Creating Moods via Sentence Structure

Published by Mallory in the blog Mallory's blog. Views: 78

A lot of people wonder how to create tones via showing not telling. I.e. if a character feels lost, or sad, or calm, how do you express this without a bunch of infodump sentences beginning with "he felt____," "she thought that___," etc?

The answer is rhetorical devices. This refers to elements including punctuation; word choice; sentence structure; paragraph structure; etc. You're allowed to break the rules of grammar sometimes (like using fragments as sentences if you really, really want an extra-chaotic feeling: this should be used sparingly, though, or else it will lose effect and make you look like a bad writer). But in order to break the rules of grammar, you have to know them first. Make sure you know what you're doing when it comes to the S.P.A.G. aspect of writing. A basic English composition or grammar book will help a lot, if you want or need to brush up.

To proceed, here are some types of rhetorical devices and how to use them. If you can think of more, please feel free to add them in the comments. There's no way I can type them all out, but here are some of the basic ones that I use the most. If you'd like more information beyond this blog post, here's a good place to start:

1. Active/passive voice:

- A general rule of distinction is that a sentence with "is," "was" or any other form of "to be" is in the passive voice. For example, "The officer ticketed the speeder" is written in active voice, and "The speeder was ticketed by the officer" is passive.

If you're striving to create a dynamic tone, you want active voice 99 percent of the time. Passive voice has its time and place when you want to create a detached tone, for example, if the character feels isolated from the setting or from the character(s) around him/her. If it's just simpler to use passive voice, that's fine too - for example, it's fine to say "The chicken was plucked when Joe bought it" instead of "The employers of the meat store had plucked the chicken before Joe bought it."
But if you're writing a fight scene, and it's filled with sentences like "The pain was really bad," "His stomach was punched," etc then chances are it's not good.

2. Asyndeton/Polysyndeton

This refers to the length and flow of your sentences. Asyndeton refers to prose that's short and choppy, and polysyndeton refers to longer sentences with more clauses (There's a little more to it than that, but I'll explain after the examples).
Asyndeton creates a tone that's hectic, chaotic, fast-moving or desperate. Polysyndeton has a calmer, more meandering feel and helps create the impression that whatever's being described is not a jolting situation of any kind.

"It was my first day of high school, and the sea of strange faces blurred together, but I hoped lunch period wouldn't be too bad."
"It was my first day of high school. The sea of strange faces blurred together. I hoped lunch wouldn't be too bad."
The second has a more desperate/chaotic feel to it, just by the structure, doesn't it?

It's not just about length can use commas, semicolons, dashes etc to cause the breaks, but asyndeton's key feature is that the syntax has a broken feel to it to create a broken tone.
I.e. "It was my first day of school, I looked like crap, I didn't know anyone--their faces blurred together--and today would be hell." It's technically not a short sentence, but it's not all smooth and flowy either. Hence, it is asyndeton.

Also, breaking patterns of any kind in writing will create emphasis on whatever breaks the pattern. If you have a series of polysyndetic sentences, with an asyndetic sentence right after, then that asyndetic sentence is going to have a lot of impact.

3. Cacophony/Euphony

This refers to the way your words sound phonetically. Cacophony has a lot of harsh sounds, like "ck," "cr," "qua" etc, and euphony is marked by softer, gentler sounds like "sh," "fl," words with lots of vowels etc. The way the words sound have a psychological effect on people. If you have a copy of any of the "Lord of the Rings" books, look at how the Black Speech of Mordor has a lot of cacophony, while the Elvish languages have a lot of euphony.

4. Parallel Construction:

Setting up a few sentences in a row that all have a repeated element of some kind, whether it's sentence structure, a beginning word or phrase that gets repeated, etc.

The effect of parallel construction is that, when done right, it serves as sort of crescendo, like you're building up for emphasis and the emphasis will fall on whatever breaks the parallel construction pattern. (Just like how an asyndetic sentence after a series of polysyndetic sentences has impact.)


"He walked down the hall; he paused at the door; he braced himself and shoved it open. He reeled back.
The stench hit him with full force."

Two repeated elements: the sentence structure (subject --> verb --> object), and the word "he" at the start.

Anaphora is a specific type of parallel construction in which the repeated element is, specifically, repetition of the beginning word or phrase. Like my example above, and also MLK's "I have a dream" repetition.

5. Antithesis:

Antithesis refers to structuring your sentence, and choosing words, in a way that focuses on opposites. Balance is also a crucial element. Think of an antithesis sentence as a teeter-totter with a fulcrum in the middle, and place the opposites on different sides of the fulcrum. The "halves" of the sentence should be equal in terms of length and setup. You also don't want a lot of excess words.
Antithesis is a good one to use if you want to sound memorable, i.e. if you are writing a wedding toast or eulogy. Not to say that all antithesis are moving and eloquent, of course, but if you are consciously trying to sound eloquent, it's a good tool to use.

"Let's agree to disagree" - single antithesis
"We will fight until they surrender" - double antithesis (we/they; fight/surrender)
"During a dark, cold depression, they found bright, warm happiness" - triple antithesis

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