Syntax & Diction and Narration & Voice
Syntax and Diction
Here’s another quote I hate from Janet Burroway: “In prose, on the whole, the rhythm is all right if it isn’t wrong.” I can’t think of a fiction writer I like to read who would agree with that. Virginia Woolf would probably mock Janet Burroway for saying that. Here’s just one of the smart things Virginia Woolf said about syntax: “Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.”
Woolf says rhythm. I say syntax, which is one of my first considerations too. I have to find a way of speaking first. Once I know how the narrator speaks, then I can repeat it, filling in the words as I figure out the syntax—maybe by expanding the noun phrases or the verb phrases, maybe by finding a lapse in the rhythm that fills out after adding a few beats with a prepositional phrase, or maybe by adding subordinate clauses and strings of conjunctions, or maybe simply by adding all kinds of qualifiers that maybe include some pretty adjectives (but not too many adverbs).
Speaking of subordinate clauses, I don’t like to begin sentences with them. I like my syntax to be headlong, moving forward at all times. But there are so many ways to work with syntax. Maybe it’s structuring a sentence around articles and conjunctions and prepositions so that you end up with a singular way of speaking, a singular way for your narrator to speak. Maybe it’s only using bouncing meter because you’re working on something funny. Maybe it’s only using rising meter because you want your sentences to have more weight. Maybe it’s avoiding compound sentences and parallel structure.
As Andy Devine says: “Every piece of fiction should have its own particular syntax. Syntax is the fiction writer’s personality.” Nearly anything can be done with syntax. But the key is to figure out what your particular syntactical elements are, or what they should be for a particular piece of fiction, and then to use them to some create some effect on the page. Whatever is done with syntax, the idea is to use it consistently, to create a kind of song in which the reader can get lost.
John Gardner had a huge influence on Raymond Carver and the vocabulary of his fiction (and I’m surprised it isn’t talked about more than it is). Gardner was a big influence on me, too, especially in relation to diction, word choice. In The Art of Fiction, Gardner makes a distinction between the Anglo-Saxon parts of English and the Latinate parts of English—in particular, that the Anglo-Saxon is closer to feeling and the Latinate is at some distance from feeling. There isn’t a piece of fiction I’ve written that doesn’t use this idea, emphasizing the Anglo-Saxon parts of English.
For me, diction begins with that distinction. But I also like to limit diction for my narrators in other ways, whether it is a child narrator, a narrator suffering from a mental illness, or a grief-stricken narrator.
William Shakespeare said something pretty smart about diction: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his love of “one true word.” And once, somebody supposedly said this: “There are no synonyms for real writers.”
I often ask myself this question as I’m writing fiction: This word, is it an important word? And the other thing I’m thinking about as the narrative moves forward is this: The energy of the diction, does it grow out of the vocabulary already present in the fiction?
Narration and Voice
There is always the question of who is speaking at the beginning of a piece of fiction: Is it first person, second person, or third person? I have a certain affection for second person (probably because McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is one of the first serious contemporary novels I read), but I have never tried writing it. Most fiction is written in third person, I’m told, but I have always been suspicious of third person omniscient. It seems false that the narrator knows everything, but still only tells us part of it. There is something condescending about that. Plus, everything I’ve tried to write in third person ends up feeling ordinary, as if anybody could have written it, which is why I always end up rewriting it in first person.
Of course, the fiction writer’s choice of first-person, second-person, or third-person narration (and the various versions of each) should depend on the piece of fiction and which type of narration will best help the writer make that piece of fiction great. Another way to get at this is by answering this question: How much do you want the narrator to know about the story being told?
On the continuum of how much voice (in a sense, style) can be infused into a particular piece of fiction, I have always thought first-person narration allows the fiction writer the most latitude, the most difference. It’s the main reason I’m partial to first-person narration. It allows me to do more with the voice of the narrator, to get closer to the character, and to get inside the mind of the narrator more naturally and more believably than second-person or third-person narration (although, third-person limited allows some of this). As a nice bonus, first-person narration also eliminates the obvious need (or expectation) for lots of description and setting and all that set-up business.
So there’s all that, but what I’m really thinking about when I think about narration is voice. As R. Kelly says: “I just want people to hear what’s in my head.” I never thought I would quote R. Kelly, but I like that. When the writing is going well, I hear a voice, a way of talking inside my head. I may not know, at first, who the narrator is, but I let the narrator’s voice tell me. I don’t want that voice to be a normative way of speaking, so I’m listening for a few things—syntax, tics, particular words. Also, I want what the narrator tells the reader to be limited and to come through a particular point of view that skews both the thought and the language of the fiction. I like an unreliable narrator who is believable. There is so much voice in that way of speaking.
Sam Lipsyte says some similar things about voice: “At the outset it’s more like [the voice] picks me. But then of course I have to decide; you always have to decide. Is this the voice I want to follow? Is this the language I want to learn? I guess I pick the one that feels the least like anything else, the one that pulls me back to the desk because it fascinates, because it taps into a source I hadn’t been aware of before, because its possibilities seem to expand as I proceed.”
That voice will tell me who the character is, as well as what the character wants and does and says and thinks. Once I have a voice, a way of speaking, everything opens up. It is through voice, through a particular syntax and a particular diction, that I find character.
Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, The One-Hour MFA. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, Prairie Schooner, New York Tyrant, etc. He is also responsible for the collaborative project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.