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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Swimming Bird's number one rule of syntax

   
Author Topic: Swimming Bird's number one rule of syntax
Swimming Bird
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When trying to convey a certain sequence of events, try not to deviate from your main idea until it is executed.

AKA: DO NOT ALTERNATE PARAGRAPHS.

Example:

(melodrama on purpose)

"William planted the bomb in the toaster oven and set it to two-hundred degrees. One degree for every person at work today. It seemed almost poetic. There was nothing left to do now but wait, and waiting was the one thing that William had turned into an art form during all the years he's labored at this hell-hole of a company.

Outside it was still foggy. William continued to be amazed at how he managed to get to the office today without an accident on the parkway. The arrogant weatherman on the radio said there was a high chance of fog today, not to mention rain. Maybe if I had listened, William thought, I may not have been soaking wet coming in the door this morning. Guess it's too late to buy an umbrella.

But that only further fueled his rage. It was time to exact his revenge. It was time for William to experience the joy he had denied himself too long.

The instructions on the toaster oven said that two-hundred degrees should take no more than ten minutes to preheat, and once the heat sensitive trigger on the bomb activated, no one here would be home in time for diner.

William checked his watch: Five minutes left. Now was his time. As William followed the gliding second hand of his Rolex, his disgust of this establishment ran through him like bile."

In the first paragraph, William is waiting for a bomb to go off in his workplace that will kill his co-workers and most likely himself.

In the second paragraph we radically shift from the intense hatred he has shown in the first paragraph and seemingly go off on a tangent about the weather that has no business being there. It it jarring and takes you out of Williams cynical POV. The paragraph is completely filler.

Seeing as how the second paragraph was inappropriate, we try to shoehorn it into the third paragraph with a throwaway first sentence, and then have to salvage it with a second and third sentence that do nothing but reinitiate the first paragraph.

The fourth paragraph is jarring because it is a blatant info-dump that instead of being worked into the narrative naturally, it instead tossed out abruptly in an attempt to suddenly give some kind of explanation to why William would set the toaster oven to 200 degrees in the first place. It feels tacked on.

Then, finally, with the fifth paragraph do we only actually move the story along.

Writers make these mistakes often when they start to write a story they know nothing about. But, sometimes, they do know what they want to convey, but they can't find a decent way to convey it.

A good tip would be not to interrupt an established stream of action or thought with something out of left field. This includes back story, unless you are trying to cheat your audience (ala Oceans 11 when we find out how the real robbery was done only AFTER it had already taken place).

William's story was also all over the place. It felt disorganized. It also felt repetitive because we had to correct our little side-tracks by getting back on course by saying stuff we already said.

I considered using different trains of thought within the same paragraph to be my number one rule, but people tend to catch that mistake on their own. The biggest problem with a paragraph is that since it's separate from the paragraph before it, writers think it's a free pass to talk about whatever they want to fill the hours until finally getting back to their main idea. But you have to understand that paragraphs follow a logical course, and if you stray, it will not only hurt your work, but sometimes hurt that very main idea you were trying to show in the first place.

Comments? Opinions?


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Verdant
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I am afraid I must respectfully disagree. It depends on what you are trying to convey; switching paragraphs can show a conflicted state of mind or schizophrenia or any number of things.

I agree that if you want to create a sense of urgency, you cannot swith themes between paragraphs. This slows down the pace and transports the reader to different places, causing time to expand and lapse. By making sentances short and easy to read, the pace speeds up. When you continue the action from one paragraph to the next, you can mirror the action with the words for the reader. They read faster, wanting the action to continue.

Changing the thought process deliberately between paragraphs can be a useful tool. It's like controlling the clock in a sports game. You decide what pace the information gets to the reader. Sometimes you want time to fly by and other times, you want to drag things out.


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Louiseoneal
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Er...darn, I don't do that on purpose, I don't think. I think it might be all those characters with ADD who are at fault.
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trousercuit
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I'd be most worried about the reader's attention wandering than anything. The second paragraph was definitely a "so what?" moment for me.
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Spaceman
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quote:
William planted the bomb in the toaster oven and set it to two-hundred degrees.

Wow, William can control the temperature of the explosion!

(Always make the antecedent of a pronoun unique.)


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Leaf II
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can you explain the above post, please. I would appreciate it, thanks.

