D1 Commentary: Chaining Sentences

In D1: The Chain is Pulled Jay returns to the desert he visited as Dan. Jay sees interesting images and surprises, but I want to talk about one of the finer points of prose: How to make sentences which flow into one another naturally.

I’m a mathematician at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where all students are required to take a certain writing course. This writing course had us writing the same old essays I churned out in High School but I loved the last lesson: sentences flow when the subject at the end of the first sentence relates to the subject at the start of the second sentence. This example is so simple the technique doesn’t add a whole lot, but take a look anyway:

I went to a park with my friend and saw a duck. The duck had yellow feathers.

The last word of the first sentence is “duck.” The second sentence starts by mentioning the duck. This is a simple way to ensure each sentence seems to be a natural extension of the previous. Compare to this:

I went to a park and saw a duck with my friend. The duck had yellow feathers.

Here it looks like the speaker forgot to mention the duck’s feathers until after mentioning the friend. This would be fine in spoken conversation, but in writing we have all the time in the world to reread each sentence and see how it flows into the next. At the end of each sentence we throw the reader into thin air. We must ensure they can grasp the next sentence swiftly, like trapeze artists.

Not every sentence has to lead directly into the next, and not all of them should. But when your point of view is transported to a new area (say, the afterlife, via centipede dust) or characters perform actions which may be difficult to visualize, the concrete linking of sentences can help the reader follow along. Here’s some nice chaining I used in D1:

He slid down the mile-high dune and rolled over hot sand. Deeper sand was cooler and damper until he tumbled into a moist, shadowy crevasse. He pressed his limbs against the narrow walls of the crevasse to slow his descent but found no purchase with the sand. Falling sand revealed tiny holes in the walls, tunnels left by worms.

Hot sand, deeper sand. No purchase with the sand, falling sand. In the middle there’s a stumble with “shadowy crevasse. He pressed his limbs,” but here maintaining the motion of the character takes precedence. Jay has been tossed into a crevasse; he must react. An unbroken motion from action to reaction is another way to chain sentences.

The idea made him anxious and he decided to move. He stood and jogged up the shallow dune.

Jay decides to move, so he stands and jogs. The end of the first sentence leads to the start of the second.

When he finally crested the dune he surveyed the desert. The taller dunes blocked his view but he could now see most of the mountain. It sat on a mesa like a king ruling the rippling sand.

He surveyed the desert and saw tall dunes. He saw the mountain and it sat on a mesa.

When he hit the bottom of the valley he turned to see if the shape had followed him.

A sapphire bird joined the mountain in peeking at Jay over the dune. The bird had great green bug eyes.

Did it follow him? Yes it did. This one seems like a cinematography trick: show the character looking at something, then show what they’re looking at. Act-React. It flows smooth and easy.

Another way to link sentences is through parallelisms. Repeated words and phrases in succession can hammer in a point or note a contrast. Look at this:

When my political party was in power, blah blah blah. When your favorite political party was in power, blah blah blah.

Even though it’s abstract we can’t miss the fact that the speaker is comparing political parties. If it weren’t abstract, we would know precisely the perceived difference between the two parties. Politicians must be masters of rhetoric to make their points clear and to make sure their voters have strong-sounding phrases to shout at one another. Here are some parallel lines in D1:

“One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he counted on his right. “I’m not dreaming. I’m awake right now.”

Repeated phrases assert structure. This structure makes the motions seem quick, practiced, and efficient while reducing strain on the reader. They know what to expect from the second sentence after the first and I satisfy that expectation. In later sections, Jay will actually be asleep. It’ll be a shock to the reader when Jay violates the parallel structure by counting to thirteen. Here, parallel structure aids flow. Later that flow will carry the reader away, surprising them.

As he rest he noticed he was nude. This wouldn’t be a problem if he were dreaming, but without cover in the desert he would shrivel like a raisin. He also noticed he had no genitals: his crotch was a smooth, flat, rounded area like the summit of the mountain over the dune.

First Jay notices one thing. Description expands on it. Then he notices another thing. Description expands on it. I don’t want to spend the whole story inside a character’s head; when Jay must have a moment of quiet introspection I compact it using parallel structure.

These sentences combine both tactics, parallels and matching subjects at the starts and ends:

He pulled himself to his feet using the East and West gorge walls for leverage and looked North and South. To the North the gorge-bottom grew impossibly steep until it became an overhanging sand cliff. To the South the gorge expanded into a wide valley. He clambered South.

First I mention North and South. Then I describe North. Then I describe South. Then Jay makes his decision, and it’s the option most recently described. This clearly lays out the geography of the location, which becomes important when the Heart of the Mountain chases Jay back into the gorge.

As writers, we fling readers from location to location and from action to action. With an eye for flow, we can make those locations and actions crystal clear in the readers mind by making the text easy to read. The reader should not be left in free-fall for long.

Characters, however, can be in literal free-fall for as long as need be. At the end of this section, Jay is flung. The next section starts with Jay airborne. This is analogous to the chaining tactic we’ve discussed today, on a broader scale! Also, Chapter D parallels Chapter A (but we’ll discuss that next week). The techniques we use to link sentences can be used to link sections! As in the sentence, so too in the section. As above, so too below. And always towards the flow!

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