Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound & Syntax, Part 3 | W.O.R.D. Ink
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Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound & Syntax, Part 3

What is Voice? (Part 3)

In this 3-part revision series, we’ve debunked several mysteries behind the magical element within every great work of writing: Voice. It’s my hope that you’ve been able to 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 from this series inspired to “Re-Vision” your writing with techniques that work!


Let’s Review.

Back in November 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.

Then in December we focused on syntax and how it regulates 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. It choreographs rhythm, and rhythm is a pattern of sound that affects tone and mood. Syntax and sound also touch 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. In December we explored length and punctuation.

Today in our Part 3 January post, the last in our 3-part REVISION series on Voice, we turn to the final factor in successful syntax: arrangement of sound and line. At the end of this post you’ll find a variety of exercises for use in the classroom and in your personal writing practice.

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Maximizing Real Estate: Arrangement of Sound and Line

Arrangement speaks to the deliberate order of words and their punctuation in sentences as well as those sentences’ organization on the page. “Balances and imbalances in syntactical arrangement should be calculated and contributing to the unique rhythms and patterns of a particular scene,” says professor and writer Virginia Tufte. While attention to arrangement seems more common for poetry, fiction can also manipulate word placement. “A break in rhythm is everything,” Mary Oliver explains in A Poetry Handbook. “Patterns are potent. Put one word on a line, it has become critical. All attention is drawn to it. Alter a line length or rhythm and you change the very physiological mood of the reader.” Carolyn Coman and Meg Rosoff wield the stylistic effects of sentence and sound arrangement to mold the tone of each of their respective scenes in Many Stones and How I Live Now.

Many StonesComan in Many Stones stirs up intense frustration with her arrangement of syntax. Berry gets into a heated discussion with her father over the criminals who murdered her sister. She insists that the killers feel remorse for what they’ve done and despite her father’s obvious exhaustion, she won’t let the issue go. As the true demand on her father crystallizes within her, the arrangement of syntax changes.

Be sorry. You be sorry. I want that more than anything, and I want him to give it to me. You be sorry, Dad.”

The repeated pattern of the single demand, “You be sorry,” the balance of that very phrase opening and closing the passage, and the parallel syntactical structure of the middle two clauses, “I want that more than anything,” and “I want him to give it to me,” are each components of arrangement that have been deliberately chosen to enhance the frustrated tone of this scene.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff Syntactical arrangement can aid in producing any tone the author chooses to employ within a scene. Moving from the frustrated to the horror-stricken, watch how Rosoff in How I Live Now portrays Daisy’s revolting discovery of a massacre in an abandoned farm. The arrangement of sentences down the page mirrors Daisy’s shock. The scene moves in slow motion as she moves bodies aside in an attempt to locate her missing cousins.


I could see that some of the bodies were human and then a kind of coldness came over me and no matter what I discovered I wasn’t going to scream or cry or anything.

I was ice.

The birds were pecking at a dead face in front of me, tugging at the skin and using their beaks to pull jagged purple strips of flesh free from the bone […] I knew from the size of the body and the clothes that it couldn’t be Edmond and if it couldn’t be Edmond it couldn’t be Isaac and it wasn’t Osbert either.

There were more bodies.

[…] My legs started to shake against each other so hard that I had to squat down in the dirt to keep from falling over.

One by one.

One by one I approached the bodies, nice and methodical.

Conscious placement of words gives the writer the ability to restrain or advance the pace and tone of her work. Within syntax, Tufte explains, the left side of a sentence is generally composed of new thoughts while the right side is composed of cumulative thoughts, the “real news of a sentence.” That leaves the mid-branches, Tufte continues, the clauses embedded within a sentence that can accelerate a reader’s anticipation to complete an interrupted idea.

  • This is exactly what Rosoff intended to do with the mid-branch phrase, “tugging at the skin and using their beaks to pull jagged purple strips of flesh free from the bone.”
  • The left side of the sentence, “The birds were pecking at a dead face in front of me,” piques the reader’s attention; the terrifying mid-branch accelerates the reader’s desire to find out who the face belongs to.
  • The right portion of the sentence, the most important information, allays our fears: the face does not belong to one of Daisy’s cousins.

In addition to meticulous placement of clauses, Rosoff intentionally stops Daisy’s usual runaway narration cold in its tracks three times at the sight of the bodies, each instance earning its own line on the page. A frightening silence surrounds these single-line beats, and their arrangement draws the reader’s eye down the page. Rosoff also positions an important string of words within this passage that enhances its disturbing tone:

  • “putrid and rotting”
  • “bodies”
  • “coldness”
  • “scream or cry”
  • “ice”
  • “jagged purple strips of flesh”
  • “more bodies”
  • “one by one”
  • “methodical”

Rosoff’s syntactical design decisions make this scene truly gruesome.