-leaf


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Aust Alien
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The bomb might have a temperature setting on it. (Maybe William was even more angry and distracted by having to convert Celcius to Fahrenheit.)


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Spaceman
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Leaf II: Does the pronoun "it" refer to the bomb or the oven?
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Survivor
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I think this is a matter of expositive organization, not syntax.
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Survivor
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And I wouldn't rate it as number one, either.
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Silver3
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I'm with Survivor on both counts.
This isn't syntax. Syntax is how you make up and organize one sentence.

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Gecko
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No it's not:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/syntax

And seeing as you two aren't SB, I doubt it would be your number one rule.

[This message has been edited by Gecko (edited July 29, 2006).]


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MaryRobinette
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Weird. I totally read that definition to support Survivor and Silver.
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Corky
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Gecko, are you SB?
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Spaceman
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Make it 4 on Survivor's side. The only syntax problem I see is the one I already pointed to.
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Leaf II
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Spaceman: thanks for clarifying.
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Rilnian
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Its funny how he brings up a valid point, and the majority of posts are squabling over the exact meaning of "syntax". It's the english language, come on. Things mean whatever you want them to mean! :P Just having some fun, now tear me to pieces lol.
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Aust Alien
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Do you get wafers wiff it?

Or is it too early for the Monty Python quotes? Anyway, like a good story it has evolved from a discussion on Paragraph usage (which I agree with but can't add much more to) to a much more lively debate on the use of it in the clause to refer to Subject or Object. (Sometimes us minor characters hijack the plot even in a discussion thread - and sometimes it's a good thing).

[This message has been edited by Aust Alien (edited July 30, 2006).]


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Survivor
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Well, I'll grant that the fact that this isn't a matter of syntax is a minor issue.

But whether we regard the rule as addressing exposition or narrative organization or characterization, we still have to deal with far more important fundamentals of how each should be constructed. The rule as stated is one that will lead you far astray if you place it ahead of other important rules of organization. It isn't a bad rule...unless you make it rule number one.


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Aust Alien
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Wasn't Swimming Bird's last post marked as Rule # 1 as well?
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Spaceman
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I think all of Swimming Bird's rules are #1. At least the Bird is consistent.
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pooka
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I see nothing in that definition that defends defining the arrangement of paragraphs as "syntax." Also, the rule is about the meaning of the paragraphs, which is explicitly not what syntax is involved with.

If you aren't familiar with the phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.", this is supposed to illustrate that a sentence can be syntactically sound but semantically contradictory.

It's a free country and all that, but if one is purporting to establish rules, ignoring any existing conventions simply creates irony.


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Beth
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Swimming Bird's #1 Rule of Irony
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Survivor
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That was his number one rule for writing action scenes. This was his number one rule for something pertaining to narrative or expositive organization which he mistakenly called "syntax".

I think that this rule needs to be subordinate to other rules of organization, simply because if you follow this rule literally it will force you to reveal the resolution of your main plot before mentioning any of the action and characterization that probably make up the bulk of your story. That's the problem with "number one rules", a great many of them are so obvious that they become effectively unnoticed. My number one rule for almost everything is "POV"

Syntax, on the other hand, can't have a "number one" rule. Because syntax isn't something you get to decide. Syntax is how the reader will parse what you've written, not how you write things. The reading process does have definite steps, like "scan each contiguous character string and identify it with a concept". But because we carry out that step for each word as we read, and start trying to relate those words to the overall sentance using other parsing rules, this step isn't carried out as a whole before other rules are being invoked. I suppose that we could limit it to make it truly first, "scan the first contiguous character string and identify it with a concept." That then gives us the first rule of writing good syntax, "make your first contiguous character string identifiable with a concept."

Of course, that's such a triviality I'm almost ashamed to mention it


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Survivor
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By the way, the other day I was reading something and came across the term "irrupted". I promised myself that I would look it up later, and remembered this while I was writing the above post (astute readers will realize why). So I went to dictionary.com to look it up.

But before I got to dictionary.com, I accidentally ended up at "dictonary.com", a site with links through which one can purchase a dictionary of whatever type one needs. Speaking of irony

By the way, the definition on dictionary.com was very unsatisfactory. It states that the word is intransitive, but the definition logically implies that it must be transitive. The usages I encountered was intransitive, as was the example given in the definition, but the concept is definitely transitive in nature. "to irrupt" is something that one entity does to a distinct, separate entity.


