Tag Archives: storytelling

Anatomy of a Sentence: Countingducks

Anatomy of a human being
Put on your gloves and goggles: we’re going in! (Photo credit: PureBlackLove)

Anatomy: A Greek word meaning, “Cut ’em up!” In the spirit of this delightful medical word, I am happy to introduce a new feature on my blog: Anatomy of a Sentence. From time to time I will showcase beautiful writing I run across in books, podcasts, and around the blogosphere.

Why am I doing this, you ask?

Because I want to become a better writer, and I believe dissecting lovely sentences to see what makes them tick will help me become a more thoughtful wordsmith in my own right.

I also think these fine writers deserve to be noticed and appreciated. Given that, I will be using this feature as an excuse to read more of your blogs. If you’ve posted a piece of fiction on your blog that you’re particularly proud of, don’t hesitate to leave me a link so I can enjoy it and consider featuring a sentence from it in the future. (If you are shy, you can email me a link directly using the form on my “About” page).

Today we’re looking at a sentence from a favorite blogger of mine, Countingducks. It comes from a piece of flash fiction entitled, “A Flight of Fancy Beyond the Normal:”

One of those delicate messages from the stomach department, brought to my attention from some new bod in Tastbuds, informed me that a small snack involving a couple of sausages with a polite egg or two, a hint of beans, one or two mushrooms with a small supply of toast might just avert a full-blown attack of Hunger Pangs: the worst affliction known to sedentary man.

I love this sentence for many reasons. Firstly, I love the personification of the taste bud as a polite worker, the new guy who’s been tasked with the unfortunate job of informing the boss of an impending disaster. There’s a sense of hesitance to to voice. I can practically hear the polite little cough before he launches into the full catalogue of the “small” snack. It’s an example of a masterfully executed extended metaphor.

Which brings me to my second observation. This sentence makes fine use of escalation. Starting with the “small snack”, the list gets comically longer and longer until it’s clear that the snack’s anything but minuscule. And to cap off the hilarity, the “delicate” message which begins the sentence ends on a crescendo of melodrama when these Hunger Pangs are described as the “worst affliction known to man.” It’s a double-whammy of escalation that adds layers of drama to the situation.

Masterful! Hilarious! This kind of thing brings me surging to my feet in applause.

And now to the dissecting table for a closer look at the guts:

Sentence diagram. Click to embiggen me!
Sentence diagram. Click to embiggen me!

Oh boy, diagramming this one was a headache. The subordinate clauses! The detailed little prepositional phrases! Once you cut into this sentence, the organs just spill out all over the place. You can see the unsightly scribbling where I dropped my watch inside the patient and had to dig around to find it.

But take a moment to admire the complexity of this organism that Countingducks has bestowed upon us.

At its heart, the sentence says something like this: “One informed me that a snack might avert an attack of hunger pangs.” In the diagram, you can see how for Countingducks, this basic sentence serves as a skeleton on which to hang layer upon layer of detail. I think it succeeds for the reasons I pointed out before: a sense of escalation that does more to communicate the urgency of food cravings than the basic statement would do on its own.

For me, “escalation” is the big takeaway lesson. I resolve to keep this device in mind as I’m writing this week and see if I can’t bring a little of this brilliance into my own fiction. Perhaps you’ll give it a shot as well. Experiment with adding a sense of drama (or melodrama) using this technique. And hop on over to Countingducks’s blog to read this story in full – it’s delightful!

Storytelling is Linear

Marjorie plummeted from the clifftop toward the surface below. But the surface was an ocean battering the cliffs, so she didn’t die on impact.

She flailed and foundered. She couldn’t swim.

But it wasn’t an ocean of water. It was a lake of fire. Even with her flame-resistant bodysuit, she’d have burned in minutes if not for the vessel that hauled her aboard. Marjorie marveled at the translucent walls, for it was a blood vessel, and a massive one.

Up the bloodstream, Marjorie emerged in an atrium. Not the heart, but a starlit chamber.

She had wings, so she flew.


Well, that was one of my more absurd pieces,  but trust me, I’m going somewhere with it. Today I want to talk  about the limitations — and possibilities — present in the written word, and what it means for us writerly types.

Let’s start with the basics: language is linear. We can say or read exactly one word at a time. It makes the most sense when you contrast a conversation with photography. A picture is worth a thousand words because visual communication is not constrained by linearity. I can say, “The dog… jumped,” but you have to wait until I finish the sentence before you know what the dog’s going to do. By contrast, if you watch a video of the dog barking, you see both the dog and its actions at the same time.

