Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Write Order: Week 4

Assignment:  Write about an epiphany (aha! moment) from your past.

Ordering your work:

As we have previously discussed, epiphanies are generally told in a chronological order because they are a revealing of a significant change in thought--a contrast of before with after.  So when we talk about ordering in an epiphany, we're not really talking about when to write about what.  Instead, we're talking about two issues:
  • Making certain that you have clarified your misconception before your moment of enlightenment; and
  • Playing with your tempo to make sure that everyone gets your moment when you do.
Now, for those of you in class this last week, this is essentially what we already talked about, but here it is written out for review or for those of you who were unable to make it.

Tempo is simply the speed at which you read.  Within limits, the tempo of the reader can be set by the author, and I will give some examples of tempo setting at the bottom of the post.

Tempo setting is one of the more straightforward aspects of writing and follows some basic rules.
  1. You set the tempo of your reader with your averages.
    1. When you begin writing, as when you speak, you have a kind of default length to your responses.  This default length is accepted by your reader/listener as a kind of "sound bite."  Your reader will adjust their speed of comfort to match with yours.
    2. By changing this average, you will grab your reader's attention.
  2. You can change a reader's speed through paragraph length.
    1. You can slow down your reader's perception of the action through shorter paragraphs.  If you describe everything together in one quick paragraph that your reader zooms through at breakneck speed, they will lose some of the action.  Several short paragraphs at key moments of change will help your reader identify the important actions and slow them down long enough to take them in.
    2. Long paragraphs, ones significantly longer than your average ones, can also slow down the reader and are frequently used as thoughtful asides.  While emphasis on thoughts has been somewhat downplayed during the last century or so (James Joyce excepted), best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith does this very nicely in several of his series.
  3. You can change a reader's speed through sentence length.
    1. We try to read a sentence in a single breath.  Even when we read to ourselves, we generally follow this tendency.  
    2. Counterintuitively then, a short sentence, particularly following long ones, will slow your reader down.
    3. A long sentence, especially one with relatively few commas and stops, will speed your reader up.
  4. You can change a reader's speed through punctuation.
    1. More punctuation = slower speed
    2. Less punctuation = faster speed
  5. You can change a reader's speed through word sound (and length too, but sound is much easier).
    1. Word sound produces a physical barrier or affinity to speed especially when reading aloud but even when reading silently.
    2. Without getting into the technical terms, the "hard" letters (p, b, t, d, g, k, q, y, hard c, ch, tch) will slow the reader down.  Think how hard it is to say "rubber baby buggy bumpers" quickly!
    3. The "soft" letters (s, f, j, z, soft c, soft g, th, sh) will speed the reader up.
Here are some examples of speed:

From Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy front gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursleys' front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr. Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls. Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed. Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets - but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother. The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.

Yet Harry Potter was still there, asleep at the moment, but not for long. His Aunt Petunia was awake and it was her shrill voice that made the first noise of the day.

"Up! Get up! Now!"

Harry woke with a start. His aunt rapped on the door again.
 Did you notice what the change in both sentence and paragraph length did to our speed and attention?

From the opening of The Battle of the Labyrinth:
The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school. But there I was Monday morning, the first week of June, sitting in my mom’s car in front of Goode High School on East 81st.

Goode was this big brownstone building overlooking the East River. A bunch of BMWs and Lincoln Town Cars were parked out front. Staring up at the fancy stone archway, I wondered how long it would take me to get kicked out of this place.

“Just relax.” My mom didn’t sound relaxed. “It’s only an orientation tour. And remember, dear, this is Paul’s school. So try not to . . . you know.”

“Destroy it?”


Paul Blofis, my mom’s boyfriend, was standing out front greeting future ninth graders as they came up the steps. With his salt-and-pepper hair, denim clothes, and leather jacket, he reminded me of a TV actor, but he was just an English teacher. He’d managed to convince Goode High School to accept me for ninth grade, despite the fact that I’d gotten kicked out of every school I’d ever attended. I’d tried to warn him it wasn’t a good idea, but he wouldn’t listen. I looked at my mom.
Notice how Riordan (the author) sets the tempo with the length of the first two paragraphs, slows it down to further foreshadow (as well as increase the stakes of messing up), and then speed it back up again by returning to his former sentence and paragraph length.

And here are some real classics:

To Be or Not to Be:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing
end them? To die: to sleep;
No more;
Note the use of punctuation and hard sounds.  There are soft sounds used as well, but the slowing comes in the pairing (I have bolded these elements and underlined the phrases to make them more apparent).  Notice also that this use of slowing down highlights his leaning toward death, where he uses the punctuation and hard sounds, and not toward life--an area that is not only sped up by soft sounds and lack of punctuation but by an abbreviation as well.

Queen Mab:
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Here, note mainly the lack of punctuation and a preponderance of f's and s's.

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