And ... It's a Story!
Updated: Jan 27
Today, we're going to play. Let's make someone shout into the wind. Let's make someone else ponder his place in the universe. We can create a ship's captain who barks out orders and a space scientist who is mystified by a startling discovery. To do this, we'll want to take advantage of two fabulous literary devices:
ASYNDETON & POLYSYNDETON
A few days ago, I posted a blog with a quick review of conjunctions. Here's where it pays off. Let's see how our use of conjunctions affects a story.
Remove conjunctions for dramatic effect in a storm at sea.
The frigid wind whipped seawater against the captain's face — hard, sharp, brutal. "All hands on deck!" he shouted. "Reef the mainsail! Douse the staysail, the jib! Work fast!"
Add extra conjunctions to create a scientist who is captivated by a discovery. His repeated use of "and" brings us right into his mind to experience his thought process.
The new images enchanted Professor Sorensen. It took 32 years of sailing the solar winds, but his unmanned ship finally found a planet with lights on at night. A populated planet that might have bridges and roads and skyscrapers and schools and ... and telescopes! What might they be thinking of our ship?
Grammar vs. Style
Grammar allows the writer to follow the first rule of writing: Clarity above all. If I think my work is unclear, or could be misunderstood completely, I will revise it until my message is readily understood. Sure, on occasion, it's great to leave some of my meaning up to the interpretation of the reader. But like a magic trick, there is usually a bit of "force" in the grammar choices I make, controlling the reader's options for interpretation. Rarely does a writer want her work to be so unclear that nobody can make sense of it ... or worse yet, turning my words around to mean the opposite of my intention.
Style provides the shading that adds depth to a mental image. And yes — sometimes, style behaves in ways that break strict grammar rules. Please note, this is not an excuse for failing to learn these rules. A good writer knows how and when to bend (and sometimes break) the rules of grammar, as in dialogue or poetry. But you really have to understand what it is you're doing for that to succeed.
Of course, know your audience. If, for example, you're writing a college essay on genetics, it's probably not a great time to use a lot of asyndeton. However, if you're writing a screenplay about bank robbers, asyndeton would be useful in dialogue. How might the robbers speak to each other if the police have arrived? Professionals write to specific audiences — using appropriate tools and knowing the rules.
NOTE: USE EITHER "SYNDETON" DEVICE TO HELP SET A SCENE OR DEFINE A CHARACTER.
My story, "Comes Around" is about what might happen to a psycho serial dater and woman hater. The examples below show how I used the two literary devices to orchestrate my characters, contrasting a visitor to our maniacal main man. But also, it reflects how he hears them. Since the story is written in his point of view, this use of Polysyndeton makes visitors sound like fast-moving busybodies.
"Hullo? Sorry! I yelled and I knocked and I rang the bell."
Compare that line to the following from the main character, a man who's losing what's left of his mind. Asyndeton helps to show disjointed thoughts.
"... could run to the door ... lock it again. Lean on it. Lock. Twist. Fingers. Ouch, if she has a stronger grip. Dry hands."
You'll find plenty of examples of polysyndeton and asyndeton in literature. Shakespeare was a fan of these devices, but plenty of regular writers use them too. When you know your syndetons, you can create memorable scenes and characters with each informed choice, as you glue your thoughts together. So go ahead, use FANBOYS — or not — to boost your number of fans!