English: Hallway at the Royal York Hotel
Your story is like this hallway, only with more pirates. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think of language as a long hallway with many doors on either side. You are trying to walk from one end to the other, but as you go, you have to step over obstacles, occasionally stop, or even back up a few steps to let another person by. Eventually you’ll get to the end, but it will take time, and there is only one way forward.

For writers, this is problematic. You want to tell a good story. You can see the setting, the characters, and the whole plot in your mind’s eye. But what to tell the reader first? Do you describe the setting? Give some dialogue? How much description should you use? How do you organize the plot? Remember, readers can read only one word at a time. You may be omniscient, but your readers can only see straight ahead.

Today’s story illustrates this difficulty. In each sentence, did you find you had to revise your mental image of the action? Storytelling is linear. You can only picture what I’ve already mentioned, and even then only if I’ve written them without ambiguity. Is it a ship or a blood vessel? You can use the context to make an educated guess, but you can’t tell for sure without more information.

Sometimes this phenomenon is useful. I write a lot of flash fiction, and when I want to write a twist ending, sometimes I hold back a piece of crucial information in order to produce an emotional response: laughter, sadness, surprise, horror, warmth, and so on. Good jokes are made of this stuff!

I always feel like this when trying to write good sentences. (Photo credit: Lel4nd)

But linearity can be a huge headache. I’m talking about the problem of wordy prose. Speculative fiction author Cat Rambo wrote some advice on her blog recently on how to write well-crafted, complex sentences, and it really got me thinking. Long sentences are gorgeous when pulled off correctly, but when they’re less than masterful, they’re a train wreck. The hallway gets cluttered, and the reader can’t find her way through. Poorly organized prose forces her to reread several times in order to understand the meaning.

One of Cat’s best observations is how in well-executed dense prose, every  word carries its weight. This idea is at the crux of the oft-repeated advice to Murder The Adverbs when you’re first setting out to write good fiction. Adverbs tend to clutter the hallway and force more reevaluation than a good description would.

So what’s a writer to do? As someone hanging out on the amateur end of the pool, I recommend studying the heck out of the pros. Read, read, read. When you find someone whose style makes you melt into little puddles of happy, take a moment and really look at their sentences. Think about the order in which the information is presented.

And of course, in your own writing, be aware of the constraints of linearity. Try to picture things from the reader’s standpoint, and make it easy for the reader to race down the hallway. It’s hard to get lost in a good book when you keep tripping on confusing details and falling on your face.

Except I forgot to mention: you don’t have a face. You’re a peanut butter monster! Rawr!

If you’ve made it this far, have an excellent weekend! I am positively fried from the first week of school, but gradually finding my feet.

Do you like wordy prose? What do you think of the problem of linearity? What tips or advice can you offer to make wordy prose work?

Motley Microfiction: The Truth Behind Rejection Letters

The Truth Behind Rejection Letters

“Oh. My. God.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s this short story. It’s… it’s… the most — most beautiful — it’s –”

“Shh, calm down. Let me see it.”

“Here you go.”

“Sweet Jesus. You’re right.”


“What are we going to do? Our magazine is nowhere near the caliber worthy of such a piece, and we’re Asimov’s!”

“I guess there’s only one thing we can do.”

“I’ll do it. Wanna make sure it really captures my feelings, y’know?”

“Okay. Keep it professional, though.”

“How about this: Thank you for the opportunity to read your story. Unfortunately, we’re not able to accept it at this time…”


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Let’s talk about rejection!

This summer, I set out with two goals: to write more, and to submit some of my work for publication. So far, I’ve had great success on both goals. This blog is the direct result of the first, and I’ve had some of my flash fiction published on The Drabblecast this summer.

Still, I’ve yet to cross the barrier that would really make me feel like an author: I’ve yet to get paid for a piece of fiction. So I keep submitting, in spite of my horrible case of slush-phobia. Part of it is sheer stubbornness, and part of it’s that people who are published continually advise us amateurs to stick with it if we’re serious about writing. You have to be okay with accumulating huge piles of rejection slips if you want to hear “yes” someday.

I have another reason: I think the submissions/rejection game is kinda fun.

