Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wednesday Makes Lit Theory Fun

I have a confession to make: I'm a huge, out of control, completely and utterly devoted English nerd. What? You're not surprised? I guess it isn't much of a confession when I've done nothing to hide it. Anyway, at the risk of boring the internet to death, I'm going to be talking about literary theory. Yes, you've come home from school only to find me--a short, agitated teenage girl rambling on about Plato's Cave and the Marxist lens. You'll (possibly) learn to love it if you give it a chance, so bear with me.

There was one method of analyzing literature that I had to use in class the other day which examined the way sentence structure influences the thesis and tone of a piece. It was called Russian Formulaic thing-a-ma-jig theory, or something like that. For instance, in the book Something Wicked This Way comes, Ray Bradbury uses contrasting short and multi-clause sentences to create a creepy, dark atmosphere. The contrasting sentences also mirror the motif of light and dark, which is a central theme in the book. If you haven't read it, you should, because it's running-around-your-house-pulling-your-hair-out good. 

Another example that comes to mind is the book The Woman in Black. I'm sure some of you have seen the movie starring none other than Mr. Daniel Jacob Radcliffe. What a lot of people don't know, though, is that the movie is based on a short novel by Susan Hill. The book is set in the Victorian Era (cue excited jumping) told you I was an English nerd)) on the estate of a recently deceased widow. Aside from being at the end of a causeway that floods every few hours, cutting off the main character from the rest of the town while he is there, the house also has a graveyard and a ghost. I know, right?? Awesome. Because the book is set in the Victorian era, the author uses a very Victorian style of writing--long, windy sentences, flowery language, etc. Not everyone's cup of tea, but it really adds to the authenticity of the writing and makes it even scarier than the movie. 

What I'm saying here (I know I tend to ramble), is that you can use sentence structure to compliment and reinforce themes or ideas in your writing AND you should be on the watch for sentences that don't compliment your character or theme. Say you're writing a tense scene where your character is trying to hide their emotions. Which is better?

Petra's lip trembled, and her voice shook like oak leaves on a windy day, "I hate you," she hissed at him, nearly sobbing, her arms wrapped around her sides as if that could fix everything.


Petra bit the inside of her lip. "Yes. Fine, I'll get it to you by Monday." Her words hit the ground like bullet shells. 

Now, if you were writing a scene with a really emotional character, or writing something that lent itself to longer sentences, the first one might work. But in a scene that is meant to convey an uncomfortable, tense feeling, short and terse sentences help you get your point across better. 

Another thing to watch is your figurative language. Just like sentence structure, your figurative language should usually match up with the voice of you narrator and the tone of your piece. If you were writing from the point of view of a construction worker, you would want to use language that is relevant to their life, not say, a metaphor about owls when they've never had an experience with owls in their life. It doesn't matter if it's the best freaking owl metaphor in the world. If your character doesn't think that way, the cognitive dissonance will have your reader thinking that the story doesn't make sense. Same thing with tone. If you're writing a happy, joyful scene, a metaphor about "winter lingering; an unwelcome guest," isn't going to get you anywhere. If you really like a certain phrase, but it doesn't fit, save it for later. Just don't ruin a story you love by distracting your readers with sentences that contradict what you're saying. Take each piece of your writing and fit it together so that the language, the themes, the characters, and the plot work together, instead of against each other.  

I'm going to leave you now because I have to be up bright and early to take a soul-crushing AP exam, which I'm sure will be written horribly, because they design these things to annoy me. As long as I remember to structure my sentences the way the Mesopotamians did, I think I'll do fine on AP World History. Right?