Learning from Landon
A Brief Essay on Cumulative Sentences
When you write, do you sometimes think consciously about the rhythm of your sentences or about deliberately breaking the rhythm as you advance one sentence into its follower? I do this sometimes. Maybe I do this because I’m a musician.
Even if you’re not a musician, you may be in pursuit of the smooth flow of a sentence. Other times you may want to jerk it around a bit, like a train that can’t quite fully get started, starting, lurching, then braking, lurching and braking, until it finally pulls out of the station. This kind of manipulation might serve the meaning of your passage (as I tried to do in the second sentence of this paragraph).
Brooks Landon addresses these matters in his lectures on “Building Great Sentences” which I found in the Great Courses Series on Literature and Language. Listening to this DVD course, I’d never been so aware of the power of a sentence, short or long, and the many purposes it can serve.
In the Course, we move from the idea of the single-step sentence, or kernel, through a brief look at grammar and rhetoric, and on toward Landon’s adjectival steps and proposition. Yes “proposition” not “preposition.” Though each of these elements could shape its own chapter, in this essay I’m interested in the way we use propositions to move us toward cumulative syntax.
First, a proposition in Landon’s terminology, is “a kind of basic or elementary statement that can’t easily be broken down into constituent propositions.” We could say, “The pianist performed a flawless “Les Adieux.” From this we learn 1) it was a pianist who was performing, 2) the performance was flawless and 3) it was the Beethoven Sonata she performed. Landon understands the proposition to denote, not merely parts of a sentence, but the basic underlying unit of the sentence, sometimes implied, sometimes stated overtly.
“Only when we consider the emotional effect,” says Landon, “of the way we order and combine propositions that underlie the sentences we speak or write can we consider ourselves in control of our writing.” The emotional effect our sentences produce is most important to us as writers. The order in which we place the various elements of the sentence can enhance or diminish the emotional effect. We combine propositions in various ways, creating successful or less successful sentences.
Her daughter’s hands shook as she dropped the medicine into her mother’s mouth, drop by drop, knowing her mother had not much longer to live.
Knowing her mother had not long to live, she dropped the medicine into her mother’s mouth with shaking hands.
Depending on the passage’s purpose, we could argue that the first sentence leads to greater emotional effect, for it saves weighty information for last. Yet, if we are to be more focused on the daughter, the second sentence might play its part more effectively.
The cumulative sentence, in which the writer provides detail after detail, is the part of Landon’s lecture I liked best. This segment treats the question of how sentences grow and of how rhythm is used to great effect. “Cumulative sentences add texture,” says Landon. And “greater texture or density of information is one of the most important keys.
So I went searching for cumulative sentences and found a prize in “All the Pretty Horses.” It’s a 94-word sentence in which McCarthy carries us to the stars:
They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.
Wow! How far we travel in that one sentence!
If you set out mining for other such sentences, you’ll find a rich lode in Conrad.Here’s one from his 1915 novel “Victory”:
On the nights of full moon the silence around Samburan—the “Round Island” of the charts—was dazzling; and in the flood of cold light Heyst could see his immediate surroundings, which had the aspect of an abandoned settlement surrounded by the jungle: vague roofs above low vegetation, broken shadows of bamboo fences in the sheen of long grass, something like an overgrown bit of road slanting among ragged thickets toward the shore only a couple of yards away, with a black jetty and a mound of some sort, quite inky on its unlighted side.
Do you realize the density of these passages so full of mood and image? Conrad hands us information upon information, like an artist lavishing paint stroke over paint stroke. Yet we are not overburdened. We can see the entire, and, as with McCarthy, we can almost feel the environment.
If you analyze the Conrad sentence you’ll see how the “vague roofs” add information to the foregoing word “jungle”, the “sheen of long grass” tells more about the vegetation, the “ragged thickets” about the overgrown road, and so on. Each step forward in the sentence gives new information about a previous word or clause, and before we know it, the information has accumulated into one fine whole. Professor Landon loves the cumulative sentence, an aspect of sentence structure he regards as relatively easy to develop. Do you agree with him?
Dickens and Hemingway also offer up kettles of gems. Perhaps you’ve found a few of your own favorites. In this playful example from Dickens, we find accumulation.
There, I found a virtuous boatswain in his Majesty’s service—a most excellent man, though I could have wished his trousers not quite so tight in some places and not quite so loose in others—who knocked all the little men’s hats over their eyes, though he was very generous and brave, and who wouldn’t hear of anybody’s paying taxes, though he was very patriotic. (from “Great Expectations”)
You may have noticed, the cumulative sentence sets up a fine rhythm and, when done well, keeps the train chugging forward, no matter how many boxcars you add to it.
