Story Structure – the basics, and why you should know it

If you want to write fiction, you need to understand story structure.

I am not saying you need to study literary theory or technical terminology. I am not saying you need to write an outline. I am not saying you need to follow a formula, like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth. I am not saying anything at all about your education or your writing process. You don’t need to go to school for this, and you can use whatever process you like. But whatever process you use, whatever education you have, you still need to understand story structure.

We have a built-in sense of story structure. If you’re reading a book to a child, try stopping in the middle. They will know they’re being cheated. We have this innate ability. It’s what qualifies every reader, regardless of experience or training, to judge their reading material. The subjective sense of “something doesn’t feel right” is a sufficient barometer of a story’s structure. But for some reason, when we sit down to write, this innate ability goes away. We have it as readers, but not as writers.

I have a theory about why this happens. When we write, we rely on our internal sense of whether the story is working -the same one we use as readers; we simply gauge, subjectively, whether the story feels satisfying. But when you are in the position of the creator, this feeling of satisfaction is muddled up by other sources of satisfaction: the satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life; the satisfaction of imagining other people reading your story; the satisfaction of artistic creation; and so on. So the writer feels a sense of satisfaction that will not be shared by the reader. Their structural barometer is faulty because they are engaged in the process of creation, which rewards them in other ways besides the strength of their story. Relying on this faulty barometer leads to structural holes that a reader can identify, but the writer missed.

One solution to this problem is to let a manuscript sit for a few weeks, and then look at it with the eyes of a reader. This may help you see things that you missed the first time around. But to some extent, it’s impossible to read your own story as a reader would. No matter how long it sits in a drawer, it’s still your story, and you will have a fondness for it that other people simply won’t.

A better solution is to deepen your understanding of story structure. Hone your ability to diagnose structural problems. Learn to see a story in terms of its working parts. Understand the narrative forces that lead to compelling drama. This understanding needs to operate at two stages during the writing process: the creation stage, and the editing stage.

The creation stage is typically done in a flow state. We get into the groove, something like hypnosis. We simulate the characters in our head, we hear them talking, we let our imagination run wild, and the words flow on to the page. In a very limited way, we are doing the work of improv actors, running sensory impressions and experiences through the minds of characters that exist in our head, in order to generate plausible thoughts, dialogue, and interactions. I don’t believe all of this can be done while consciously juggling thematic and structural concerns; it needs to be done in a subconscious flow state.

Knowledge works in a flow state only to the extent that it is habitual or ingrained. So you need to practice story structure until it becomes ingrained -until your writing naturally tends towards well-structured stories. Seat-of-the-pants writers like Stephen King are able to write effectively without an outline because they have such a strong and innate understanding of story structure that their writing tends to flow in a structurally sound direction (and even Stephen King needs to rewrite and revise for structural purposes). You can’t hope to write that way unless you have a strong, ingrained sense of structure. You need to develop, through practice (both reading and writing) an intuitive sense of structure.

The second stage of the process is editing. In order to do this properly, you need to have an understanding of the mechanics of story structure, and an ability to consciously diagnose problems. Unlike the flow state, during the editing stage our knowledge of structure is applied deliberately. It is mechanistic. During this stage, we will rely on technical terminology for identifying the various narrative forces, and the ways in which these narrative forces interact to produce compelling drama.

Our skill at both of these stages is in large-part a product of our practice with story structure.

Those who have a strong intuitive sense of structure are natural storytellers, and we might say they have “talent”, but it is still a skill that can be developed through deliberate practice–reading and writing, while paying attention to narrative forces. Those who have a strong conscious command of story structure will be able to effectively diagnose structural problems and come up with solutions. In addition to developing our knowledge of story structure, learning the shared terminology allows writers and editors to communicate effectively with each other for the purpose of beta-reading and structural editing.

Learning Goals

Develop understanding of story structure; learn story structure terminology; learn different definitions of “story”; apply story structure concepts to analysis of a story

Story Structure Basics

One of the most common problems with short stories written by beginners is that they aren’t actually stories. They are more accurately called vignettes. Or we can think of them as introductions–the writer succeeds in rendering the first act of a story, but thinks that it’s done as soon as it gets going. It happens a lot for people writing short stories, and it happens because they don’t appreciate what constitutes a complete story.

You can write thousands of words and fail to write a story. Or you can write six words and write a complete story. It’s not the number of words; it’s what those words manage to tell you. In order to constitute a story, the words need to reveal the right information.

A story is not merely something with a beginning, middle, and end:

“first go to the store. Then buy eggs and milk. Then come home.”

This is not a story. It has words and sentences and images, it has a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s not a story. Believe it or not, people will write thousands of words that fail similarly at qualifying as a story.

I will give a few different definitions of “story”. They can all be mapped on to each other; In essence, they are all saying the same thing. But looking at the definition in different terms may help to deepen our understanding.

Conceptions of Story

1. A story shows the life-cycle of a problem.

A problem occurs when someone wants something but they aren’t in a position to get it, either because of an internal or external obstacle, or (perhaps preferably) both. This is also called conflict. If something must be done for someone to get what they want, but that person is already in a position to overcome that obstacle, it is not a problem, but a routine step in obtaining their goal; If, on the other hand, they have to change something in themselves (by learning or growing or developing a skill), then it is a problem. For example, if someone’s goal is to get through a locked door, and they already have a key in their hand, it’s not a problem. If the key is lost, it’s a problem (they need to change their knowledge and strategy for opening the door). If they look for the key and find it in their pocket, it’s a story. It’s probably not a good story, but it’s a story. It shows the life-cycle of a problem.

(They might also break through the window; this solves the door problem, but creates a new problem. Solving problems in this way is called “yes, but”–yes, the problem has been solved, but it created a new one–and it is a way to maintain narrative momentum through a story; another method is “no, and”–wherein the problem remains, and the action taken has actually made things worse–you can read more about these methods of plotting here).

2. A story is a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to equilibrium (usually a new equilibrium).

An event occurs that disrupts a character’s equilibrium (equilibrium is the state the character was in before the problem arose). They are now missing something in their life; there is something they want, but they can’t get it. This is disequilibrium. It is also called conflict. It is also called a problem.

The person takes steps to regain equilibrium. They change either something about themselves or something about the world. Equilibrium is reestablished. This is a story. It is a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to equilibrium.

Encountering a locked door that you want to pass through, but not having a key to open it, is a state of disequilibrium. Finding the key in a pocket re-establishes equilibrium.

3. A story is an account of change in response to conflict.

Somebody wants something. This is a goal. There is a reason they want it. This is called motivation. Something gets in the way of the goal, but the person is not presently equipped to resolve the situation. This is called conflict. They do something to make themselves equipped to resolve the conflict, either by changing something in themselves or their relation to the world, or (perhaps preferably) both. This is called change, or an arc. All of this together is a story. It shows how someone changes in response to conflict.

4. A story is three dramatic acts.

Somebody wants something. Something creates a problem, and the person is not presently equipped to handle that problem. This even that causes a problem is called the inciting incident. Whatever action the person takes will not solve the problem at this point, because they are not yet equipped to solve the problem. The action they take initially in response to the problem is called the first plot point. The period in which they are not equipped to handle the problem is called the second act. Something affects them in such a way as to force them to react in a different way. This event is called the climax. The character acts in such a way as to move towards resolving the problem. This action, taken in response to the climax, is called the second plot point. The problem moves towards resolution. The movement towards resolution is called the third act.

(Note: three act structure has nothing to do with relative duration of various parts. Many people think that the first act needs to be, say, something like 25% of your words. That’s nonsense. It can be anywhere from 0% to 100%, provided the narrative structure is somehow implied or reasonably inferred from the words on the page. The three act structure is not a recipe or a formula for generating stories; it is just a definition of the word “story” that comes from Aristotle trying to figure out the essence of a “story”)

Exercise: Applying Story Structure to Identify Parts of a Story

Here is a poem called “Maybe, Someday”, by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:

I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?

Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,
so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone. And really,
there’s nothing over there where I pointed.

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

But I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said,
because if you too don’t see, it will be as if I hadn’t –
I’ll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes –
and maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.

