The Wolfhound: Why Syntax matters

            The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson, is a story from Periphery 47.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            Something I look for when reading through Periphery submissions isn’t just a good story.  More than a sold structure, a well paced narrative, or engaging characters, what I look for is how authors use the structure of language to communicate.  Because there is basically unlimited variance in how even a single sentence can be written, that level of detail can work incredibly hard for the story, if only the author pays attention.  To me, much of the elegance of writing is that because how one goes about creating a story is so open, each decision has the ability to become meaningful.  Decisions don’t all have to be painstakingly thought over, but authors can play tricks and layer meaning into even minute choices that are astonishing.  The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson from Periphery 47, is exemplary of that attention to detail, and just how hard syntax can work to tell a story. 

            Let’s say that you are narrating a character running a long distance.  How could sentence structure show the passing of time, and the scattered thoughts of the runner?  Take a look at how Nelson narrates Patrick’s run.  

Sixteen miles now, pound, pound. I’m fucking tired. I’m golden as shit. These are the kinds of thoughts that run through your mind when you run; crazy thoughts. The runner’s high starts deep into the run; you say the strangest things. You laugh but it’s casual. When you run the senseless things rise to the surface and take some sort of form before dissipating like the sweat from your skin evaporating into the air.

The short sentences that begin the paragraph bounce around from thought to thought.  They jar the reader with their quick change of subject, while also matching the pounding footstep-rhythm established in the first sentence.  The scattered thoughts both underscore how tired Patrick is, but also hint at the distance he has run between thoughts.  How much time passed between the start of mile sixteen, and Patrick imagining thoughts sweating from his skin?  If each sentence perfectly flowed into the next, one could easily assume that they were one right after the other: a continuous flow of thoughts.  That is not the case.  The jarring distance between thoughts easily translates to the distance Patrick has run. 

            Notice the breathless semicolons that connect thoughts that wouldn’t otherwise make a great deal of sense next to each other.  I love the simple description of runner’s high as “I’m golden as shit”.  It is nonsensical, and seemingly random, but perfectly encapsulating the fatigued thoughts of mile sixteen.  The comment feels like an inside joke Patrick has with himself, that only really becomes funny when exhaustion has overcome you.  You don’t have to run sixteen miles to understand the wild thoughts that beat through the fatigue of running.  The clipping sentences, each with different thoughts, show the reader how tired Patrick is beyond Nelson simply saying so. 

            Through syntax alone, Nelson underscores the point of both how far Patrick has run, as well as how tired he is.  Through choices the author made, not about the narrative, nor the character, he was able to convey meaning through the construction of language. 

            Another example that shows just how well Nelson makes his points through syntax is the second sentence in the story

My sister Donna had already awoken, and sat at the kitchen table, wearing her small eyeglasses and Cinderella pajamas, pretending to read the National Geographic and actually sipping at a cup of coffee.

Donna shouldn’t be drinking coffee.  She knows this, and Patrick knows this.  It is something she does with a little bit of pride and little bit of shame.  It isn’t hard to picture her hiding the coffee mug behind the pages of the National Geographic magazine.  Nelson never says any of this.  What he does say, however, comes from his construction of the sentence.  Just as Donna is hiding her habit from Patrick so too, is Nelson hiding his description of it from the reader. 

            The first clause of the sentence, an independent clause, stand alone, almost like a cursory glance from Patrick.  The longer he looks, the more he sees, starting with where Donna is sitting, what she is wearing, what she is pretending to be doing, and finally what she is actually doing.  Nelson hides what is actually happening, within the sentence itself, and by doing so, tells the reader so much more about Donna and Patrick as characters, and their relationship as siblings. 

            I was talking with a friend recently, when she off-handedly said that no one under twenty-five knows how to use a semi-colon, and that struck me as odd.  Not simply because semi-colons are rarely useful in 280 character tweets, but because they are another tool for a writer to use.  Not knowing how to use a semi-colon would be like an artist not using a specific color.  (Though Semi-colons are admittedly the color terracotta of grammatical tools).  It’s not that writer’s need to use them, but simply knowing about all of the choices that go into the writing process allows authors to make more meaningful decisions about language.  And making meaningful decisions about language is the most specific definition I have ever heard about the term ‘Literature’

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