ABOUT CAROLE MERTZ
One of my readers asked what I consider the most important things to look for when self-editing. Some of these you learned in school and others are pertinent only to fiction writing.
Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation
Always run spellcheck and Grammar check. They help, but they’re not perfect. You may find they confuse some words – usually the ones that confuse us anyway, like lie and lay or to/too/two. The software won’t let me write He talked to himself; it wants me to say, He talked to him, which is not quite the same thing.
When spellcheck seems incorrect, check a dictionary or online. (The program told me the previous sentence is a fragment, which it isn’t.)
Look for the following in punctuation and fix them:
Missing quotation marks
Quotation marks come in sets, one at each end of a quotation.
Overused or misused exclamation marks
Merriam-Webster defines an exclamation as “A sharp or sudden utterance; a vehement expression or complaint.” Therefore, a character should speak an exclamation (exclaim). It doesn’t belong in narrative, but I believe the definition could be stretched to include internal monologue (thought.) Some examples of exclamations are Fire! Get outta here! Look out! Don’t shoot! Help me! Anything short, said with passion would qualify, including most swearwords. Caution When there are too many exclamations in a story, they lose their ‘punch’ and become a distraction.
Overused or misused ellipses and em-dashes.
There are differing opinions on the use of ellipses. Some sources say there should be four periods when an ellipsis ends a sentence, but others maintain (as I do) that a full sentence should end with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The ellipsis denotes a trailing off, an incomplete sentence. Some sources tell us to treat it as a three-letter word with a space on each side of the dots. Others want the three dots attached to the last word of the sentence. Overuse of the ellipsis creates a hard-to-read story littered with dots that break up sentence flow. The em-dash, or long dash (--) has the same effect.
In fiction, the semicolon joins two, short and related sentences, preferably in narrative, not in dialogue. Keep in mind they must be two complete sentences, each having a subject and predicate. Like the exclamation point, ellipsis, and em-dash, the semicolon stands out if used repeatedly. The story should stand out, not its punctuation.
Have you said what you intended to say, or would it be clearer put another way? It’s a good idea to read the sentence backwards to locate places with missing words, because the eyes and brain will often fill in the blanks. Reading the work aloud can help.
“Pet” Phrases and Repeated Words
Most of us have certain phrases that we tend to repeat, often in the form of unnecessary and/or repetitive character actions. Search for them and eliminate or make changes as appropriate.
Here are a few pet phrases: nod/nodded/nodding, grin/grinned/grinning, shook his head, shrugged her shoulders, bit her lips, laughed/chuckled/giggled, and pursed her lips. There are others. Learn what you tend to repeat.
The most frequently repeated words are character names and pronouns. Count the number of times the hero’s name appears. It can sneak in with dialogue tags (John said), when people speak to him (Listen, John…), and when he does something. Pay particular attention to character names or pronouns that begin consecutive paragraphs. Consider changing.
“Ly” Adverbs and Dialogue Tags
An occasional adverb ending in “ly” is fine, but when they are attached to a dialogue tag as a modifier, a writer may inadvertently create a swifty, i.e., a phrase in which a quoted sentence is linked to a pun. Examples: “It’s freezing,” Tom said icily or “I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked. Swifties were cute in their day, which ended about 1921.
The most common and best dialogue tags are said/asked, because they’re almost invisible to the reader, but there’s nothing wrong with an occasional shouted, yelled, whispered, muttered, etc. For the most part, dialogue tags don’t need adverbial modifiers.
Was, Were, Had Been
I want to go on record that there is nothing inherently wrong with these forms of the verb “To Be” IF you’re careful. Usually there is a more descriptive way to paint a word picture. For example, if I say, “He was running,” it just isn’t enough. Was he jogging, sprinting, or racing?
Look for a stronger verb and get rid of was. Was and were lead to telling instead of showing. Had and had been refer to something that’s already happened. When used repetitively, they can bore the reader, who is interested in what's happening now and what happens next.
A cliché is a phrase that’s been around so long it’s instantly recognizable. They sneak into narrative and may create an effect the writer doesn’t want. In dialogue or thought, they’re OK in moderation. In fact, if a character says, “Patience is not one of my virtues,” the cliché tells the reader something about him.
Learn to recognize clichés, and keep them where they belong or cut them. There are literally hundreds like these: It was a dark and stormy night; hotter than a bucket of red ants; plain as the nose on your face, and every which way but loose.
And while we’re on the subject, be sure you say Loose when you mean something that’s not tight. It can sneak in where it isn’t wanted as a bad spelling of lose.
Backstory and description
What happened to the characters before the current tale and descriptions of people and places are best kept brief and brought in a little at a time. With backstory in particular, consider whether the reader needs the information at all. Often, they don’t.