Now let me clarify: no one enjoys getting a rejection slip, and I’m no exception. On a couple occasions, I’ve gotten pretty bummed out after getting yet another rejection after getting my hopes up. But also know that there are human beings on the other side of the email. That means two things: 1. Rejection slips are proof that someone read my writing, and 2. Despite their professional tone, there’s some human warmth and goodwill behind every rejection I receive.

It works the same in my part-time job as an essay-grader for the Georgia graduation test. The process is entirely anonymous. I don’t know anything about the kids I’m grading for, and they don’t receive anything from me except my score. But I often hold a one-sided conversation with the kids in my head over what they write about. Sometimes I wish I could attach a note in return saying that while they didn’t meet the standards to pass, I very much enjoyed their piece anyway.

So when I get a rejection slip, I like to supply that missing bit of conversation. Today’s story is the result. Funny how those slush readers always say such nice things behind my back, eh?

What experiences have you had in the world of submissions and rejection? How do you view rejection, and how do you cope with it so you don’t get discouraged?

Creeper Guy Revisited: You’re Always the Hero of Your Own Story

English: A stereotypical caricature of a villa...
You always know the villain by the awesome mustache. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to share some thoughts looking back on my experience with my neighborhood stalker (a.k.a. Creeper Guy) two months ago. As always, if you’d prefer to stick with the flash fiction, no hard feelings here. Check back tomorrow or browse the archives.

Let’s start with a familiar story. It’s about a hero, a villain, and a damsel. The villain’s of the mustache-twirling variety. Because he has it out for the hero, he’s captured the damsel and tied her to the train tracks. The hero somehow learns of this plan, hops on his horse, and rides to rescue his lady.

In the distance he hears the sounds of the train whistle growing louder and louder. Does he get there in time? Of course! He’s the hero. He jumps off his horse, duels the villain, and unties the damsel just moments before the train whooshes past.

It’s a classic story, and a good one. And the perspective matters. As readers, we see through the eyes of the hero because that’s the perspective I told the story from.

But we reflexively do this all the time. You are always the hero of your own story. When we hear about a dangerous situation, we imagine that in similar circumstances, we’d outsmart the bad guy and save the day.

Take my Creeper Guy story. While I received an enormous outpouring of love and support, I also received well-intentioned comments like this:

“Show me where he lives, and I’ll beat him up if he bothers you.”

“If someone ever came after my family like that, I wouldn’t think twice about shooting him.”

“Shame on you for not calling the police sooner. You should have called a long time ago.”

“I’ve never run into crazy guys because I always run with my dog/with a friend/at the park/etc.”

In all of these statements, the person casts themselves in the role of the hero within my story. They presume that, given the same circumstances, they would have made a different decision that would result in a more victorious outcome. My actions (specifically, the months and months of inaction that preceded my eventual phone call to the police) don’t make sense. That’s not what the hero does. The hero is bold, decisive, and in control of the situation. The hero beats up the villain and saves the girl.

English: Poster for The Perils of Pauline (1914)
The damsel’s in a default state of fear. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But let’s revisit the story again.

She’s minding her own business, overpowered by a stranger whose intentions are inscrutable. She’s restrained. She’s lying on the train tracks while her kidnapper looks on and laughs. She hears the whistle of the train approaching. All she can think about is that she’s about to die. She would do anything to get away, to hide, to rewind time to that point in her life just hours ago (a lifetime ago) when mustache-twirling strangers only existed in the movies.

You see where I’m going with this.

Being a damsel in distress is inherently disempowering. It’s a role defined by helplessness and limited options. In my experiences with Creeper Guy, it really bothered me that this jerk could singlehandedly terrorize me into not running for weeks at a time. He had all the power. It’s a sick feeling. Whenever I had a run-in with him, I’d be afraid to check my own mail for days afterward, lest he be out there in his car, waiting. It’s the “flight” portion of the “fight-or-flight” response.

Remember: I’m exactly like you. I’ve had fantasies all my life that if anyone messed with me, I’d put them in their place. But when the reality of several tons of metal comes barreling after you, you run. You hide. You don’t want to think about it. You want to go back to that time in your life when your neighbors were harmless, when stalkers only showed up in the movies.

So what changed?

I already told you, remember? It was Connor Choadsworth: In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm.

Frank Bernard Dicksee. Chivalry
Me, Creeper Guy, and Connor Choadsworth. Hint: I’m not the damsel this time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am dead serious. Here’s the secret, the essential difference between the damsel and the hero: The damsel runs from danger because she doesn’t want to die. The hero runs towards danger because he doesn’t care if he dies. He has someone to fight for.

