Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Enjambment in fiction

More paragraphing stuff-- well, also about dialogue. And introspection.

There is music in the way we think and talk. Even the non-melodic among us use rhythm and repetition as we assemble our thoughts. And so when you write, the reader will unconsciously resonate with the natural rhythm of human thought/speech... if you make use of the normal "echo" speakers use.

That is, as we speak, we repeat keywords, especially those spoken by the immediately previous speaker. What are keywords? Important words that carry some thematic or emotional meaning. Repeating them reinforces the meaning, and links the adjacent paragraphs together. The ear or the eye catches the repetition and the rhythm it creates, and the effect is doubled-- not just the meaning, but the extra meaning that comes from the connection of the different parts of the passage.

But you have to do it right. The ear, and certainly the eye, don't have much of a memory. A line or two, that's about it. So you want the echo to happen very soon, as in this bit of dialogue from the film Breaking Away (great dialogue in this, btw, and it takes place in my dear friend Deb's town Bloomington, and Jules's alma mater Indiana University, so rent it):

Dave: Dad, I think we ought to give him a refund.
Dad: Refund? Refund?

What's fun is that while the two characters are using the same term, it's clear to the viewer that each has a different definition. For the idealistic Dave, "refund" is the ethical thing you do when you sell someone a defective product. For the businessman Dad, refund is a four-letter word.

So the echo has the effect of enjambment in poetry: linking the lines and providing two separate meanings, and maybe a third when the lines are put together. Here's another example from Breaking Away (I tell you, this has great dialogue!). Note the highlighted words:

Dave: You hear from your folks, Mooch?
Moocher: Yeah, my dad called. He wanted to know if the house was sold. He could use the money something fierce.
Dave: Well, you can come and live with me when it's sold. In Italy, everybody lives together.
Moocher: Since you won that Italian bike, man, you've been acting weird. You're really getting to think you're Italian, aren't you?
Cyril: I wouldn't mind thinking I was someone myself.

Notice in the last two pairs, the version of the word changes-- Italy to Italian, and think to thinking. That allows the resonance and the connection without strait-jacketing the new speaker. (I also think of it as a triumph of the naturalness of syntax. We hear the two variations of the term and link them, even if they don't sound exactly the same.)

Now this works also with introspection. The mention or thought of a keyword sparks the viewpoint character to think of something new:

The governor said, "Please remember that citizens have the right to petition for redress."
Yeah, Joni thought. Right. Redress. That was what this was all about, redress. Nothing to do with revenge.

Notice that the "re" is echoed from "redress" to "revenge".

But these elements have to be sequenced correctly to have that resonace. That is, the lines have to be sequential, not separated by a line or two. Here's a paraphrase of something I read in that (annoying) bestseller that must be doing something right, because I'm still reading it....

The Oxford don said, "I just want you to understand my position. There is no murder no matter what the inspector says. In fact, I think it's clear that this is a miscarriage of justice."

His position. Yeah. I understood his position. His position was insupportable.

The problem is that "position" is in the first of three sentences, and so the resonance is lost. This would be more effective if the paragraph read this way:

The Oxford don said, "There is no murder no matter what the inspector says. In fact, I think it's clear that this is a miscarriage of justice. I just want you to understand my position."

His position. Yeah. I understood his position. His position was insupportable.

That is, if you're going to have an echo, start it in the sentence right before it's repeated. Don't make the reader wait, because the "ear's" memory isn't very long. Revise your paragraph so that the "echo" term is in the last line, or the second to last line?

This is something to listen for in film, and to read for in books. It's part of what makes dialogue and introspection "sound" right. Here's an example from one of my favorite books, an old-fashioned swashbuckler of an omniscient narrative (Checkmate, by Dorothy Dunnett, and I discuss this as dialogue on my website):
"Philippa, no," he said. He stood in an island of space, as isolated as he must have been directing his forces in Guines or in Calais. "You were right to ask, and wrong only in your conjecture. Kate is my friend. That is true. But the songs were for her daughter. And the passion, for ever. That is why we are parting."

The words reached her, without bringing the sense any nearer. He would think her very slow.... "But I am her daughter," Philippa said.

Like some obscure and difficult text, the look in his eyes was too complex to be read at a distance. She said, "You can't mean...?" And then, as he did not speak, answered herself. "No."

Well, here's another, from Susan E. Phillips's Nobody's Baby but Mine, nice link of dialogue to introspection:

She nodded. "And if they find out you weren't satisfied with my services, they'll fire me. Please, Mr. Bonner, I need this job. If they dismiss me, I'll lose my benefits."

"You get benefits?"

If prostitutes didn't get benefits, they certainly should. "They have an excellent dental plan, and I'm scheduled for a root canal."

So if you're wondering how to make your prose more lush, more poetic, try this device. Find the keywords, put them in the position to be echoed, and echo them.


Jean Wogaman said...

Thanks for the helpful post. I was just about to read through my WIP for dialogue issues. Now I know another thing to look for.

Humans. Cats. Boat. said...

Enjambment...! When I read that, my brain immediately started spinning. Straddling? Straddling what?!

Hey, was that an enjambment I just did?!

Cooooool. :D

Laurel Decher said...

Enjambment came up in my daughter's homework today, but I hadn't thought about it for fiction. Thanks! Love your Dorothy Dunnett example!