As it happens, this poem is also a complete story, in each of the four definitions given above. The exercise is:

  1. Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “life cycle of a problem” definition of story. Your answer should identify the problem, explain why it is a problem for the protagonist, and explain what changes to resolve the problem.
  2. Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “equilibrium” definition of story. Your answer should explain the disequilibrium the protagonist encounters, why it is a disequilibrium, and how equilibrium is reestablished.
  3. Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “change in response to conflict” definition of story. Your answer should use the words “motivation”, “conflict”, “change”, and “arc”.
  4. Describe why this poem fits the three act structure. In your answer, identify the inciting incident, the first plot point, the climax, and the second plot point, as well as the first, second, and third act.

Exercise 2: Identifying a Story

Consider the following six words, possibly written by Hemingway:

“for sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This sentence is sometimes touted as the shortest story.

  • Is it really a story? Prove it, using two of the definitions of story.
  • If this is a story, what percentage is the first act? What percentage is the second act? What percentage is the third act?
  • Hint: elements of a story can be implied.

Final Words

I hope you’ve found this discussion of story structure useful and/or interesting!

 

 

 

5-7-5 Haiku form: strengths and weaknesses

writing a haiku
five, seven, five syllables
still, this doesn’t count

I was taught -like so many others- that a haiku is three lines with syllable lengths of five, seven, and five, totaling seventeen syllables. The 5-7-5 formula. Unfortunately, that conception of haiku is way oversimplified (and arguably just plain wrong).

This post is just about the form of haiku, not its many features (like the seasonal reference, or juxtaposition of images). Mostly, it is a close look at the 5-7-5 form -it’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note: An Intractable Translation Problem

This might seem a pretty obvious point, but it’s important: English haiku are different from Japanese haiku. The writing system is different, the sound system is different, the culture is different, the history is different, the poetic tradition is different. Whatever we’re doing when we’re writing English haiku, it’s different from writing Japanese haiku.

The definition of English haiku is necessarily contentious and subjective. It is an act of imprecise translation. People with different sensibilities attempt to carry into the English language what they perceive to be the heart of Japanese haiku. Even if it were possible to precisely define haiku in Japanese -I don’t think that’s possible either- it’s even harder to do so in English. (Maybe even twice as impossible.)

Many people writing English haiku have no idea how to write in Japanese (I’m one of them), nor any understanding of the nuances of Japanese haiku (or Japanese cultural references, or historical references, or poetic allusions). These are all parts of Japanese haiku that English haiku often has to do without. English haiku (hereafter “haiku”) is evolving on its own terms in the English speaking world, within the English language.

Haiku is an amorphous, flexible, vague, subjective, and negotiable category. It is sensed rather than demonstrated. It is a category that can change, over time and from person to person. It’s vague enough that it may sometimes be difficult to say if a poem fits. It is open to argumentation. Different people will have different ideas about what should or shouldn’t count, based on the presence or absence of this-or-that feature. Different sorts of arguments can be brought to bear on this question.

The definition of haiku is inextricably bound with aesthetic sensibility. Disagreements over what does and does not constitute “real” haiku are often disguised disagreements about what haiku should be.

Formal Structure: 5-7-5 syllables versus 2-3-2 beats

first, five syllables
second, seven syllables
third, five syllables

In “The Haiku Handbook”, William J. Higginson writes:

“Many Western authors have fallen into the simplistic trap of saying that the haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This has led to whole classrooms of teachers and children counting English syllables as they attempt to write haiku. But Japanese haiku are written in Japanese, which is quite different from English or other Western languages… In fact Japanese poets do not count ‘syllables’ at all. Rather, they count onji[sic].”

can-you-haiku-web

The sound symbols counted in Japanese haiku simply do not correspond to English syllables. This is a mistake, what we might call the original sin of English language haiku. Japanese haiku is an orthographic art form, and there simply is not a correspondence to be drawn between the formal rules of Japanese haiku and English syllables. It cannot be done.

And yet, there is nothing to stop us from at least trying. If we are going to attempt to translate the formal elements of Japanese haiku into the English language tradition, there is some sense in attempting to do so on the basis of sound units, since that has been the dominant basis of English poetry for most of its history. But we should be doing so with the clear understanding that this is a phonetic approximation of an orthographic formalism. To be as clear as possible: the Japanese haiku form simply cannot be translated to English syllables. We can still try, but it is something of a fiction.

If we are intent on creating a haiku form based on sound, it makes sense to consider speaking duration (although, to be clear, this is not what is important in Japanese haiku). If we measured speaking duration, we could say Japanese haiku are roughly twelve English syllables, not the 17 of 5-7-5 (Higginson, pp.101-102: “As a result of this study I concluded that an English-language translation of a typical Japanese haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original”; “Approximately twelve English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji[sic]”); not only is this approximate -since different sounds take different lengths of time to produce, and different poems take different lengths of time to speak- but there is also no reason why speaking duration should decide haiku form.

Higginson also makes a point of noting that many good poems have been written in the 5-7-5 pattern, just as they have using other conceptions of English haiku. This assertion may have been intended to placate the 5-7-5 formalists among his readers. Although Higginson suggests there can be no definitive answer to what constitutes English haiku -it’s a necessarily insoluble translation problem- he is equally clear in arguing that we can do better than the overly simplistic (and maybe-just-plain-wrong) 5-7-5 formula.

After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best phonetic English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would “approximate the duration of Japanese haiku”, establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar “sense of rhythmical incompleteness” that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.)

I find Higginson’s view particularly compelling, especially since the English ear does not readily register syllable counts, but rather accents. The typical English speaker doesn’t hear the number of syllables -not without deliberate attention to counting- and more importantly, doesn’t feel the number syllables in a line -they feel the rhythm. So for the speaker to feel presence of the haiku form, it should correspond to beats, not syllables.

Higginson’s 2-3-2 accented-syllables formula doesn’t preclude 5-7-5 syllable forms. It’s quite possible to achieve both. But you’ll end up with a ratio of 7 to 10 accented to unaccented syllables. This limits the poet’s ability to play with tempo modulation within the lines, and will tend towards fast-moving lines, which might poorly serve the needs of the poem. Better instead to just use Higginson’s 2-3-2 formula, and forget the syllable restriction.

The number of syllables in 2-3-2 haiku is highly variable, because the number of unaccented syllables can change. The shortest poem that can be written in this formula would have seven syllables:

bus stop
cold dark night
rainstorm

We could stretch the form to twenty-one syllables with seven anapestic feet (although English tends towards iambic). We could stretch it even further by way of constructions stuffed with unaccented syllables. Here is a 2-3-2 pattern with 24 syllables:

in the dark of the dusk
the silence as it’s broken by a crow
on the gambrels of a chapel

That’s pretty awkward, and there are a lot of words that aren’t doing much, and really, there’s not much good to say about it all, but it still fits the 2-3-2 form.

So there’s a quite a bit of range for rhythmic variation and different syllable counts in the 2-3-2 form. The natural range, the one Higginson recommends, is in the neighborhood of twelve syllables. If someone insists on adopting a phonetic formalism for English haiku, 2-3-2 may be preferable to 5-7-5.

I wouldn’t tell people not to write strict 5-7-5 haiku. It’s an art form just like any other, and people should write in whatever form they want to. But for my taste, the form draws too much attention to its own artifice. Arbitrary restrictions are nothing new to poetry, of course; one might say that all poetic forms -be it a sonnet or villanelle or  5-7-5 haiku- could be called “arbitrary” in some sense. But 5-7-5 haiku -which is not felt by the English speaker, but rather counted- is arbitrary in the severe sense of imposing a formal restriction that is outside of the immediate experience of the reader. To count syllables is to draw oneself out of the poem, to engage a mode of thinking that is not fully immersed in the words. For this reason, I would suggest that strict 5-7-5 haiku are better suited for deliberate displays of cleverness or humor. The 5-7-5 restriction is more like the rules of a game than a formula with expressive utility (it’s somewhat comparable in this way to lipograms, the challenge of which allows the writer to show off their linguistic prowess -probably the best example being Christian Bok’s Eunoia– except that lipograms can produce a definite aural effect).

haiku_1

The website Thinkgeek holds a regular haiku contest. Using the 5-7-5 form makes sense for this forum, because what they are looking for is funny and/or clever poems, not poems of deep feeling or insight. The following examples are illustrative:

Yes, I am a nerd
I have a social life, though
It is IRC
–Julia from Pennsburg, PA

Rose: red. Violet: blue.
Haikuception: a poem
within a haiku.
–Christie, from Boston, MA

Error 404:
Your haiku could not be found.
Try again later.
–Mitchell from Shubenacadie, NS, Canada

They are meant to be poems of humor and cleverness, not deep feeling or capturing the essence of a moment. And the 5-7-5 forms works well for this purpose. This is not a criticism of those poems. They achieved what they were meant to achieve.

