Diction consists of vocabulary (words one at a time) and syntax is the rule-governed arrangement of words in sentences, the patterns (A Handbook to Literature). Or to put it another way, syntax is the word order; the way words are put together to form phrases, clauses, and sentences (The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Literary Terms).
When first drafting a narrative, short or long, some writers will focus primarily on the “big picture” or the overall development of context, characterization, etc. Some writers, however, find themselves focusing immediately on the words and syntax. Whichever way is your organic process, by the time the work is done, you’ll want to spend time focused purely on diction and syntax. Even if you tend to write your first drafts with a focus on word choice and patterns, you are split between language and context. It is only after you’ve fully developed the context and overall arc of the narrative, characters, conflicts, etc., that you can then allow your focus to spotlight the language, patterns and flow.
In this lesson, we will spend time on the syntax of your work. Let’s start by reading the below excerpt.
The Lady of the House of Love
by Angela Carter
At last the revenants became so troublesome the peasants abandoned the village and it fell solely into the possession of subtle and vindictive inhabitants who manifest their presences by shadows that fall almost imperceptibly awry, too many shadows, even at midday, shadows that have no source in anything visible; by the sound, sometimes, of sobbing in a derelict bedroom where a cracked mirror suspended from a wall does not reflect a presence; by a sense of unease that will afflict the traveler unwise enough to pause to drink from the fountain in the square that still gushes spring water from a faucet stuck in a stone lion’s mouth. A cat prowls in a weedy garden; he grins and spits, arches his back, bounces away from an intangible on four fear-stiffened legs. Now all shun the village below the château in which the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes.
Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.
Her voice is filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit. “Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?” READ MORE
Notice the rolling syntax and heightened diction of the above excerpt from Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love.” Early in the excerpt opening, the language has a rigor that might send many readers to the dictionary. In the last paragraph of the excerpt, she changes the diction and syntax to a simpler form. She adds repetition as a way to help this section stand out and introduce a key moment in the opening of the story: “And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit.” Herein is a major internal conflict of the narrative and it’s protagonist.
In narratives such as “The Lady of the House of Usher,” the writer might dip into historical dictions and syntaxes so to create a sort of ethereal mood and transcendence. When the language turns minimalist, again, the reader perceives the shift. Something important is happening. This week, you are going to explore this shift of language in your own work and how it can frame a scene.
- Choose a scene (1000 words or less) that you’ve already written, or write a new one. This should be a scene that either opens the entire story or begins a new section within the story.
- Now, study the diction. What is the average syllable length of the words. Consider how a three or more syllable word will create a rolling sort of atmosphere within the language itself. Choose a few words in the first 3/4 of the narrative and replace them with synonyms of three or more syllables. Don’t overdo it. And make sure the synonyms are organic to the scene’s details.
- Next, study the syntax. Are you using more short sentences and phrases or are your sentences long. Are you using anaphora? In the first 3/4 of the narrative, use anaphora and longer sentence structures so to create a rolling, transcendent atmosphere.
- Finally, in the last quarter of the scene, an important moment to which the previous language was building, simplify the diction, shorten the syntax into clauses or phrases. Allow this moment of simple clarity to resonate with the reader. Consider how this varied diction and syntax creates a sense of rhythm and cadence within the language itself and how this supports the context of the scene.
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