Avoid heavy paragraphs of either, particularly in opening scenes. Use the opening to “hook” the reader and bond him/her with the main character through the story situation and that character’s action.
I hope this short essay will be useful as you edit your work. Please feel free to use anything I’ve said to create an editing check-off list or to revise an existing one.
ABOUT NORMA HOWELL
How does it happen? You ‘meet’ on a social network site or are friends of friends. You live in different countries, but that doesn’t matter. You exchange a few innocent, casual emails or texts back and forth; soon it’s regular messaging. Feelings develop, are discussed, validated; encouraged even. But what happens if either party chooses to be less than honest? Or worse, suddenly the messages just stop? No responses are forthcoming! Then what? I’m not sure I have the answers, but someone I know is trying to cope with the questions. She’s a friend, a writer, an intelligent single woman and she’s had a difficult past few weeks.
She seemed tired and depressed as she told me her story; we were waiting for our dinner to arrive, it had been ages since we’d seen each other.
“For seven months I’ve looked forward to sitting down at my desk and opening mail from a certain guy. Any snippet was welcomed, treasured; and plenty came. We were keeping in close daily contact. We were having a lot of fun, I thought.
Seven months’ worth of exploring a person’s mind, setting the stage for a long-term friendship; all wiped out overnight, swept to the trash bin.
I’ve been unfriended, he has deleted both of his email addresses, he’s gone from Facebook and Bob’s your uncle! – disappeared from my world.
Bam! Just like that. It’s as if he dumped a big tub of water all over our cozy little fire.
He is married. I suppose I have no right to be shocked. Must I admire him for what he said he needs to do in his final two line message: “Disclosed all too wife and have decided to be faithful. Thank you for your friendship.”
The raw edges leave me wondering if perhaps this recent development had more to do with him tiring of me than a sudden attack of conscience. After all, how much gratification can you get from a screen and some creative one handed typing? Sorry, I’m trying now not to become too cynical. I’m trying to see it for what it was. It seems more likely that he connected with someone new and more interesting. If I stop to think about it, there’s really no limit to the number of ‘relationships’ a guy could have online; or a gal for that matter.
I’m stinging a bit; it’s as if I’ve been slapped. But how else could it have gone? How is it supposed to happen? Maybe this is how it’s done nowadays – shit, did I just say ‘nowadays,’ like I’m an antique or a biddy from another era?
This is it, my first online break-up. This was my first online friendship…a break-up for Pete’s sake. Complete with insults left unhurled, tears, a question or two that will never be asked, let alone answered, and this strange loneliness. I can’t talk to anyone about this, because nobody knew. I loved the secrecy. My married sisters would have laughed me out of town. But communicating with this man added layers to my flat and lonely life.
This isn’t nearly as dramatic as a real, physical, in-person break up; not nearly as satisfying. There are no two a.m. phone calls, no showing up at his door unexpected for a soul soothing confrontation; no ‘last roll in the hay;’ none of that drama. It’s just over. He has effectively wiped himself out of my cyber-life. Slap!
How can I be missing someone I never held? We never met in person, never kissed; touched; I never once smelled his skin, heard his voice or knew the shape of his hands. It was all words. It was all messages and chat. This is very bizarre. Only words, text. I think I even told him I loved him. I probably meant it in that moment, in that message; like believing in a mirage.
But he’s literally on the other side of the planet; what kind of love is this? What the hell was I thinking? Is this the way society is learning to love? No contact, no tangible commitment, no strings attached. No accountability. I suppose this is happening all over the world, long distances easily covered through use of the internet, friendships developing, deepening into love, and then what? Are people crossing oceans and continents to meet? I can’t afford the ticket, quite frankly.
Having said that, I ask myself what was the point? What did I expect from this person, from this relationship? It didn’t start out to be personal, only friendly. But just like in ‘real life’ ties and connections just sort of develop, I felt really close to him. I thought I meant something to him. Bah!
My eyes are wide open now and I see how easily it can all disappear. I’ve had the proverbial rug pulled out from under me…click here to unfriend/click here to delete account/click here to turn my world upside down.
How ridiculous am I! How unreal it all is, was. The decision has been made to be faithful to his wife. That’s the offered explanation for the sudden death of our friendship. Is that the truth? I’ll never know, will I? Does it really matter? I’m not sure, but the sting is hot and my face is red.
I guess I carry on in my real world. Back to work tomorrow, deadlines, meetings; my family is visiting next week, I need to pull it together. But my head is in that “Holy cow, I’ve just been dumped!” haze. There’s no way to release, I don’t know how to get over him. All I can do is wait for it to dissipate; hurt a little less.
Thank you for listening, I’m so sorry, I’ve talked too much. Let’s order dessert. And wine, I could use a glass of wine.”
ABOUT PATRICIA FALL