We all understand the rules of 5-7-5, and we can all tell whether the author has followed them, because we know how to count syllables. It is the shared understanding of these arbitrary syllabic bounds that allows these displays of humor and cleverness to operate. I think that is the greatest strength of the 5-7-5 form.

5-7-5 is also a very accessible form, simple enough to teach to young children, and without barriers that would prevent non-poets from confidently and effectively participating. Organizations running a haiku contest, but which aren’t primarily dedicated to poetry (like Thinkgeek), should probably choose the 5-7-5 form.

The Nation held a haiku contest for political haiku. It produced these winning poems:

McCain is ailin’
Chooses hockey mom Palin
You betcha, we’re pucked!
-Chaunce Windle,of South Bend, Indiana

See dust thick on text books.
Evolution was a fad.
Science dead? You betcha.
-Laura Welch, of Syracuse, NY

Habeas corpus
And that pesky Bill of Rights
Who needs ’em? Wink. Wink.
-Jean Hall, of Norwood, MA

These poems rely on the 5-7-5 form for their effect. They are not poems of deep feeling or profound sentiment or capturing the essence of a moment or authentic expressions of the human experience. But they aren’t supposed to be. They are displays of cleverness, fitting political references and comedy into the tight bounds of a rigid syllabic structure.

Vulture.com had a Tom Petty haiku contest. These were some of the finalists:

LINDSAYK29
Dance with Mary Jane –
She puts the “high” in Haiku.
[That joke was petty].

WILD1FOREVER
’77
Heard “Breakdown,” hooked forever
Still hooked in ’13

And this was one of the winners:

ELIZLOVESYOU
Youtubed ‘Free Fallin’
Autofill said ‘John Mayer’
I had a ragestroke

These poems, similarly, are all exercises in fitting cultural references and jokes into a restrictive syllabic structure. The “petty” haiku crams two puns into a small space, and two or three cultural references, depending on how you’re counting. The “77” haiku is a display of cleverness, recognizing that the two characters ’77’ already constitutes a full first line; the poem mirrors this cleverness by also ending in a year number, thereby enacting the passage of 36 years right up to the present. The last poem is definitely the best, enacting an action, reaction, and emotional response, with three cultural references and two technology references (depending on how you’re counting), as well as ending with a stab at humor (it probably works best for the right sort of fans).

There is a familiar theme running across these casual encounters with haiku. Haiku contests often work better in the 5-7-5 form. It is more democratic, more open to the casual writer, and more conducive to certain types of humor and cleverness.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of poetry. It is made for a certain purpose. But for more serious poetry, I think it’s wise to consider moving outside of the 5-7-5 form. I don’t want to suggest that 5-7-5 haiku can’t be serious. They certainly can. But the strength of the form is not there, relative to other haiku variations.

For precisely same reason that modernists moved from the confines of verse -because those confines created a felt sense of arbitrariness; of words chosen just to fit the form- writers of English haiku may choose to move from strict 5-7-5 haiku, thereby imparting a greater sense of genuine expression, where the words are chosen because they are right for the poetic experience, not because they have the right number of syllables.

Poetry Readings and Feedback – Free Online Group – Tuesday December 19th, 7:00PM EST

I’m running a small online group for poetry readings and feedback on Tuesday, December 19th, 7:00PM EST. It’s free.

Feedback should be encouraging and supportive, and should be phrased in terms of your reactions as a reader (not an editor): talk about what the poem meant to you, what images stood out, what emotions you felt, what parts connected with you, or didn’t, and so on.

We’ll warm up by first doing a few famous poems by professional poets. After things get going we’ll share some of our own work. (Sharing your work is not necessary. You are welcome to participate just to give feedback, or just as a listener, if your prefer.)

There is a max group size, so if you’re interested, RSVP ASAP.

Details and RSVP here.

All About Line Breaks

16802549_f65c56d84b_b

The line break is such an important feature of poetry that we can almost use it to define poetry: prose is text that runs all the way to the margin, whereas poetry is text written with line breaks.

For poets writing in fixed-form and spoken traditions, the line break was in some sense an invisible feature of their art. Since its placement was determined by the form, the poet needn’t concern themselves with moving it around; words moved around the line breaks. Things have changed. The position of the line break is no longer fixed or determined by tradition, so the poet needs to make decisions about where line breaks should fall.

The evolution of free verse has also changed the relationship between sound and typography:

[…] in metrical verse, the auditory structure generates the printed structure; in free verse, the printed structure generates the auditory.

Stephen Adams, “Poetic Designs”, p.153

We listen to metrical verse to determine where the line endings fall; we look at free verse to see where the line endings generate auditory effects.

One of the main skills of a poet -perhaps the fundamental skill- is sensitivity to the aesthetic effects of formal elements. Since free verse has given the poet greater control over the positioning of line breaks, poets need to develop sensitivity to the aesthetic effects of line breaks in varying positions.

It is the duty of a poet to take care and consideration in crafting their poems. Every word, sentence, and punctuation mark is chosen deliberately and against a backdrop of all alternatives. Every element of the poem, every mark and all the white space, serves the whole. So it is with line breaks. It is the duty of a poet to be aware of the options for placement of line breaks and to choose judiciously among them, just as it is their duty to choose the right word and to put the punctuation marks in the right place. And by “right place”, I mean the best choice in service of the needs of the poem; the form must serve the content.

This post is all about developing sensitivity to and skill with line breaks.

Learning Goals

develop sensitivity to the effect of line breaks; develop awareness of the range of effects of the poetic line; analyze a variety of uses of line breaks from poems; practice using line breaks to achieve varying effects.

Poetic Lineation

The first effect of lineation is to create a visual structure that affects the reader before they have even read the first word. The words look like a poem. Presenting words in the visual shape of a poem has the effect of drawing the attention and focus of the reader and shaping their expectations; the reader feels as though they are approaching something poetic, something that demands poetic attention.

Take a look at the following lines:

The night hours passed, and the dark
was in against the truck. Sometimes

cars passed them, going west and
away; and sometimes great trucks

came up out of the west and
rumbled eastward. And the stars

flowed down in a slow cascade
over the western horizon.

It feels like a poem. A reader looks at the words, sees the lines, recognizes the familiar signs of a poem, and treats it as such when they are reading it. This is one effect of lineation. It is a cheap effect. I say it is cheap because it takes almost nothing to pull off, and it doesn’t require the poet to put any thought into where the line endings fall. It comes free.

These lines were taken from The Grapes of Wrath, which happened to be within arm’s reach. I flipped to a random page, took the first few sentences in a random paragraph, and chopped it into lines of roughly the same length.

Here are the same words as they appeared in the book:

The night hours passed, and the dark was in against the truck. Sometimes cars passed them, going west and away; and sometimes great trucks came up out of the west and rumbled eastward. And the stars flowed down in a slow cascade over the western horizon.

To be sensitive to the differences between the words as prose and the words as I have chopped them up above is to appreciate the aesthetic impact of lineation. How do the words feel different in each form?

First, when broken into lines, the words posture as a poem. They are read more slowly, with additional attention drawn, in particular, to the ends of lines -which linger in the mind for a pause that might be said to roughly equal a half-comma- and the beginnings of lines, which can surprise the reader and carry extra weight. Although I chopped these lines up purely for the visual effect, there were some fortuitous line-endings that create interesting aesthetic effects: a parallel structure between enjambment in the second and third stanza with the recurring words “west and” enhances the effect of passage of time and the monotony of cars passing on the highway; a similar enjambment between the third and fourth stanza forces the reader to link the movement of the cars to the movement of the stars; “flowed” at the beginning of the final stanza gets extra emphasis, as the third stanza flows over into the fourth -a formal complement to the content. These are happy accidents. They are the sort of thing that poets look for in language and exploit to the benefit of the poem (rhyming poetry, for example, to the extent that words are not onomatopoeic, is an art of exploiting accidents of language). Whether or not those lines were chopped in the right place is precisely the question that a poet needs to answer when they compose a poem, and they do so by relying on their sensitivity to the effects of various alternatives.