Arrangement of line and sound is an important variable within the writer’s blueprint that can shape pacing and tone. Arrangement of syntax on a page should be carefully considered in relation to rhythm and patterns. Mindless line breaks, imbalanced cadences, and irksome singsong or repetition reek of rough draft status. “I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative,” says writer and teacher Constance Hale. “It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.” And, careful arrangement of rhythms and patterns can deliver the voice of the character. Syntactical placement keeps sentences limber and lively. It maximizes the real estate on the page. arrangement


Re-vision” Your Story Through Sound and Syntax

While it’s not exactly a cinch to craft a sentence with style and substance, I agree with Constance Hale when she says that the art of sentence making is not really a mystery. Likewise, Voice is not an elusive, magical element only achievable by master writers. Rather, voice is a series of deliberate, layered choices made throughout the revision process, and accessible to all who practice the craft within any genre.

canoeConsider the basics that you’ve learned from grammar school about what makes a sentence: a subject and a verb. And yet, if you’ll allow me to borrow from Hale again, “We are taught about the sentence from the outside in, about the punctuation first, rather than the essential components […] [But] I like to imagine a sentence as a boat [.…] Each sentence, after all, has a distinct shape, and it comes with something that makes it move forward or stay still — whether a sail, a motor or a pair of oars [.…] The outline of our boat, the meaning of our every utterance, is given form by nouns and verbs [….] [And] there are as many kinds of sentences as there are seaworthy vessels: canoes and sloops, barges and battleships, Mississippi riverboats and dinghies all-too-prone to leaks. And then there are the impostors, flotsam and jetsam — a log heading downstream, say, or a coconut bobbing in the waves without a particular destination.”

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photo by Sirius Bintang

The components of sound and syntax are inextricably intertwined. Yet only by breaking these elements apart can we truly appreciate how they work seamlessly together on a page to produce an authentic tone that flows through an entire scene, and through an entire novel. Every mark on a blank page, every turn of a line, should reflect the end creation of countless authorial deliberations, the vehicles through which a writer inhabits voice.
Continue to analyze others’ work as a starting point to exploring your own, from a single sentence to an entire scene. And when you revise, do as Francine Prose suggests in Reading Like a Writer: Put every mark on the page, “on trial for its life.”

4 Exercises in Sound and Syntax for Your Classroom or Personal Writing Practice

writing exerciseUse the following activities as jumping off points for practicing “re-vision” with sound and syntax in mind. No matter what level you teach, or what point you’re at with your personal writing, these activities can be tailored to your revision needs. Likewise, the activities build off of each other, so that you may return to the same piece in order to experiment with multiple layers of revision. Once an activity has been completed, students should return to their own writing with the revision technique in mind.

  • Choose a line of prose to revise from multiple character viewpoints by manipulating sound. For each character, select a combination of words with specific hard or soft vowel sounds or syllable patterns that work together to convey a specific temperament and tempo. Use our Part 1 Voice post examples, such as the passage from Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, where the reader senses the “wired” tone of the scene through a series of long i sounds. Extend this activity by focusing only on the sounds of nouns, and then of verbs, which function on an energy gradient. Above all, make purposeful decisions while you experiment.
  • Conduct an “iambic pentameter” test. Create a chart to count beats or syllables per sentence within one paragraph of a scene. Do the rhythms of the sentences lean heavily on the “short sentence” iambic pentameter? Is this rhythm inadvertently affecting the tone of the scene or at odds with a character’s temperament? If so, these lines may benefit from a bit of sentence length fluctuation, or as Constance Hale describes it, the “longs and shorts, ins and outs, ups and downs,” like a conversation, that contribute to the cadence, tone and characterization of a scene.
  • Consider every sentence as a mini narrative, as Constance Hale suggested. Why not imitate Meg Rosoff’s style from this blog post, or any of your favorite passages? Maintain the structure, punctuation, and rhythm, but plug in your own content, your own sound and sense. Get a feel for how the simple use of nouns and verbs form little stories.
  • A partner or group is recommended for this exercise: Focus on silence, the “underbelly” of sound, or as Ursula Le Guin’s labels it, leaping. Study our first post’s examples of what Robert McKee calls “lean dialogue.” From here, choose a short, familiar, wordy piece of dialogue between two characters to analyze. First reflect on the conversation’s intended tone, implicit messages, and character voices as a whole group. Then partners can take stock of every word to assess whether each is essential to delivering the intended tone, characterization and subtext of the scene. Partners’ goal is to strip the dialogue little by little to its barest essence, as though removing pieces to a puzzle that connect only at so many places that it is still possible, and even more rewarding, to glean the gist of its tone, message and character. Partners should occasionally combine with another pair to read the modified dialogue out loud, while opposite partners takes notes on tone, character, and subtextual nuances. The hope is that students discover that the more deliberate “leaping” they create on the page, the more intensified and, thus, transformative, the shades of subtext, tone and characterization within the scene.


For the Love of Words! (related articles on syntax + two extra writing exercises!)

The Sentence As A Miniature Narrative


  • Hale suggests experimenting with subjects and predicates by writing your own epitaph, “either seriously or in jest.” She points to SmithMagazine and their six-word memoir challenges “that do the subject-predicate tango.”

“Told to Marry Rich, married Richard.” (JMorris)

“My parents should’ve kept their receipt.” (SarahBeth)

Escaping One’s Own Shadow In Writing


  • Michael Erard recommends imitating a writing style different from your own. “It’s hard to do and highly unpriming.” By “unpriming,” Erard means that you get out of your syntactical comfort zone and try a new style on for size to help you consciously break out of your die-hard word, sound, and structural patterns.




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

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

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc. 2006.

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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