Category Archives: writing craft

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. 

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

It only takes 30,000 years of culture to get this

Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.

Cartoonist Amy Hwang

I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.

We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we  know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.

You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.

You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.

Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon.  Oh, and you need to be able to read.

For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.

That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.

That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.

And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry;  what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite  get from other writing.

Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.

Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.

Cartoonist Tom Gauld

 

 

THE WELL-SAID WELL

Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.

“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.

“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011

“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.

 

 

 

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

082018_angledUP

In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

Imagery and the Election

THE NIGHT before the Big Election we slept at Inverness, a beach enclave north of San Francisco that is right smack on the major San Andreas faultline.

(Gotta love the hint and nudge of the objective correlative: earthquake possibilities and the election side by side.)

Election day bloomed sunny. News sources predicted that the earliest time Hillary Clinton would be declared winner was 5:30 PST, so we walked out across the dunes to Kehoe Beach to watch the sunset.

I noted details that might tell the day’s story: the miles-long empty beach, washed clean, as for the fresh start of the first woman president; the moon slashed by a jet trail, like a giant ballot mark, a celebratory green flash as the sun sunk into the Pacific.

beach1

When, in the wee hours of the morning, Donald Trump was declared the next president of the United States, I realized I had made a big mistake in choosing metaphors. I should have noted, instead, our long slog through mud and sand, the putrid corn chip smell along the marshland trail, the huge breakers five and six layers deep that pummeled the shore. And the signs along the beach: “Riptide Warning” and “Beware of Sneaker Waves.”

WE FLIPPED on the TV Wednesday and heard our president Barrack Obama remind us again how we are One America. He said Donald Trump had spoken to him of the same intent: for America to be whole again. Obama used the analogy of the presidency as a relay race, stressing the importance of the handoff of one administration to the next.

It has been hard to sleep. Each time the heater switches on, it sounds like a distant siren. A simile of danger. But, as Obama told us, life goes on. The sun comes up each morning.

THURSDAY we hiked on Point Reyes North Beach, the outermost western edge of continental America. The horizon was lost in thick fog. A young couple walked near the breakers. He had a baby on his back. She led a dog on a leash. They held hands. I need this hopeful image in the face of the unknown.

On the radio, political experts talk about how this election pitted those who want change at any cost against those who want the status quo. They say the election reveals a deep division in America.

Children’s books can play a role in addressing this gap. As children’s books become more diverse and better represent the vast variety of human experience, young readers will come to understand our great commonality as well as our differences. Understanding leads to empathy.

When we drive from Inverness back to San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge we pass through a tunnel on each side. One tunnel is named for World War II General Douglas MacArthur, the other for comedian Robin Williams. That’s a pretty big divide, right?

Yes, it’s a bridge we’ll be needing. A Golden Gate. Maybe children’s books will help build it.

.