Friday, January 18, 2008

Sentence Reversals in Contemporary Fiction

Regarding my last post about sentence-level reversals, Patricia comments:
I wonder how much this is used in commercial contemporary fiction. All of the examples are classic. I'm wracking my brains to think of a current example.

Patricia, I suspect what's throwing you is that the examples I cited used reversals to set out thematic elements. In commercial fiction (which tends to rely less on theme), this kind of sentence is more likely to be used in other ways, usually but not always to set scenes or describe characters. Also, in contemporary writing, we tend to use reversals as accents within a sentence rather than as the meat of the sentence -- but this is not universal. It's just a tendency.

In the previous post, I used those examples because the reversals are so obvious that it makes the concept very clear. Sometimes reversals are a little less blatant, though.

Just using the books within reach of my desk, these are some sentences I find in openings:

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed anyone by magic -- nor ever done any one the slightest good.
~ third sentence, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (doing harm ---> doing good, used to introduce characters)

[Imagine a] place of white sparkling mountains and black forests and one high, ancient castle.
~ second sentence, The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe (white ---> black, used to set the scene)

The cabin was silent except for the chattering of a squirrel on the roof.
~ second paragraph, Natural Selection by Liz Wolfe (silent --->chattering, used to set the scene)

Trouble was, the bride wasn't Jeannette Rose Brantford. The bride was Jeannette's identical twin sister, Janette Violet Brantford....
~ sixth and seventh sentences, The Husband Trap by Tracy Anne Warren (Rose--->Violet, used to set the premise and describe the characters) (Worth noting: twins switching places is a reversal used as a plot element.)

Example one is genfic. Two is paranormal romance. Three is a mystery. Four is historical romance. The oldest of these titles has a 2004 copyright date.

We're going to explore this idea a bit further, but I want to make sure first that everyone is on the same page. (Haha, punny -- that page would be the first, yes?) (Ah, nothing like wordgeek humor on a Friday afternoon.) (I'll shut up now.)


Natasha Moore said...

OK, since you asked for examples, I'll put myself out there. This is the second sentence from one of my recent releases, Taste of Honey (Seasons of Seduction IV)

The come-on in that silky voice would tempt a saint, and God knew Jake Manning wasn’t hitting the Pearly Gates anytime soon.

Would this be what you were talking about?


Edittorrent said...

Yes, Natasha! Exactly!
saint ---> sinner

Yours has added subtlety -- we have to wiggle out the clues a little as we read it. You don't come right out and call him a devil, but you lead us there. Nicely done!


Anonymous said...

Okay, Theresa…..,

I’ll jump on board here, too. This is a line, from a scene, in one of my current projects.

Rather akin to the chattering squirrel, but I thought I’d toss it out there, anyway. {g}

That was an out and out lie. And they both knew it. But they let it hang in the air, simmering between them. The minutes stretched. The humming of the refrigerator and the ticking of the cat clock were the only sounds in the audible silence.

Linda in St. Petersburg, who’s currently being non-productive, while enjoying a Baileys in coffee.

PatriciaW said...

Theresa, thanks for the additional examples. That did help clear it up a bit. I agree, the thematic use in classic fiction was making it a bit confusing for me.

I get it.

Bobbie (Sunny) Cole said...

Now you have me going back over nearly everything I've written lately and looking - lol. I've probably spent an hour reading and re-reading the posts you two have on this darned blog. QUITE enjoyable (and informative!!!) - THANKS!

Edittorrent said...

Patricia, I'm glad you asked because I think it was an excellent question and helped us develop this idea more fully. :)

Linda, yes, that's exactly right -- and I like the way you use the oxymoron (audible silence) to heighten the impact of these disparate elements.

Lyn, doll, it's always a pleasure to help you procrastinate. And this time we did it without shocking any bartenders. ;D


Anonymous said...

First line from the novel I'm working on:

Two harmless-looking black warships accelerated inward from their pop-in points, twelve light-seconds from the convoy of civilian ships and its lone protector.

Edittorrent said...

Dave, I see two there.
harmless ---> war(ships)
convoy ---> lone

These are pretty subtle, but that's part of what makes them work for genre writing. The rhetorical trick is transparent.

Edittorrent said...

Theresa, I'm wondering how that sentence-level tension would work in non-fiction openings. My students are now doing narrative papers (which are a lot like fiction, though they're supposed to be true :), so ... hmm...
I was my parents' first and worst child....?
My first marriage was perfect, my second marriage less so?

It was only by losing that I learned what victory means....

Actually, all those sound kinda interesting!

Fascinating stuff-- it's like there's conflict and interest built in from the get-go.