It’s the job of the poet to judiciously arrange words in coordination with punctuation and line endings, so that the effects generated by the interaction of those elements contribute to the aesthetic whole. Form must complement content; the greatest sin in composition is arbitrariness. If someone created a poem merely by chopping up sentences, as I have done above, and if there were nothing to be said of any of the other elements -if there were not an inordinate confluence of fortuitous accidents- it would be a very poor poem indeed.

We need to look at the different ways in which line-endings can be deployed to create various effects: these are the dimensions of choice in which the poet’s craft is exercised. A skilled poet exercises control over these dimensions of choice to create a well-crafted structure.

Before we look at the many uses of line breaks, we should do a simple exercise to develop sensitivity to the effects of lineation.

Poetic Lineation Exercise – General Sensitivity Exercise: Arbitrary Lineation

1. Arbitrary Lineation. I recommend doing this exercise on paper. Take the following words (from the Wikipedia entry on pigeons) and chop them into lines of roughly equal length, about seven or eight syllables, two lines per stanza (if you prefer, use a random paragraph from a random article):

Pigeons have made contributions of considerable importance to humanity, especially in times of war. In war the homing ability of pigeons has been put to use by making them messengers. So-called war pigeons have carried many vital messages and some have been decorated for their services.

Additional instructions: for this exercise, don’t omit any words; it’s important to exercise a minimal degree of creative control over the manipulation.

2. Compare the effect of your lineated words to the plain prose. Read your version twice. How does it feel different? Does it feel like a poem? Did any line-endings fall in interesting places or create interesting effects?

Reminder: the purpose of this exercise is to be attendant to the aesthetic effects of lineation. By fixing the words and comparing them to prose, we are isolating the line-endings as a formal element; any aesthetic difference between the two forms is entirely the product of lineation. Think of it as a controlled experiment. We are controlling for the effect of word choice so we can experiment with the effect of line-endings.

3. Take the same words you used in the first exercise. Chop them into shorter lines -maybe four to six syllables, or about three words (your choice)- and stanzas of three lines each.

4. Compare the effect of the shorter line version to the longer lines. Without reading them, just looking at the shape on the page, do they feel different? After reading both versions, does one feel faster or slower than the other? Did you notice any different interesting line-effects in the short version? Which version do you prefer? Why?

Lineation to Direct Attention

Modern poetry expanded the power of the line break. But it’s difficult to say what the line break’s power is, precisely. It doesn’t have a standard “meaning” or a standard effect; its “meaning” and effect changes depending on the context. Nor is there a numerable list of functions that the line break can serve, as we have for punctuation marks.

Still, we can try. If a line break were said to have a meaning, it could be, roughly, “pay attention; something interesting is happening”. It doesn’t specify what kind of interesting thing is happening, nor where it happens. It might happen at either end of the line break, or somewhere in the line.

Part of the effect of the line break comes from the time it takes your eyes to move from one line to the next -a slight pause that the reader feels, even if it is subconscious- and part of the effect comes from our knowledge that the poet has chosen every formal element deliberately, so we can expect the placement of every formal element to mean something.

The reader expects that line breaks serve a purpose. To satisfy this expectation means that each line should have, at a minimum, at least one interesting thing going on. By interesting thing, I mean the sort of thing that deserves attention for its poetic merit: a fresh metaphor, a clever thought, an emotional truth -something that justifies the reader’s attention. If you think this density of interesting-ness sounds hard, you’re right. Poetry is hard. It takes skill and craft to justify poetic attention.

The poet’s choice between long and short lines is a decision about what kind of attention they are asking for from the reader. If we want readers to focus on each image and each minute detail of description, we will use shorter lines; if we want them to focus on phrasal units, or the musicality of the speech, or larger arrangements of words or images, or complete, complex thoughts, we will use longer lines.

Imagist poems and haiku tend to use short lines. They are asking for close attention to be paid to each word. This is also why the poet needs to take great care to condense their imagery in these forms: not just because there are fewer words to work with, but because the reader is being promised by the form that close attention is justified. So it had better be.

One of the principles of Imagism is:

To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

This statement of the importance of each individual word relates to the formal tendency in imagist poetry towards short lines. If indeed each word is chosen with deliberate care, this warrants greater attention, and therefore shorter lines.

It is difficult to sustain this level of heightened attention for long. This explains the formal tendency of Imagist poetry towards fewer lines. (Conversely, poems with many lines are likely to have longer lines).

Haiku is similar. Here is a haiku:

Autumn moonlight—
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

-Matsuo Basho

This is characteristic of haiku: the unadorned expression, short lines, and lack of commentary all suggest that we should pay close attention to the individual words and images. The overall impression is that the poem contains condensed meaning. The reader will expect it, and the poet should work to satisfy that expectation.

By contrast, longer lines, such as Walt Whitman’s, ask us to pay attention to whole phrasal units and aggregate images. These types of poems are meant to be read in a different way, and we’re told this through their form.

Here are four lines of Whitman (selected pretty much at random, and pulled completely out of context):

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth,
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,

-Song of Myself XLVIII, Walt Whitman

The long lines suggest that it would be inappropriate to focus tightly on individual words like “furlong” or “sympathy” without considering them in the context of the poetic unit in which they appear; we are meant to read these lines as whole units, and reflect on the entirety of the thought expressed. This way of reading is further suggested by the alignment of line breaks with syntactical breaks. Whitman is not using line breaks to direct our thoughts any more than they are already directed by ordinary punctuation. Each line is presented as a complete unit, and it is meant to be read as such.

This type of poetry is more suitable for delivering philosophical concepts; it allows room to move beyond letting images speak for themselves to let the poet have a say. And, notice that the disruption caused by line breaks would interfere with expressing the whole thought as a single unit; by maintaining the whole thought in a line, the poet ensures that our focus is there.

These long lines preserve the voice of the speaker. The poem feels less like a crafted object than a speaking voice. We feel the presence of a speaker more in Whitman than we do in haiku, or in imagist poetry. This effect derives in large part from the alignment of syntax with line breaks.

Exercise – Developing Sensitivity to Line Breaks, Line Length, and “Interesting-ness”

The following text was generated by taking poems and removing the line breaks. I’ve also changed the punctuation to remove capitalization at line beginnings. In other words, it’s been rendered as prose, and clues as to where the line breaks originally fell have been removed.

Here is the poem “Night, And I Travelling”, by Joseph Campbell, rendered as prose.

Night, and I travelling. An open door by the wayside, throwing out a shaft of warm yellow light. A whiff of peat-smoke; a gleam of delf on the dresser within; a woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child. I pass on into the darkness.

Here are some lines from the poem “On the Metro”, by C.K. Williams, rendered as prose.

On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me; she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.

1. One of these poems uses short lines. One uses long lines. Can you tell which is which? What makes you think that?

2. Take each passage, and add your own lineation. There is no “right” answer here: it’s about poetic sensibilities. Your goal is to make the text into the best poem you can by doing nothing other than adding line breaks (do this for both poems before moving on to the next question).

3. Do you think you would be able to reconstruct the poem as the poet intended? Why or why not? What kind of information might help you to reconstruct the poem?

4. Compare your lineation to the lineation as the poet intended it (provided below). Where are the differences? Is there anything surprising about the poet’s choices? Choose one of the most surprising choices made by the original poet -a line break that you didn’t expect, or a missing line break(s) where you expected them. Why do you think the poet wrote the poem that way? What effect were they going for? Justify your decision to lineate the poem differently (rely on the aesthetic effect you were aiming for).

To see the lineation as the poet intended:

Classifying Line Breaks by Strength of the Break

We can understand line breaks as existing on a continuum based on the “strength” of the break. Line breaks are weaker to the extent that they align with natural breaks in language, and stronger to the extent that they disrupt our expectations about where the language should be broken. The stronger the break, the more we feel its disruption, and the more we expect it to correspond to something significant occurring within the poem.

Break Type Example
Aligned with sentence I ate a cranberry.
Aligned with phrase yesterday,
I ate a cranberry.
Breaks within phrase I ate
a cranberry.
Breaks at morphemes I ate a cran
berry.
Breaks at letters I ate a cranberr
y.

Any of these types of break can be “strengthened” by having the break occur across stanzas, rather than lines within the same stanza. Having the break occur across stanzas will increase the effect.

