Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound and Syntax, Part 2 | W.O.R.D. Ink
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Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound and Syntax, Part 2

What is Voice? (Part 2)

In this 3-part revision series, we’ll debunk several mysteries behind the magical element within every great work of writing: Voice. It’s my hope that you’ll see Voice not as an elusive and unattainable ingredient, but rather, as a series of deliberate, layered choices made throughout the revision process, and as accessible to all who practice the craft–within every genre and for any purpose. May you walk away each week inspired to “Re-Vision” your writing with techniques that work!


 Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound and Syntax, Part 2

Let’s Review.

Last month we looked at how the skilled storyteller relies on sound and syntax to sculpt the voice of a story. Sound (the articulation of letters, syllables, and words carrying within them distinct intonations) and syntax (the arrangement of words and punctuation to create rhythms and accentuation) are the microelements of a writer’s toolbox. Layered in purposeful patterns throughout each scene of a novel, these elements produce meaning, cadence, and mood that evoke an emotional response from readers.

What is Syntax and How Does It Regulate Sound?

Syntax enables words to connect in a sequence, so that the whole of the sentence and its individual parts convey meaning, cadence, and tone. Syntax is a tool of both functionality and style. Skilled writers calculate the syntax of every line because they understand that the rhythm of those lines must build to produce a tone reflective of their character’s spirit at that given moment. This is where sound comes in to the picture.

© Copyright Vanessa Ziff Lasdon, 2011

© Copyright Vanessa Ziff Lasdon, 2011

Syntax choreographs rhythm, and rhythm is a pattern of sound that affects tone and mood. Hence, syntax regulates sound on the page. It choreographs “the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships,” states Ursula Le Guin. It also touches the reader’s emotions by shading meaning in the voice of the characters or the narration on the page, much in the same way a gesture, expression, or fluctuation in voice changes the shades of a conversation.

There are three functional and stylistic components to syntax that work together with sound to shape tone through every line on a page: length, punctuation, and arrangement. Today we will cover Length and Punctuation.


Length Matters

Two sentence sizes matter in prose: long and short. When arranged in juxtaposition, they produce interesting rhythms on the page. Short, simple sentences create a choppy, blunt tone. Clumped together through the course of a scene, they elicit a sense of monotony, particularly when used in conjunction with one-syllable words. By contrast, Le Guin explains, long, complex sentences, full of embedded clauses must be carefully managed and solidly constructed so that they flow gracefully and carry readers along without knocking the wind out them. Short, unadorned sentences are the darlings of grammarians and good writers. In their many varieties, Tufte describes, short sentences, “can help to bring clarity, impact, [and] texture to any kind of writing.” Ideally, short and long sentences will coalesce amicably on the same page. In this way, the sound of a word can be spotlighted in a short sentence, while a pattern of sound may shine in a long one.

Long Hair
Short Finger Wave

To gauge whether a sentence is long or short, it is helpful to understand poetry’s iambic pentameter as it reflects the natural rhythm of the English language. The iambic pentameter “fits without stress,” Pulitzer prizewinning poet Mary Oliver explains, “makes a full phrase, and leaves little breath at the end [….] It is, one might say, the norm.” An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Its rhythm could be written as: da DUM. The rhythm of one line of iambic pentameter would be heard as: da DUM  da DUM  da DUM  da DUM  da DUM as in the following line from “Sonnet of the Garland of Roses,” a poem by one of Spain’s most celebrated poets, Federico García Lorca:

Teje deprisa! canta! gime! canta!” Translated, the line holds to the same iambic meter: “Weave quickly now! And sing! And moan! And sing!”

iambic pentameter

Thus, any rhythm shorter than the iambic pentameter may be considered a “short” sentence, while any rhythm longer than the five-beat line may be called a “long” sentence. This is not a charge for the reader to measure every sentence in an entire story. Rather, it is a starting point in understanding a writer’s power over the manipulation of rhythm and tone. Meter fluctuates in prose, just as it does in conversation. Constance Hale believes it generates subtle patterns “of longs and shorts, ins and outs, ups and downs” that contribute to the cadence and tone of a scene. Excerpts from Carolyn Coman’s Many Stones and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now illustrate the meaningful effect that deliberately sculpted sentence length has on the tone of a scene.

Many StonesSixteen-year old Berry in Coman’s Many Stones is tense with grief and rage for the sister she has lost and the father from whom she is estranged. Berry and her father embark on a two-week tour in South Africa, but Berry stubbornly resists his constant, well-meaning attempts at reconciliation. At one point, Berry’s father invites her on a wine tasting with a woman he has just met. Berry casually waves them off, but inwardly she is seething.  “Fine then, go! Go! I want to be alone and away from you, too,” she says to herself as she stands on the porch, waving goodbye. The spotlight of these short sentences is on the command, Go! But there is silence surrounding the exclamation points and it is filled with longing for her father’s affection.