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TMan1969
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I can be guilty of jumping back and forth whrn creating the story. The sudden onslaught of inspiration can be brief or at different periods so therefore, the flow may get interrupted or seem jagged...its only natural.

For me, your second paragraph could be the first and introduce the character and his cynism..then the rest..and I agree with the your idea of logical flow to keep the reader interested - as long as the story is not compromised.

[This message has been edited by TMan1969 (edited July 31, 2006).]


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Survivor
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Continuing our round of irony, the Jews are all out to get Mel Gibson again because he was drunk and complained about how they were all out to get him.

Now, you can be on either side of this issue, but that's just funny


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pooka
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Actually, I believe he accused the Jews of starting all the wars in the world. If only every news service who hadn't been bearing the same tale felt ashamed to report this as news.

I still don't quite grasp this term "irrupt". I tried Merriam Webster.com and it suggested as a synonym "reave".


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thexmedic
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Having just read all of this topic, I want to give kudos to TMAN for his desperate bid to actually talk about Swimming Bird's original post.
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TMan1969
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Poor Mel, I think my wife said it best, "If it was me or you - nobody would care. It would be just another DUI"

I think that even though Mel said disparaging remarks about the Jews, it makes me wonder why they in turn would seek to defame or harm him personally. Is it not "hate" motivated as well? Its pretty sad when alarm bells go off for words, and not for the innocent chidlren who died in Leb due to Israeli attacks..I guess that's ok - they were not Jewish.
I don't hate Jews or any race for that matter - I dislike those people that put a badge on when its convenient. Mel? Well a man that drunk can't stop himself from being stupid - whats their excuse?


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Robert Nowall
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I suppose Mel Gibson will suffer for his drunken outburst. Conservatives always suffer when they get caught saying or doing stupid things...liberals never do...
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TMan1969
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I should clarify - drunkeness should never be an excuse for bad behavior. But it should be taken into consideration, because alcohol does open doors left closed.
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authorsjourney
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Perhaps we should refrain from unnecessary politically charged comments? Especially in a thread about paragraphs and syntax...
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Survivor
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That's not true, they suffer so deeply they even cry. Using tears, no less

I think that the remarks have to be understood in proper context. Mel Gibson was in the process of being arrested by a police officer who happened to be a Jew. There isn't any evidence that Mel Gibson was doing anything other than mouthing off to "The Man". If it were a woman making the arrest, he'd probably have ranted about how women are terrible oppressors and always start wars and stuff, and we'd all just laugh. Particularly when NOW picked it up and started hammering him for it. If the arresting officer had been English...Gibson might be in real trouble right about now.

I'm rather curious about how the media found out about these comments, actually. I mean...it strikes me as ethically questionable to arrest a public person and publish his drunken rantings. Look at it this way...what if the media had withheld the name of the person making the remarks (which would be the normal, ethical way of handling this). Would this be a story?

Heck, next time I get arrested by a Jew, I'm going to try it and find out. It'll all be like, "You just can't handle my beautiful long hair, and the love and peace it brings. That's why you Jews killed Christ, isn't it? That's right, you're all out to destroy us long-haired guys."

I'll leave it to you guys to hope I don't get myself shot


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TMan1969
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Roger That!!
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Can this discussion please return to the alternating paragraph rule, whether it is syntactical or not?
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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As my effort in that direction, alternating paragraphs, as Swimming Bird has described them, kind of remind me of alternating chapters (which tend to drive me a little crazy, especially when they move me from characters I care about to characters I don't care about--and I really hate it when they do that with a cliff-hanger ending).
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Robert Nowall
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quote:
Perhaps we should refrain from unnecessary politically charged comments? Especially in a thread about paragraphs and syntax...

I can't help it these days, the slightest politically-oriented thing sets me off...


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Survivor
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In a way, thread drift illustrates the importance (though not primacy) of SB's point.

Just as it takes a conscious (and fairly conscientious) effort to keep a thread on topic, so it takes careful attention to make sure that you don't veer off on a tangent during a narrative. Of course, this thread also serves as an analogy in another way. It was the kind of thread that was very likely to get pulled completely off-topic for a number of reasons that could clearly be traced back to the first post.

If you don't create a clearly defined narrative path from the beginning, one that naturally engages and holds your attention as a writer, then you're likely to stray.


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