William Carlos Williams uses the first three types in one stanza of his poem “To a Poor Old Woman”, when he describes a woman munching plums:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

This stanza has three sentences and three different strengths of line break, appearing in order of increasing strength -aligned first with the sentence, then with the phrase (“good / to her”), then a break within the phrase (“taste / good to her”). This poem is a perfect illustration of the way we can use line breaks to direct the attention of the reader, and to shift their focus within a sentence. As the lines are used here, they have the effect of first setting the image, then zeroing in our attention, slowing down time as the stanza progresses through increasingly strong breaks. Critically, the same sentence is used three times, which helps isolate the effect of the line breaks.

This poem can still exist as an auditory work, since the pauses that indicate line breaks can be represented in speaking. But the same is not true of poems that increase the strength of the break further by placing it within a morpheme. These types of poems are orthographic works only.

e.e. cummings makes use of line breaks within morphemes. check out his poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”. There is no way we can read this poem. It exists visually. But the effect of the break exists on the same continuum.

cummings’ lineation focuses our attention on the moment of recognition of a leaping grasshopper. The words broken into pieces enact uncertainty, and the letters gather themselves into a comprehensible form just as the grasshopper comes into focus, leaping up from the grass.

(e.e. cummings also makes use of jagged white space at the beginning of lines, further reinforcing its existence as an orthographic work, rather than spoken. There is no possible way to speak this poem into existence.)

Breaking within a morpheme signals that something interesting is going on. The reader knows to pay attention. If a line is occupied by a single element, it warrants a great deal of attention:

fire
stick
marshmall
!
ow

In this short poem, marshmallow is split within the morpheme by an exclamation mark, which also produces an independent morpheme out of “ow”.

We connect fire, stick, and marshmallow straightforwardly, since these words are all joined by the weakest line breaks in the context of the poem. The scene is set by these initial lines: someone roasting a marshmallow on a stick over a camp-fire.

The strongest line breaks occur at “marshmall/!/ow”, breaking for the first time within a word, and demanding our full attention. We feel this break, we know something interesting is happening, so we look for it. The isolation of “ow” suggests the person has burned themselves. The isolation of “!” enacts their surprise, and suggests an iconic similarity between the ‘!’ and a marshmallow on a stick.

Exercise – Copy Carlos

To develop a feeling for increasing strength of line breaks, we’ll copy the structure of the second stanza of William Carlos Williams’ “To a Poor Old Woman”.

1. Come up with a sentence that includes a prepositional phrase. Think of any subject you’d like to examine for a close-up, or any moment you want to slow down in time, or, if you’d like a prompt, pick from “spaceship” or “classroom”. It’s probably better if the sentence is shorter, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s an example I’ll use: “her white canoe floated over the falls”.

2. Now, make a stanza by writing your sentence three times. Arrange your sentences in four lines, placing breaks of increasing strength: first, aligned with the whole sentence, second, aligned with the phrase, and last, breaking within the phrase. So, for my example sentence: “her white canoe floated over the falls/ her white canoe floated/over the falls. her white canoe/ floated over the falls.”.

her white canoe floated over the falls
her white canoe floated
over the falls. her white canoe
floated over the falls

3. Read your poem as a whole. What impression(s) does it give you? How does it make you feel? Look at each line. Do the lines feel different? Look at the line breaks. Do any of them feel different? What words stand out in each line? How does the poem feel different in the first line than it does in the last line? Does your poem produce the effect of zooming in or slowing down time? What do you like or not like about your poem? Which is your favorite line? Why?

4. Share your poem! Put it in the comments!

5. Comment on someone else’s poem! Tell them what you liked, and comment on their use of line breaks.

Exercise – Fine-Tuned Controlled

For this exercise, we will exercise control over the full range of line break strengths to enact a scene.

1. choose a moment that typically produces anxiety. This could be opening an important letter, checking a pregnancy test, or anything else that we become mentally fixated on as we await the outcome. I’ve chosen a baseball player waiting for a pitch. A sport is an easy way to go for this exercise.

2. come up with a few images or phrases leading up to the revelation of the outcome. Arrange these into lines. Begin by setting the scene with a line break that is aligned with the sentence. Use increasingly strong breaks as the tension ramps up. Break within a word in such a way that the final line carries additional meaning.

Note: you can increase the strength of any break by having the break occur across a stanza, not just across a line.

Note: bonus points if you can break within a morpheme in a way that contributes to the meaning of the poem.

Here is my attempt:

he stands at the plate.
seventh inning, bases loaded,
two strikes. keep your eye

on the ball. don’t strike

out.

The first line sets the scene. The second line break, aligned with the phrase, indicates a subtle shift in emotion -bases loaded is good, two strikes is bad. The third line break occurs within a phrase, further strengthened by occurring across a stanza break. This break ironically enacts his eye going off the ball -it separates “eye” from “ball” across the chasm of the line break. The final line break, occurring within the compound “strikeout” shows the batter getting struck out by isolating “out”; this break occurs within the batter’s internal monologue -“keep your eye on the ball. don’t strike out”- enacting him being struck-out during his nervous hesitation. If the final line had been written like this:

on the ball. don’t strike out.

it would still feel like the player’s internal monologue. The shift across the line break is what indicates that something has happened, which we feel as the batter being struck out, an impression heightened by the isolation of “out”. We may even hear the “out” in the voice of the umpire. Any way, those are the sort of considerations that I made when lineating that poem.

3. What do you like about your poem? Why? What do you think could use improvement? Try to do that.

4. Share your poem! Put it in the comments!

5. Comment on someone else’s poem! Tell them what you liked, and comment on their use of line breaks.

Other Uses of Line Break

There are innumerable uses of the line break. The line break functions in coordination with all the other elements of the poem to create an effect on the reader. In this section, I just want to look at a few interesting uses of line breaks. I guess we could call this section “advanced line breaks” or “special applications”. Studying the various uses of line breaks will develop greater sensitivity to the possible range of their effects.

Special Application #1: Create Sense of Confusion with Ambiguous Syntax

Line Breaks can be used to create a sense of confusion. Burlee Vang uses line breaks in this way in his poem “To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse”. I’ve written about this poem in another post.

Burlee Vang uses a garden path sentence to lead us to a deliberately erroneous reading:

The moon will shine for God

We hit the line break, and naturally resolve the meaning of the sentence: “the moon is shining for God’s benefit”. But as we cross over the line break, our expectations are disrupted:

The moon will shine for God
knows how long

This creates a sense of disorientation, as we have to mentally correct our erroneous reading. This complements the content of the poem, which is survival in a post-apocalyptic zombie world.

The poem uses this effect to keep the reader off balance and create a sense of disorientation or unease. (It also uses line breaks for other effects as well, discussed here).

Special Application #2: Control Sense of Physical Motion – Accelerating or Freezing

A poem called “Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch uses line breaks to variously freeze or accelerate motion in the mind of the reader. It is also written as one continuous stream of action, not reaching a period until the end of the basketball play that it enacts.

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,

and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump

At the stanza break following “doesn’t drop/” we feel the ball frozen on the rim, an effect emphasized by the presence of the break. It remains frozen there as we move into the next stanza. The effect of the break has been to pause the motion of the ball in our minds while we focus our attention on action happening on the court below.

spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard

Here, we feel an acceleration of movement, with the break occurring on “strike”. As we pass the threshold of the line break, we feel the movement of the ball through the air, which is maintained through the entirety of the next line. It’s so fast we almost missed it -the outlet is “already” making the pass.

This whole poem is about speed. Hirsch very carefully modulates speed through his use of language, line breaks, and stanza breaks, so that we feel the motion of the play on the court; we feel the swiftness of the passes, the feet on the floor, and we feel when time pauses for those critical moments.

The poem is called “fast break”, which seems a deliberate double meaning. It refers to both the play itself, but also the authors use of judiciously arranged line breaks and stanza breaks to make us feel the motion of the play.

Special Applications #3 and #4: Create Sense of Vertical Motion; Create Sense of Deliberate, Methodical Motion

I put these two together because they are both used together in one poem by William Carlos Williams, in a poem called “Poem”:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flower pot

Here, the form assuredly complements the content of the poem. As the line breaks push us across the threshold of stanzas, we feel the vertical motion of the cat; the lines of the poem are walking along with the cat. As the cat “stepped down/” we step down with it, across the threshold between the third and fourth stanza, and “into the pit of/ the empty/ flower pot”. We feel the empty space of the flower pot in the penultimate line, and we feel the cat’s feet touching down to the base of the pot in the final line. Similar effects appear throughout, emphasizing the vertical motion. We feel the downward motion of the cat as we move down the lines.

