Anakana Schofield and Riffing Sentences
This Margin Notes mini-masterclass is all about RIFFING SENTENCES. The passage is from Anakana Schofield’s dark, stunning novel, Martin John. It shows us how powerful and nuanced a paragraph can become when a writer builds each sentence by riffing off the one that’s come before it. Although it is a technique that takes incredible skill, the concept is one we can all practice to stretch our craft. Here is the unmarked passage for you to read first:
Margin Notes on Schofield
The idea of riffing a sentence off the one that’s come before it reminds me of Gordon Lish’s composition technique called consecution, the process of “going forwards by looking backwards.” Obviously we can’t know Schofield’s mental process as she wrote this paragraph, but consider how the paragraph serves as a good example of some key ideas underlying consecution:
- You move the story ahead by referring to, or rearranging, or reconsidering the sentence(s) that has already come before it, largely through some form of repetition.
- This requires a particular mental process as you’re writing: one in which you’re looking behind when you’re writing. Our attention, I think, is normally aimed ahead.
- The aim in this recursive approach is to tease the nuances of conflict out of the prior sentences. In other words, you mine the preceding sentence for what might be used in the next sentence, with the goal of intensifying and deepening each subsequent sentence.
If you look at the Margin Notes I’ve made in the excerpt below, you can see how each subsequent sentence unpacks the one preceding it. Schofield employs a good deal of repetition: remember, help, we, kind of man, pushing. In this way, the repeated words not only give the paragraph a particular acoustic appeal, but they also echo thematically. Every repetition and permutation of phrase serves to emphasize a single vital idea: getting Martin John to remember. In terms of always curving back to what’s come before, the last sentence in the paragraph turns our minds back to the first sentence.
Margin Notes on Martin John (Click here if you want a larger PDF version):
Before I give you the Recipe Card to try this out for yourself, I want to take a moment to discuss phrase manipulation. The opening lines do not exactly manipulate a single phrase, but they give the feeling that she’s trying out different ways of saying the same thing. As phrases are manipulated, the relationship between the words shifts slightly, acquiring a change in meaning or intention. Phrase manipulation, as a kind of wordplay activity, generates a wealth of fresh, unique expressions in your writing. (If you want to explore wordplay as a writing tool, check out 3 Powerful Ways to Use Scrap Paper During Revisions.) This poem as a fantastic example of how phrase manipulation can work:
under the big tree
and talked slowly
Under the big tree
and slowly talked big
The big tree
and under they talked
They stood big
and slowly talked
the tree under
The big tree talked
and they slowly
“Under The Tree,” Myron Lysenko
Here’s the Recipe Card for you to try writing in Schofield’s riffing style. At the very least, trying this technique showed me that I was perhaps abandoning the rich images and ideas and tension contained within a sentence too soon. That there was potentially much more narrative interest to be mined from the sentence before moving in a new direction. After trying this approach, I started to imagine a sentence as a fully packed suitcase filled with great stuff. Sometimes I was only taking out one or two things, then snapping the suitcase shut and moving on to the next suitcase before putting everything out on display for others to explore. Some of the tasks in this recipe card might seem a bit artificial; that is, I’m getting you to play with language without necessarily considering the more substantive narrative aspects of that language. So really, we are starting out by mostly focusing on getting a feel for phrase manipulation and repetition.
What do you think of this writing concept of “going forwards by looking backwards” in such a concentrated way? Leave a comment below.