How to Riff Sentences for Stunning Stories

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:

 

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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:

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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):

 

margin-notes-martin-john

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:

 

They stood
under the big tree
and talked slowly

Under the big tree
they stood
and slowly talked big

The big tree
stood slowly
and under they talked

They stood big
and slowly talked
the tree under

The big tree talked
and they slowly
understood

“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.

 

Click here if you want a larger, printable PDF of the Recipe Card.

 

margin-notes-recipe-card-for-riffing-sentences

 

What do you think of this writing concept of “going forwards by looking backwards” in such a concentrated way? Leave a comment below.

 

 

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7 comments

  • Mo Henderson March 10, 2017   Reply →

    This is a wonderful exercise, Jen! I also find really useful your idea of a sentence being a suitcase, crammed full of goodies, that one should not shut too quickly. Thank you!

    • Jen Manuel March 10, 2017   Reply →

      Thanks, Mo! Yes, it really was eye-opening to realize that sentences were like suitcases that could be unpacked. It really changed how I handled each sentence during drafting and revising. I found it really invigorating and inspiring to look for what could be unpacked… like an exciting discovery could be made with each sentence. There’s nothing like seeing the rich possibilities in your own work, is there?

  • Amy March 10, 2017   Reply →

    Thank you for this post; I’ve never tried writing like this before. I found my sentences going in a different direction than what I expected from the sentence that I started with. I will be doing this quite often!

    • Jen Manuel March 10, 2017   Reply →

      Glad you found it useful, Amy! I’d love to hear how it goes. Let me know if you have any questions along the way.

      • Amy March 10, 2017   Reply →

        Thank you! Here’s my first attempt, the sentence is taken from Wentworth Miller’s FB post. I thought it would focus on anger and I was surprised that space became more important. I’m going to send your email to my son too!

        Why do I keep holding space for angry people? Angry people hanging on to space, taking up space. Space taken up by angry people. Space filled with anger. Anger in my space. In my head, in my mind, taking up space. Angry space. Mad, angry, furious space. Is this where I want to be? Taking up angry space? Space in movement, motion in space, move the anger in space. Remove the anger in space. Peace in space

        • Jen Manuel March 10, 2017   Reply →

          Thanks for sharing, Amy! I love the rhythm you created here, particularly in the first five or six lines. Very powerful. And interesting how it turned in an unexpected way for you once you started to unpack the sentences.

          • Amy March 10, 2017  

            Thanks so much for your feedback, and for such a great exercise 🙂

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