Sentence-level switchbacks and conflict

Accomplished writers know that to write a great story, you need characters with internal conflicts that motivate them in a plot full of external conflicts. But something less often talked about is how to put conflict into language itself.

Turning sentences or paragraphs on themselves with internal contradictions is what gives the writing life and complexity.

Douglas Glover talks about this (along with other interesting writing techniques and story architecture like “globs,” repetitions and image patterns) in a great interview from the Write the Book podcasts’ archives. Glover says that writers should use “but-constructions” to introduce contrasts and movement of meaning into the language itself.

But-constructions are sentences or paragraphs that turn on a “but” (or on anything else that creates the a contrasting effect: conjunctions, semicolons, dashes, parentheticals, or line breaks). The idea is that, after each statement, you have “a counter statement, or contrasting statement, or a statement that subverts the first statement.”

We love conflict, contrasts, paradoxes, reversals, and surprises, so when a writer undercuts things they say with anti-statements, they are adding action and mystery at the level of ideas or even just in the grammar. This keeps us readers alert and curious.

If you want to see a neat collection of “but then” sentences, check out WNYC’s collection mined from the This American Life stories. So cool.

Here are some examples of good writers using switchbacks in content or tone, which I just pulled from whatever books I had within reach.

Nelson DeMille (The Gold Coast)

Normally, if left alone with a woman in this sort of situation, I’d do a little mild flirting, just to be polite, or to show I was still alive down where my oxford shirt ended. Sometimes, too, I flirt because I am honestly filled with lust. But I’d sworn off flirting, at least until the start of Lent. And even if I hadn’t sworn off, I wasn’t going to screw around with Cesar’s wife. Poor Anna, she probably hadn’t been propositioned since Frank got his first gun. Still, I did stare at her mountainous bumpers, and she smiled openly at me.

Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions)

He owned dozens of vacant lots. He was on the Board of Directors of the Midland County National Bank.

But now Midland City looked unfamiliar and frightening to Dwayne. “Where am I?” he said.

C. M. Kornbluth (The Alter at Midnight)

He had quite a rum blossom on him for a kid, I thought at first. But when he moved closer to the light by the cash register to ask the bartender for a match or something, I saw it wasn’t that.

Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee)

When I came to again, I was sitting under an oak tree, on the grass, with a whole beautiful and broad country landscape all to myself—nearly. Not entirely…

Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee)

We marched comfortably along, through glades and over brooks which I could not remember to have seen before—which puzzled me and made me wonder—and yet we did not come to any circus or sign of a circus. So I gave up the idea of a circus, and concluded he was from an asylum. But we never came to an asylum—so I was up a stump, as you may say.

 

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