A second effect achieved here is to emphasize the deliberate motion of the cat’s footsteps. We feel the careful plodding of the lines, the deliberate progression, along with the cat. You can’t doubt, reading this poem, that the cat’s movement feels controlled. The physical movement of the cat is enacted in this way by the careful progression of short, deliberate lines.

Final Exercise

For the final exercise, you’ll experiment with some of what you know about line breaks to write a poem.

1. Pick an animal from this list. Before starting your poem, it’ll help to come up with some material that you could use. Brainstorm some images or phrases for the animal you’ve chosen. Describe it using multiple senses. Describe its home. Describe what it can usually be seen doing. If it had a job, what would it be? If you went on an adventure with this animal, where would you go? If you were that animal, what would you do? If it offered you advice, what would it say? If it could tell you the meaning of life, what would it say? What three objects does it want? Describe how it moves when it is happy. Describe how it moves when it is sad, or scared, or lonely, or angry, or hungry. Put your animal in a reverse dictionary and see what comes out. Check all the terms to see if they make you think of anything.

2. After brainstorming all this material, pick out some of your favorite parts, and write the lines out in prose, one continual paragraph.

3. Okay, time to start experimenting with lineation. Are there places you can insert line breaks to accentuate the feeling of the line? Does your animal prefer to live in short lines or long lines? Or do the line lengths vary based on what it’s doing? Does your animal prefer small stanzas, or big stanzas? Does it move slowly or does it move quickly? How can you emphasize its motion through the use of line breaks and stanza breaks? What is the most important part of the poem? Can you draw attention to this with line breaks? Do you need strong line breaks or weak line breaks?

Note: feel free to change the sentences around at this stage. You might find that you can use the line breaks more effectively if the words and sentences are arranged differently. If that’s the case, then you should do that.

4. Share your poem! Put it in the comments!

5. Comment on someone else’s poem! Tell them what you liked, and comment on their use of line breaks.

Final Words

Thank you for checking out this post on line breaks. I hope you found it useful and/or interesting.

If you want to support me in making more stuff like this, consider donating by Paypal, or purchasing my science fiction book, Angels and Wormholes.

 tip-jar

Use the Active Voice (Unless Passive is Better)

“Use the active voice.”

You’ve probably heard this advice before. It’s number 14 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style -one of their “Elementary Principles of Composition”- and a commonly repeated bit of writing wisdom.

However, the active voice is not always preferable. The rule “use the active voice” doesn’t help us determine when it should be used, and slavish obedience to this rule will lead to ineffective usage. What we really need isn’t a rule to follow, but an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the active and passive voice.

In this post, I want to look more closely at active and passive voice,with the goal of better understanding why you might want to use one instead of the other.

Learning Goals

Understand the difference between active and passive voice; identify active or passive voice; translate between active and passive voice; recognize strengths and weaknesses of active versus passive voice; choose active or passive voice based on the situation.

Active and Passive Voice

Active and passive voice is not a question of verb tense. Some people mistakenly believe that passive voice means to speak about things that have passed. But:

The dog eats the food

and

The dog ate the food

and

The dog was eating the food

are all in the active voice. Verb tense has nothing to do with it.

Active voice is determined by whether the subject of the sentence -in this case the dog- is performing the action. The dog is the subject, and the dog is performing the action of eating in all the above cases, so all are in the active voice.

However:

The food was eaten by the dog

is the passive voice. In this case, the food is the subject of the sentence, and the food is being acted on by the verb. The dog is the one doing the action, even though the food is the subject of the sentence. The food is passive. So the subject of the sentence is passive. So this sentence is in the passive voice.

You can often identify the passive voice from the presence of the word “by”.

Exercise: identifying passive and active voice

Which of the following are passive voice and which are active voice:

  1. The cats were fighting in the alley.

  2. Susie was bitten by the chihuahua.

  3. Her childhood home, her dolls, her drawings, were all destroyed by the blaze.

  4. It was found by Herbert et al that “take the stairs” work-initiatives had no measurable impact on the health of non-sedentary employees.

  5. He was a man of simple tastes.

  6. On the island, right where the map had said -twenty paces from the big rock- the treasure had been found, a few feet below the sand.

  7. The population had been decimated.

Exercise: translating active to passive, and assessing relative strengths and weaknesses of active and passive.

  1. For each of the 7 sentences above, translate the passive constructions to active constructions, and vice-versa.

  2. For each of the 7 translations you made, which version sounds better? Why?

Sometimes use passive voice?

Strunk and White advocate for use of the active voice, saying it “makes for more forcible writing”, “is usually more direct and vigorous”, and that the passive voice can be “less direct, less bold, and less concise”.

They do note, however, that passive voice is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”. For this point, they give a pair of examples:

The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.

and

Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The preferred voice in this case is not based on which is more “forcible” or “bold” or “concise” but rather on the topic of the paragraph. As Strunk and White note, the former would be chosen in a paragraph about the dramatists, and the latter would be chosen for a paragraph about the tastes of modern readers.

Strunk and White don’t discuss the conditions under which passive voice would be preferable. They conclude only by saying that getting into the habit of writing in the active voice “makes for forcible writing”. That may well be so. But the advantages offered by “forcible” writing could sometimes be outweighed by whatever advantages are offered by the passive voice -if only we knew what they were!

The advantage of Strunk and White -in this case, and in most of the others- is that the brevity and lack of nuance makes the advice easy to follow. Professors and teachers can assign Elements of Style to their students and expect them to actually read and follow it. Their pithy advice will make a bad writer passable, but it won’t make a passable writer good. If we really care about our writing, what we need is not an oversimplified set of rules (“use the active voice”) but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various grammatical structures. Active voice and passive voice are tools suited for different applications, and we need to know how to use both of them.

Fortunately, there is a guide for this. It’s from a book that is better than Elements of Style in every respect except simplicity: “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”, by Virgina Tufte. Rather than just listing rules to follow, Tufte gives examples of good sentences and examines how they work. Where Strunk and White have a one page exhortation to use the active voice, Tufte devotes eleven pages to effective usage of the passive voice.

Strengths of passive voice

Since the end of a sentence naturally feels more stressed, the passive voice can be used to add emphasis to a particular word or words by shifting them into the final position:

I was tormented by strange hallucinations.

-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries

Here, the passive voice is being used to shift the primary stress to where the author wants it, on the hallucinations.

A similar example comes from E.B. White, notwithstanding his injunction against passive construction:

Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place.

-E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner

The passive voice can be used whenever the writer wants to avoid mention of agency. So:

My toddler broke your phone.

might become

Your phone was broken.

Generally, the passive voice can be used anytime the writer wants to omit an agent, whether we don’t want indicate the agent, or because we don’t know, or because we don’t want the reader’s focus taken by the agent. For example:

The monument was destroyed.

We could say this if we didn’t know how it was destroyed, whether it was it a person, or people, or a natural event. But we might also say such a thing if it didn’t matter how it was destroyed.

The passive voice can be used to impart a feeling of divine command or natural law. Since the agent is omitted, these sentences can give a sense that it is simply describing the way things are:

There are rules and there are laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place of the Gods -this is most strictly forbidden… These things are forbidden -they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.

-Stephen Vincent Benét, By the Water of Babylon

Sometimes we don’t want the subject to feel active. Maybe we want them to feel weak, or helpless, or the victim of circumstances. In general, we may want to express their passivity. This is done with passive constructions:

She was pulled by the tide.

Or

They sailed and trailed and flew and raced and crawled and walked and were carried, finally, home.

-John Knowles, Indian Summer

Or, the example from Nabokov:

I was tormented by strange hallucinations.

-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries

More Examples

If I keep going through all the examples of Tufte, I’d risk just repeating everything she has to say on the matter. Instead, if you find that kind of discussion useful or interesting, I’d recommend just getting her book.

Practice Exercises

In these exercises we’ll practice making active constructions into passive constructions, in situations where it might be useful. The goal is to develop a sense of some other considerations a writer might make when deciding on a passive or active construction.

  1. Make the injunction more powerful by omitting the agent with a passive construction:

    • “Billy said we’re not supposed to walk on the grass.”

  1. Shift the subject to the terminal position of the sentence with a passive construction:

    • “Failing educational institutions and lack of employment opportunity have increased homelessness, drug addiction, and gang activity.”

  1. Make Billy into the passive subject of the rescue, by using a passive construction:

    • “The firefighters carried Billy from the apartment.”

