you already love Le Guin, I recommend her book of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.

 “As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.” (U.LeGuin)

A bit of trivia: The photographer and all three of the authors mentioned in #1-4 live/lived in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon and Washington, west of the Cascade Range. Is it the fresh air we breathe here that keeps our imaginations stimulated? I say yes.

5. Do you know the work of Nicole Appel? Read about her and get a look at what she draws here.

6. Not from the Pacific Northwest but from a part of the world we all have our minds on: the Ukrainian illustrator Maria Prymachenko (several spellings but Wikipedia goes with this one.) Thanks to Jama Kim Rattigan, a Facebook friend, for the heads-up – Jama has been posting many pictures by Ukrainian artists. Below is a piece of Prymachenko’s art. She worked mainly in embroidery and ceramics.

I know we’re holding in our hearts all the people who are suffering in that part of the world right now. Please do what you can to help them – perhaps a donation to UNICEF, for the children?

[Update from Wikipedia; “The Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, where several works by Prymachenko were held, was burned during the ongoing 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the supposed loss of 25 of her works. However, according to a social media post by journalist Tanya Goncharova, local people were able to save some of Prymachenko’s works from the fire. According to an interview with Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, in The Times, ten of her works were saved by a local man who entered the museum whilst it was on fire.” ]