There’s a world of difference between fear and anger. Fear paralyzes. Anger empowers. As I sat at home staring at my iPod that day, I felt overwhelmed by the injustice, that this jerk would ruin my favorite episode of one of my favorite podcasts… well, you gotta draw a line somewhere. Wanting to defend the honor of Connor Choadsworth provided just enough rage to change my “flight” into “fight”. Having someone to fight for transformed me from damsel to hero in an instant, and heroes have options. Heroes are able to take action. So I did.

As a result, I think I better understand why people behave the way they do under stress. More importantly, I can silence the voice in my head that tells me that given the same situation, I’d do it differently. Just because I want to cast myself as the hero doesn’t mean I’ll have that option. Circumstances dictate so much. Who can know for sure what you’ll do until you’ve lived it?

For example, as the Trayvon Martin case has unfolded over the past few weeks, I found myself profoundly overwhelmed with its parallels to Creeper Guy. A pedestrian in his own neighborhood, being followed by a neighbor in a car whose intentions were unclear. The fear, the sense of danger, the inherent physical imbalance between vehicle and foot traffic. And if Creeper Guy had left his car and come after me, what would I have done? I have a bittersweet admiration for the young man who, being braver or more reckless than I am, rejected the role of the damsel outright. Hero or villain? Let God decide, but I can empathize.

The line between these roles is a thin one. We never know what role we’re going to play until we’re playing it. One can transform into another so easily with just a change of motivation. Maybe the best we can do is to be conscious of these roles, and do our best to understand each other accordingly.

Do you usually picture yourself in the role of hero when you hear other people’s stories? What should we do about it, given it’s so reflexive and automatic?

Link Roundup 7-14-13

Toy Story
Toy Story (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A little extra reading to scratch those scientific and writing-related itches. Which are totally not deadly symptoms. I checked WebMD; we’re good.

From ScienceDaily: Some exciting new research proposes to starve out cancer cells while keeping the other cells in your body well-fed. It’s sort of a reverse-angiogenesis from what I understand.

It’s Okay to Be Smart posted this stunning video of a super-slow-motion lightning strike via National Geographic. Things are back to normal at my house post-lightning strike, although some of our neighbors in the surrounding townhouses haven’t fared so well. I also saw an exploded tree on my running route the next day. Will try to snap a picture of it for you if it hasn’t been cleaned up just yet.

John Negroni proposes a Universal Theory of Pixar that ties together all their movies. I love Pixar because almost all their movies are such stellar examples of good storytelling. I’ve taken quite a bit of inspiration from this list of Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, particularly #19: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

Slate brings us a physician’s meditations on blood transfusions and how an unusual example of interfaith cooperation could save lives. I was personally very moved by Dr. Karkowsky’s article, and it gave me an idea for a sci-fi story. Inspiration’s such a random beast, eh?

Eric Alagan of Written Words Never Die provided a whole gallery of flash fiction on the theme of vampires generated by people around the blogosphere, which I highly recommend.

Since I spent 14 hours on the road, I listened to a LOT of old Drabblecast episodes as I continue to work my way through the archives. Therefore my list of best podcasts is exclusively Drabblecast this week — not that that’s a bad thing!

  • Drabblecast 288 – “Bayou Witch”: If you want a good introduction to this podcast, this would not be a bad place to start. The main story has a medical theme that I won’t spoil here. Also, the episode opens with my first-ever credited, published work of fiction, which made this a week to remember for me.
  • Drabblecast 058 – “Eggs”: Hilarious, gross, and all about helminthiasis, or parasitic worms. This is the definition of a terrible day in my book.
  • Drabblecast 069 – “The Storyteller”: a tale by the classic author Saki. I think this story had some profound things to say about good storytelling, and the tension between entertaining an audience and communicating a certain message.
  • Drabblecast 055 – “Circe’s”: Do you like truly surreal stories? Then check this one out. I found it especially memorable because of the great production values and fantastic sound effects/music.
  • Drabblecast 052 – “Sleep Age”: Thought-provoking sci-fi that also explores the problem of economic bubbles and fuel efficiency, all tied to the concept of sleeping for a living. The original song at the end of the episode might just be better than the episode itself.

That’s it for this week! What’s happening on your blogs? What caught your eye around the internet this week?