Additional Questions

  1. Were the translated versions better? Why or why not?
  2. Pick one of the advantages of passive voice. Come up with a pair of example sentences to demonstrate this strength.

Review

Passive voice and active voice are tools that are suited for different situations. A writer should know how to use both of them effectively. This requires practice with both, and reflecting on the effects each form has on the reader.

Active voice is generally more concise and more forceful. Passive voice has a number of uses: it is sometimes clearer; it is sometimes necessary, given the intended subject of the sentence; it can be used to shift the stress of the sentence; it can be used to omit the agent; it can complement the passivity of the subject; it can create rhetorical force.

There are other applications of the passive voice -and examples of usage- in Virginia Tufte’s book, “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”.

Description: Sensory Impressions

We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.

It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.

In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.

This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.

Learning Goals

Understand the meaning and importance of sensory density; Develop range across sensory modalities, and awareness of options for increasing sensory density; Practice writing with high sensory density; Understand how distancing language reduces immersion; Practice avoiding distancing language; Understand salient details and telling details; practice using salient details and telling details.

Sensory Density

Sensory Density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. A passage that only has visual sense impressions has low sensory density. A passage that engages multiple sensory modalities has high sensory density.

I could describe a walk through part of the city by showing the reader discarded shoes hanging from power-lines, old payphones caked with grime, a boarded up house on the corner, potholes. You’re beginning to see what kind of a place this is. But it’s not immersive description -not as immersive as it could have been if I also mentioned urine fumes from the sidewalk, the hacking coughs of old men, clouds of cigarette smoke -things that impinge on different senses.

A common rule of thumb is to engage three different senses to make a scene feel real.

The following lines of poetry have a very high sensory density:

All through the night the dead

crunch pieces of ice from the moon. (Yannis Ritsos)

This line of surreal poetry, though not aiming to be believable, is vivid and evocative. Part of its strength comes from the density of sensory impressions. We have sight, sound, taste, temperature, passage of time, all engaged in the space of one sentence. It conveys a creepy sense of weary, dissatisfied restlessness, and maybe dread or existential angst. I don’t know what it looks like for the dead to crunch pieces of ice from the moon -and I’m not sure you could find pieces of moon-ice big enough to crunch, or how the dead might get those pieces, or how they would crunch them- but the surreal line comes to life because of the evocative sensory imagery.

Here is another example of high sensory density.

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)

We can say that a passage conveys a sense impression to the extent that the reader is able to answer questions about the passage related to that sense. For the passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we could test what was conveyed by asking such questions:

  • Could you say what temperature the wind was?

  • How frequently it was blowing?

  • The sound it made?

  • The smell(s)?

  • What the studio looked like inside?

  • What it looked like outside, through the open door?

The passage manages to paint a vivid picture across several senses (and all of that from one sentence that is, grammatically, just about the smell). That’s sensory density.

Exercise – Sense Modalities

There’s way more than five senses. The point of this exercise is practicing with senses we might not normally consider, in order to expand our range with different sensory experiences. Some of these exercises will require you to really flex your descriptive and creative muscles.

There’s a table below with a series of different senses listed in the left hand column. For each one, your job is to come up with a description that uses that sense (write out a chart like this on a sheet of paper). Use your imagination to come up with any scene, setting, action, or object you want to describe. Or use any of the following prompts: piece of fruit, visiting a planet, magic spell, meeting an alien, fist fight, explosion, losing consciousness, stepping through a portal, skiing, falling asleep on a couch.

For example, in the “sight” row, you might choose to describe an apple using sight. For the “temperature” row, you might describe a cup of coffee. Use only one sentence per description. The purpose of this exercise is just to expand awareness of available sensory modalities, and to practice making descriptions using these different senses.

sense modality description that uses that sense
sight
sound
smell
taste
touch
proprioception
temperature
balance
familiarity/recognition
chronoception
interoception (your choice)
electroception

Exercises: Sensory Density

The point of these exercises is to practice sensory density. For each of the following prompts, write a description that engages three(3) or more senses. The main goal of this exercise is to practice coming up with different sensory impressions for the same scene. It is up to you to rely on your creativity to fill in the sensory details.

Additional instructions:

  • 2 to 3 sentences in length per exercise
  • 3rd person, past tense
  • The POV character is your choice

Prompts: (for each one, use three or more senses!)

  1. Going to the dentist.
  2. Playing hockey outside.
  3. Trench warfare.
  4. Shopping at a large mall.
  5. Dumpster diving.
  6. Casting a magic spell.

Exercises: Sensory Density part 2 – specific challenges

For each of the following, render the given scene/action/object by using the specified sense(s). Some of these are super challenging. Some might require a little bit of research.

Additional instructions:

  • 4 to 6 sentences in length per exercise.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • When a specific sense is asked for, come up with a descriptive detail that makes that sense relevant. For example, if you are asked to use smell, you will have to invent some detail in your scene that can be smelled; if you are asked to use nociception, you will have to invent some reason why the POV character is in pain.

Exercises:

  1. Render: dumpster diving, from the POV of a blind raccoon, using touch, smell, taste, and sound. Don’t use vision.
  2. Render: hunting shrimp, from the POV of a narwhal, using any combination of senses, but including salinity detection.
  3. Render: being abducted by aliens, from the POV of a farmer, using any combination of senses, but including sense of gravity, proprioception, chronoception, balance, and interoception (your choice). Make it weird.
  4. Render: running from the police, from the POV of a burglar, using any combination of senses, but including nociception and cardioception.
  5. Render: sick on a rollercoaster, from the POV of someone who ate too much cotton candy, using any combination of senses, but including taste, smell, and at least three different forms of interoception.

 Salient Impressions

Salient impressions are the most powerful sensory impressions in a given scene or setting. They are the things that stand out to the viewpoint character.

Try to render salient sensory impressions for any scene or setting. Imagine yourself in place of the viewpoint character -or rely on a memory of something similar- and capture what draws your attention: in an outhouse, that might be the smell; in a subway, that might be the feeling of cramped bodies invading your personal space, or the jerk-and-stutter of the train while you search for something to hold for balance; if you step outside in winter, the salient impression might be the cold.

Because salient impressions are the ones that draw our attention, it makes sense for them to be included in your descriptions, not just because it helps render the scene, but because it increases psychological fidelity. Your prose will better match psychological reality if you focus on the sensory impressions that are more plausibly drawing the attention of the viewpoint character. And, conversely, immersion can be ruined by focusing on low-salience details when a high-salience detail is available (imagine reading a passage where the POV character is set on fire, and they describe the smell and the colours of the flame: immersion is guaranteed to be broken; the focus in this case should be on the heat and the pain, because of their salience).

Telling Details

The smell of flowers coming through an open window is a “telling detail”, because it also helps to illustrate a larger picture -we can picture the garden even though we are only given the scent.

Telling details are descriptions of smaller parts of the scene that help to paint a bigger picture. Unlike salient details, they are not necessarily the strongest sensory impressions. But telling details give an indication or suggestion of the larger scene, allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. For example:

  • The ascending-and-descending pitch of a race-car’s engine as it whooshes by. This detail is just about the characteristic sound. But it helps render the larger scene. We can picture the race-car. Maybe we can also feel the wind.

  • A single pair of sneakers squeaking on the basketball court, and the rhythmic bouncing of the ball. Again, this detail is just about the sound. But we can imagine someone practicing basketball by themselves on an empty -probably indoor- basketball court. We can picture their motions. The sound gives an indication of a larger scene.

  • Broken bottles and cigarette butts littering an apartment hallway. I don’t need to explicitly tell you that this is a dirty and run-down apartment. The telling detail informs you of the larger scene. If I asked you whether any of the lights are broken or burnt out, your imagination can probably supply the answer.

A trick for rapidly establishing a scene is to use one broad description, just to situate the reader’s imagination, and then supplement that broad description with one telling detail. The formula is: broad description plus telling detail.

Dave Chappelle used this technique with comedic effect (successful comedians are master story-tellers). He wanted to describe a particularly bad ghetto. This is how he set the scene:

We pulled up to an old rickety building[…]

That’s the broad description. Then comes a telling detail (which Dave Chappelle calls one of “the familiar symptoms of a project”):

A [expletive] crackhead ran this way [skittering noise][…] And then another one jumped out a tree [skittering noise][…].