Coman’s sentence lengths are erratic–sometimes stilted, other times gushing. They reveal her many shades of emotions: anger, impatience, fear, frustration, loneliness, grief. In one of many heated arguments Berry picks with her father, she tells herself in a near militant tone, “He thinks we are done. We are not done.” Again, Coman uses a short sentence structure to focus reader attention on a repeated word: done. This word is loaded. It embodies Berry’s grief about her sister’s death, her frustration with her father’s flippant lifestyle, and fear of her own inability to communicate feelings. In the next passage, Berry takes slow, painfully jerky strides as she begins to crack open her nerve-frayed heart. Notice how Coman transfers the spotlight onto different words using both short and long phrases, italics, and punctuation marks. In the span of a paragraph, Coman shifts the tone of this passage from aggression to confession:

I go back to how I started all this: I hate…and it is still hanging in the air where I left it, and it comes back to me, fills me. “This is all wrong,” I say. “What we’re doing, and why we’re here, and how we’re pretending everything’s all right.” He watches me. I am not getting through, saying what it is. “I,” I start. “I don’t…I can’t stand…” Nothing I try to say gets finished. “I hate words,” I say finally. “For starters,” I add. I hate them for not helping me enough, not saying anything that is the same as how I feel inside.

Through syntax, Coman successfully portrays a teenager struggling to understand the notions of death and resolution. Small wonder the novel won a Printz Honor Award.  Coman’s expert syntactical decisions help to shape authentic tones for her scenes, giving Berry a captivating voice.

How I Live Now by Meg RosoffRosoff’s fifteen-year old protagonist, Daisy, in How I Live Now couldn’t care less about the world outside her own mercurial microcosm. She’s been shipped off to England by her evil stepmother and blasé father to live with cousins she’s never met. War arrives on England’s doorstep and an unnamed enemy marches through the countryside, hurling Daisy headlong into the age of terrorism. Rosoff earned numerous literary awards for her storytelling abilities in How I Live Now, including the Michael L. Printz Award. The following examples illustrate how Rosoff skillfully sculpts sentence length to show Daisy’s changing tone and demeanor over the course of the story.

Touching down on English soil, Daisy arrives self-obsessed and subversive as ever: “And for a minute I was so glad I was fifteen and from New York City because even though I haven’t actually Seen It All, I have in fact seen more than plenty, and I have one of the best Oh Yeah, This Is So Much What I Usually Do kind of faces of anyone in my crowd.”

She continues in this reckless, rambling banter, unsure if “something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed,” until the day soldiers sequester her aunt’s countryside home. When the cousins are split up and forced to survive on their own, the syntax changes. Daisy’s sentences begin to come into focus through shorter structures. They are a reflection of her transformation:

“We couldn’t go on. We went on. / Staying alive was what we did to pass the time.”

Still with her wits and wit about her, Daisy’s tone is more rooted now, weighed down by the peril of what once seemed so trivial: staying alive. Near the end of the novel as she waits to be reunited with her love, cousin Edmond, Rosoff completely reverses Daisy’s once brassy tone by splitting one sentence into its least divisible elements, words.

“The. Time. Simply. Passed.”

The forceful stops and the one-word phrases mimic the pace at which time passes. “Syntax can speed up the line and the line can slow down the syntax,” Robert Pinsky states in The Sounds of Poetry. In this case, syntax has slowed the line down to an absolute stop; words are walled between periods. Daisy has found purpose to her life and it lies in her enduring love for Edmond. She has matured, and so too has her syntax.

Through a calculated combination of short and long sentences, Rosoff adeptly choreographs sentence length to show Daisy’s changing demeanor over the course of the novel. Her syntax has both style and functionality, every line a reflection of Daisy’s spirit.

Coman and Rosoff understand how deliberate sentence length contributes to the appropriate cadence and tone of a scene. They craft their sentences to reflect their characters’ moods, and to spotlight subtle but crucial words and sound patterns that offer the reader a glimpse into their characters’ minds.


Trade Marks


Punctuation provides a means by which the reader can make sense of patterns in language and subtleties in tone. Varied use or elimination of commas, periods, dashes, semicolons, parentheses, question marks, and exclamation points has a lasting effect on the reading experience. Punctuation can help to surround an instance of attention, explains Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook. Those brief pauses are the microscopic silences out of which the reader constructs meaning. Punctuation reveals the tone in the following passages by Carolyn Coman and Meg Rosoff.

