kottke.org posts about jamestanner

Growing Sentences with David Foster WallaceMar 16 2009

A Primer for Kicking Ass
Being the Result of One Man's Fed-upped-ness With 'How to Write' Books Not Actually Showing You How to Write
By James Tanner. Reprinted with permission.

0. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.

Ex: Mario had help with his movie. He did a lot of the work himself.

1. Use them in a compound sentence:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, But...Mario did the puppet work, And...It was his shoes on the pedal.

2. Add rhythm with a dependent clause:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work, and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

3. Elaborate using a complete sentence as interrupting modifier:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

4. Append an absolute construction or two:

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops moved out of frame.

5. Paralell-o-rize your structure (turn one noun into two):

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and the puppet work — his arms and fingers are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and buckets moved out of frame.

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STOP HERE IF YOU ARE A MINIMALIST, WRITING COACH, OR JAMES WOOD
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6. Adjectival phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word 'little'):

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets moved out of frame.

7. Throw in an adverb or two (never more than one third the number of adjectives):

It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out of frame.

8. Elaboration — mostly unnecessary. Here you'll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a matter of synonyms and prepositions. Don't be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elaborations will contribute to voice — for example, 'had a hand in' is longer than 'helped', but still kinda voice-y — but that's just gravy. The goal here is word count.

It's obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario's little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame's borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

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STOP HERE IF YOU ARE NOT WRITING PARODY
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9. Give it that Wallace shine. Replace common words with their oddly specific, scientific-y counterparts. (Ex: 'curved fingers' into 'falcate digits'). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: 'shoes' into 'Hush Puppies,' 'camera' into 'Bolex'). Finally, go crazy with the possessives. Who wants a tripod when they could have a 'tunnel's locked lab's tripod'? Ahem:

It's obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and falcate digits are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario's little square Hush Puppies on the H^4's operant foot-treadle, the Bolex itself mounted on one of the tunnel's locked lab's Husky-VI TL tripods across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame's borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

10. Practice. Take one sentence — any sentence — and Wallacize it. Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones.

Ex: "John wanted to play ball, but he sat on the couch."

Or did John _________________________________ ?

[Ed note: I saw this on a mailing list a few weeks ago, really liked it, and asked permission to reprint it here. Thanks for sharing, James.]

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