You could think of “telling details” as “familiar symptoms” if you prefer Dave Chappelle’s terminology. He continues the routine by adding additional telling details to further colour the scene:

I look out the window. Remember, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. […] I look out the window. There was a [expletive] baby standing on the corner. And the baby -the baby didn’t even look scared. He was just standing there.

It’s a funny picture, but it proves the point. When you want to describe a scene, give the broad description, and then colour it with “telling details” (or “familiar symptoms”).

Don’t over-describe. It is often better to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. Give them a telling detail and let their mind fill in the blanks.

Exercises: Telling Details

Your goal with these exercises is to rapidly establish a scene by using one broad description, and one or two telling details. You are practicing coming up with evocative details. They should be small details that help paint a bigger picture. Try to create as vivid a scene as you can by using small, suggestive details that create an impression of the larger scene.

Additional instructions:

  • 1 to 2 sentences in length per exercise. Don’t cheat by using really long sentences. Part of the exercise is condensing your descriptions. Deliver a powerful punch by using telling details.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • POV character is up to you.

Exercises:

  1. Render: a medieval battlefield after a gruesome battle.
  2. Render: the lobby of a fancy hotel.
  3. Render: an island paradise.
  4. Render: a maniacal gang leader.
  5. Render: a bookish and nerdy university student.
  6. Render: a magical kingdom.
  7. Render: an evil kingdom of a dark lord.
  8. Render: a goblin with a heart of gold.
  9. Render: a prison with a bad reputation full of violent criminals.
  10. Render: the class clown.

Distancing Language (also called “filter words”)

Avoid using language like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “Billy heard” in your descriptions, and instead show the sensations directly. When you present a sensory impression by indicating that a particular character is the one sensing it, you place that character as a barrier between the reader and the experience. This distances the reader from the experience. This is called using “distancing language” or “filter words”. It makes the reader experience less immediate and less immersive.

When you are editing your prose, look for distancing language and get rid of it. When rendering a sensory detail, you don’t need to indicate which sense is being engaged, or who is doing the experiencing. I don’t need to say “the smell of urine fuming from the sidewalk” -by mentioning “urine fumes” the sense modality is implied; I don’t need to say “Billy smelled urine fumes” -if Billy is the point of view character, it is implicit that it is Billy who is experiencing those fumes. By indicating either of these things explicitly, you distance the reader from the experience, putting an additional layer between them and the experience.

Avoid distancing language whenever possible. Don’t say, “Billy saw a goat standing there.” Just show the goat. Leave Billy out of it.

 Exercises: Avoiding Distancing Language

Fix each of the following passages by eliminating the distancing language. They are not good passages, and they need some revision. For some of them, you will have to be creative and invent your own details about the scene (eliminating distancing language is not always a simple matter of cutting words). Feel free to add or delete words as necessary, or completely rework the passage (as long as the gist is the same). Your primary goal is to make the passage feel more immersive by eliminating distancing language -but that will sometimes require inventing details.

  1. Billy walked in to the barn. He could smell that the goat had left something for him.

  2. Gertrude jumped out of the plane. She felt the wind, and she saw the ground far below, but growing slowly larger.

  3. He felt a pull on his hand, like a magnet, sticking his hand to the rune-symbol on the wall.

  4. She walked outside. The temperature was very low, and the wind felt very cold on her face. (For this one, please also get rid of the word “very” both times it appears).

  5. X89’s cyber-sensors picked up the reading of an electromagnetic field. He could feel the buzzing of the field. The device must be nearby.

Review

Sensory density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. Prose with a high sensory density will feel more real and immersive than prose with a low sensory density. A rule of thumb is to aim for three different senses.

Try to give salient sensory impressions. In addition to helping to render the scene, this increases psychological fidelity. Conversely, a passage that neglects a high-salience impression to focus on a low-salience one risks breaking reader immersion.

Avoid distancing language (filter words) like “he saw” or “she smelled” and instead show the sensations directly.

Use broad details to set the scene, and telling details to add colour to the scene. Don’t over-describe. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the scene based on your telling details.

In our exercises, we practiced eliminating distancing language, rewriting to increase sensory density, rendering a scene with high sensory density, using salient details, and using telling details.

Final Words

I hope you liked this post on sensory impressions. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

This site is updated at least once a week with new content. Come back soon for more posts on writing craft or related topics.

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Psychic Distance

Writers need to be able to control how close they are to the mind of their viewpoint character. They need to be able to zoom-in or pull-back depending on the passage.

This aspect of narrative style is called “psychic distance” -how close the narration is to the mind of the viewpoint character. If you want a book for this and other topics on the craft of fiction, check out John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction”.

Learning Goals

Our learning goals are to understand the importance of psychic distance, and its relation to emotional writing; to understand the effect of psychic distance on reader experience; to be able to recognize four different levels of psychic distance; and, to be able to modulate psychic distance in our writing.

Four Levels of Psychic Distance

Consider the following passage:

There was a pie on the windowsill. Billy was hungry, and he thought the pie smelled delicious. I’m going for it, Billy thought. Yum! Blueberry!

This passage goes through four distinct levels of psychic distance, beginning at the most psychically distant -facts outside of Billy’s head- to the most psychically proximal -inside Billy’s head, experiencing what he does directly, without the interference of a narrator.

The closer we move inside Bill’y head, the more we experience his world as our own. Psychically proximal writing is more emotional and more immediate.

The following chart summarizes the levels of psychic distance:

psychic distance explanation example
objective outside of character’s head; facts/observations about world There was a pie on the windowsill
reporting; indirect thought inside character’s head, summarized/amended by narrator Billy was hungry, and he thought the pie smelled delicious
transcribing; direct thought inside character’s head,
passed directly by narrator
I’m going for it, Billy thought.
stream of consciousness deepest inside character’s head,
unmediated by narrator
Yum! Blueberry!

We could rewrite the Billy passage to illustrate by contrast the effect of psychic distance.

A pie, right on the windowsill! That pie smells delicious, Billy thought. He decided he was going to eat the pie. And he did.

Here, the psychic distance goes from closest to furthest. It is not as good when written this way. There is something unsatisfying about pulling away from the experience as the action progresses. Really, we want to be emotionally proximal at the close of the passage, where the action is (eating the pie).

As a general rule, action and tension should increase as a passage progresses. Maybe as a related principle we could say that psychic distance should be drawn closer as a paragraph progresses -establish the necessary facts, then shrink the psychic distance, and show us the experience.

How close or far should the psychic distance generally be? I don’t think it is possible to answer this question. It is an issue of style and the type of story you are telling. The important thing is that you, as a writer, are able to control psychic distance in order to achieve the effect on the reader that you’re aiming for. You need to be able to skillfully modulate psychic distance to serve your narrative purposes.

The following exercises are designed to develop skill with psychic distance.

Exercises

For each of the following exercises, we’ll use third person limited, past tense.

  1. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone running through a red light.
  2. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone being chased by a dog.
  3. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone passing a lemonade stand on a hot day.
  4. Write a passage about one continuous play in soccer or hockey, involving some combination of passing, movement, shooting, etc, where there the final sentence is a goal scored; the psychic distance of the sentences, in order, will be 4(2/3)4(2/3)4321, with 4 representing the furthest psychic distance and 1 the closest (and numbers separated by a slash are a choice).
    • What emotional effect did the changing psychic distance have on the writing?
    • What did you like or not like about the passage you wrote?
    • What change(s) to the pattern of psychic distance could be made to improve the passage (by changing existing sentences or by adding new ones)? Make those changes.
  5. Write a passage about a soldier in a war-zone; the psychic distance of the sentences, in order, will be 44(2/3)111(2/3)44, with 4 representing the furthest psychic distance and 1 the closest (and numbers separated by a slash are a choice).
    • What emotional effect did the changing psychic distance have on the writing?
    • What did you like or not like about the passage you wrote?
    • What change(s) to the pattern of psychic distance could be made to improve the passage (by changing existing sentences or by adding new ones)? Make those changes.

Recap

Psychic distance is how close the narration is to the mind of the viewpoint character. The psychic distance that is appropriate depends on the effect the writer is trying to achieve. Writers need to be able to modulate psychic distance.

We practiced writing at different levels of psychic distance; we reflected on the effect of psychic distance on reader experience; we practiced modulating psychic distance, and experimented with patterns of psychic distance as they might appear in a passage.

Final Words

I hope you liked this article on Psychic Distance. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

David