Many StonesComan in Many Stones uses impetuous punctuation to mirror Berry’s volatile emotions: “It’s what I love, though: how swimming can take me really, really far away. Doing laps can make me forget everything–or it’s not even forgetting, it’s like it never was, like nothing ever was. No anything, no me: the details of me, my body, whatever is in my head, my name–the whole story dissolves into the water. And I love it there–here–under water.”

Coman’s punctuation choices make the reader hyper aware of Berry’s dangerously fragile emotional state that teeters on the brink of depression. Dashes mark sudden jerks in thought; commas hold together fragments of Berry’s self; colons give her permission to release. Berry’s subconscious yearning for understanding and finality in her sister’s death seeps out from the silent spaces in between punctuation marks.

A successful, exaggerated under-use of punctuation comes out of nearly every paragraph in the first half of Rosoff’s How I Live Now. In the below excerpt, Rosoff’s complete lack of punctuation represents the magnitude of Daisy’s blatant apathy for social upheaval. Rather than recall an actual scene of dialogue she has had with adults, Daisy boils down her conversations into one rambling glob, devoid of value or respect. Here, punctuation is rude, crude, and completely in concert with the reckless tone of the story so far:

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff“No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed and what about democracy and The Future of Our Great Nation the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that WE DIDN’T REALLY CARE.”

Rosoff could have easily turned this passage into a short string of dialogue: “I put on a sad expression and said, ‘How awful that all those people were killed. What about democracy? The future of our great nation?’” But even this would have been too much effort for her protagonist. Instead, Rosoff aims for shock value. She eliminates punctuation, inserting empty fillers such as and, that, and about in its place. Her under-use of punctuation equates to an undeniable tone of disrespect and disenchantment. Noteworthy, too, is how Rosoff’s use of in-your-face, all-caps affects tone as well. In this and many scenes throughout the novel, Daisy capitalizes phrases to mimic news headlines and topics of adult discussions that sound important but are actually meaningless to her and her cousins. Rosoff’s astute decisions about syntax and sound hold the reader spellbound, intrigued by what Daisy will say and think next.

Punctuation enables the writer to control the pace of a story and the weight of its words. It surrounds a moment, nudging readers toward subtle patterns of sound, key details, and subtext.

Cracking the Humdrum Code

What happens when even several rounds of revisions fail to capture the true tone of a passage? Writer and educator Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones suggests that one way to sculpt tone more effectively is to first remove all the punctuation within a section. Next, arbitrarily put in a few periods, a question mark or exclamation point–all without thinking or trying to make sense. Then read it aloud as though it were saying something with particular inflection and expression. The writer would find out that language is usually locked into a sentence syntax of subject/verb/direct-object.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie GoldbergWe think in sentences and the way we think is the way we see [.…] There is a pattern of self-centeredness and egocentricity built into the very structure of our language. It is a terrible burden to have to be master. We are not ruling the world. It is an illusion, and the illusion of our syntax structure perpetuates it. By cracking open that syntax, we release energy and are able to see the world afresh and from a new angle [.…] You can get closer to the truth of what you need to say.


Reorganizing the subject/verb/direct object pattern is a challenge. Old habits die hard; nevertheless, it is essential that writers break open old patterns to find new ones that better suit the tone and overall voice of a story. The energy released and redirected will undoubtedly be closer to the truth of what the author meant to say.

Punctuation is a vital part of the reading experience. It affects every part of story, from language patterns and tone to emotional states and pacing. Like any other component of syntax, punctuation works in concert with the rest of the elements on the page. Therefore, it must be wielded deliberately with both style and function in mind.


Next month, in Part 3 of our REVISION series on Voice, we will turn to the final factor in successful syntax: arrangement of sound and line. I’ll also share a variety of exercises for use in the classroom and in your personal writing practice. Stay tuned!


For the Love of Words! (Related Articles on Syntax)

“Mad Dash” by Ben Yagoda: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/mad-dash/

“Writing with Miles Davis by Aaron Gilbreath: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/writing-with-miles-davis/

“Fanfare for the Comma Man” by Ben Yagoda: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/09/fanfare-for-the-comma-man/

“The Most Comma Mistakes” by Ben Yagoda: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/21/the-most-comma-mistakes/

“Turning a Phrase” by Constance Hale: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/14/turning-a-phrase/

“Semicolons: A Love Story” by Ben Dolnick: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/02/semicolons-a-love-story/

“Sentences Crisp, Sassy, Stirring by Constance Hale: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/28/sentences-crisp-sassy-stirring/



Coman, Carolyn. Many Stones. Asheville, North Carolina: Front Street Books, 2000.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1986.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. San Diego: A Harvest Original-Harcourt Books, Inc., 1994.

Pinsky, Robert. Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. New York: Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 1998.

Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb Books-Random House, 2004.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, LLC, 2006.



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