Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 3: Taking Advantage of Syntax and Diction

Well, I’ve made it through the first full week of the school year, and I’m back to continue my series on strategies for creating an engagingly fallible first-person narrator. In the last two posts, I’ve covered two big-picture strategies for showing readers that a character’s perspective is not entirely reliable: writers can incorporate narrative distance or create an audience and purpose for the narrator’s story. In this post, I’ll focus on a sentence-level strategy. Writers can also use syntax and diction to help readers evaluate the soundness of a narrator’s perspective.

images-1Basically, syntax is word order and sentence structure, and diction is word choice. Bruce Brooks uses syntax and diction to suggest his narrator Jerome’s fallibility in The Moves Make the Man, which I also mentioned in my last post. At the very beginning of the narrative, Brooks makes effective syntactical choices when Jerome explains that he snuck into his friend Bix’s room to find a notebook and saw Bix’s baseball glove discarded in a corner:

[It was] tossed in the front corner of the room, and you know I had to pick it up and sniff it and then I couldn’t help but started to cry, first time I ever cried about Bix, feeling like I had lost something and then feeling like I did not know if I ever had it.  Bix was gone and worse the Bix I used to dig was gone even before he went and I didn’t know where either of them was but he left his glove behind, which he must be unhappy about regardless of being the old Bix or the new. (9)

In this passage, Brooks uses two heaving run-on sentences with grammatical blips such as “I couldn’t help but started to cry” to convey Jerome’s confusion.  The syntax in this passage—in which ideas and feelings pour out, one rushing into the next—suggests that Jerome is wounded and desperate, grasping about for understanding.  After these two long sentences, Jerome regains control.  He finishes narrating his trip to Bix’s old room with clipped, active sentences: “When I smelled the glove I could tell it was oiled the right way.  I chucked it back in the corner and climbed out” (9).  Here, Brooks uses syntax to reveal Jerome’s method of coping with things that upset him. Jerome lets his emotions pour out but then reins them in and resumes his usual self-assurance.

Brooks also uses diction to help readers understand more about Jerome’s emotions than Jerome articulates.  Jerome often peppers his sentences with “man,” “baby,” “jack,” and references to himself in the third person. But this smooth talking usually occurs just after Jerome has felt insecure. After he describes breaking into Bix’s room to get the notebook, he writes, “I am not a trespasser. I am not a thief either. I am Jerome Foxworthy, and that’s it, jack” (9). The first two sentences here are technically false; Jerome has just trespassed on private property and taken something that is not his. But because he wants to emphasize his own virtue, he punctuates his self-justification with the cocky last sentence.

To hint at your first-person narrator’s buried emotions and defense mechanisms, consider giving him verbal tics that come out in tense moments, and let the emotion of difficult scenes shape the prose you write, whether that means halting fragments, heaving run-ons, or something else. Or if you are reading a first-person novel, pay attention to the syntax and diction to see what they reveal.

 Works Cited:

Brooks, Bruce.  The Moves Make the Man. 1984. New York: HarperTrophy, 2003. Print.

3 thoughts on “Engagingly Fallible Narrators Strategy 3: Taking Advantage of Syntax and Diction

  1. L. Marie says:

    Wow! Great info, Laurie. I think I often have too tight a control over the dialogue and don’t allow the characters to seem to make mistakes as in “I couldn’t help but started to cry.” They always “sound” perfectly reasonable, instead of desperate and raw and real. I need to keep this in mind. I also need to read this book. Are there any other books where you’ve seen the author use diction to emphasize character?

    • laurielmorrison says:

      Thanks, Linda! The other book I talked about in my grad lecture was Katherine Paterson’s PREACHER’S BOY, in which the main character uses hyperbole and overly mild interjections. I think Gary Schmidt also uses diction and syntax beautifully in OKAY FOR NOW, in which his narrator/protagonist keeps some things from the reader and has some interesting verbal tics. Also, I’d have to look back at the story for the specific examples, but I remember thinking that our own Val Howlett uses this technique brilliantly in her short story “The Arf Thing,” which includes multiple first-person narrators. Let me know if you find some good examples in your own reading!

      • L. Marie says:

        Probably Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley, a YA fantasy novel written in the stream of consciousness style of its main character. The narration mirrors the way a teen would talk. On the first page, Jake’s father wants him to write a dictionary, but the reader has no clue what kind or why until the story unfolds. But Jake isn’t great at conveying information—his verbal tic. Here is a paragraph from page 1:

        “I don’t know how to write it,” I mutter. Like, just by the way, I do know how to write my dictionary. Which I don’t either. In spite of the fancy graphics package.

        McKinley keeps this up for the whole book. Little by little the reader begins to understand.

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