5 Old-school Tricks to Jazz-Up Your Fiction, Memoir or Poetry

Online Writing Tips and Tricks1.   (The Colon) Ending Paragraph Enjambment:

Instances of this can be seen throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. It takes the form of a paragraph ending with a colon, followed by a new paragraph which begins with what was foreshadowed just before the colon. Example:

…Tom was a swell dancer and leaning in to whisper in Karen’s ear he said emphatically:

“It’s a lovely evening, might I please have this dance.”

This technique need not only be used with dialogue although it’s particularly effective for this purpose. The technique relies on the poetic powers of enjambment which leverage the scanning of the eyes of a reader across the page to denote cadence and suspense. It also allows you, in the instance of dialogue, to front-load the dialogue with either the preceding sentence of its above paragraph or, more dramatically, with the thesis of the entire preceding paragraph. In this way, this technique can be looked upon as a modification of the tactic employed by the periodic sentence (a periodic sentence is a long sentence that saves its punch until the very end. Wikipedia link to periodic sentence).

2.   (The Colon) The Bookend Colon:

Colons are fun to use. They fixate our attention to what is about to come next. Did you know that a writer can actually put the same word on either side of a colon and still not sound crazy? They can! I’ve seen it done to impressive effect by both Fitzgerald and—a few centuries prior—the poet Ovid. Here’s a horribly butchered example that I’ll try to recall from a Fitzgerald short story:

She was the most beautiful of all angels of Babylon and wealthy too from the gold of her voice, the gold of her feathered dress—the eyes that somehow glowed gold:  Gold in every ounce of spinning majesty. See? That was fun, right? Or am I a nerd?

3.   (The Semicolon) Verb-Leading Semicolons:

Great writers are masters of both the deep and surface structure levels of language. (I’m borrowing this lingo from NLP). The deep structure is the words missing on the page that we have the good sense to assume are implied. The surface structure simply refers to the words that are actually on the page. I’m hungry. You? Surely we’ve all said something like this to someone before. The surface structure only says the word You but we know from the preceding words that the deep structure is actually:  Hey, Donald—nice tie, by the way—say, would you be interested in joining me for sushi at that swell place on thirty-third street? The hostess is so sexy!

This same concept can be used in conjunction with the semicolon. We’ve all had the following problem:  We want to describe a series of motions and gestures of our beloved main character but how do we do this without hopelessly repeating their personal pronoun or, worse still, fluctuating randomly between personal pronouns and character names? Sometimes it’s best to omit some of the actions and have your audience infer them but if you really want to convey a sense of panic or restlessness, consider:

John walked into his apartment. He looked around. He found the remote to his TV. He flipped through some channels. He got up. Or… John walked into his apartment; looked around; found the remote; flipped through some channels.

4.   (Onomatapoeia) Italicized Onomatapoeia:

We’ve all seen words in our fiction meant to express the sounds they make in real life such as poof, bam, splif, chugga-chugga—chugga-chugga—choooo-chooooeew… etcetera. Most writers seem almost to apologize for their onomatapoeia by not giving them a prominent enough place in their sentences or paragraphs. They wait to use them until the very end of the last sentence of the paragraph. Bo-oring! If you put them in the middle of your sentences and paragraphs, they can really startle your readers—which is fun! Plus, once the onomatapoeia is in the middle, it can be further set off by capitalization and punctuation. Like, for example, one time I was walking down the street and Boom! a fricken car exploded and then I realized I was dreaming of a Michael Bay movie.

5.   (Punctuation) Variable Length Em Dashes:

Okay, I didn’t want to have to admit this but great writers—really, really, really great writers—are magicians. Any objections? Didn’t think so. And what’s the number one tool of a great magician? Misdirection. Some of the things that great writers like Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and perhaps even Kurt Vonnegut do they probably couldn’t explain to you or themselves. They just work. But might I suggest that some of the purpose of these fanciful techniques and bewildering variations is simply to set you up for the big punch, to give your subconscious mind something to chew on so that you can’t see any of the imperfections in that last, big punch that their trying to set up. May I suggest that the variable length of Fitzgerald’s em dashes might fall into this category? Sometimes he uses a regular length em dash; sometimes he seems to use a double length em dash. It’s possible that the regular length dash is employed to show a subtle tangent in prose and the double em dash is reserved for complete and abrupt shifts. A close examination of this punctuation doesn’t give way to easy analysis. Maybe he’s just keeping us busy. You can do the same! I won’t tell anyone. Seriously, though, I believe if a writer loosens up a bit, the writer’s subconscious mind may just—on those rare occasions—find a way to direct those seemingly random variations of punctuation into something meaningful and perhaps even artful.

About davidwallacefleming

David Wallace Fleming is a U.S. writer, living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the coming-of-age, social media novel GROWING UP WIRED, and the satirical science fiction audiobook, NOT FROM CONCENTRATE.
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11 Responses to 5 Old-school Tricks to Jazz-Up Your Fiction, Memoir or Poetry

  1. zumpoems says:

    “Great writers are masters of both the deep and surface structure levels of language”

    This is such an important observation and applies to writers and composers (Beethoven is such a great example) alike!

    You may wish to add a definition for “em dashes” — a longer dash — so called, because it takes up the amount of horizontal print space occupied by the letter “M” in the given type size.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. cv says:

    I must be a nerd too, because i totally loved this post! I guess u made a new fan through goodreads…how savvy of you. Goodluck with future posts!

  3. Linn says:

    I must be a nerd too then!

    Or maybe the whole world is…. Or it may just be my imagination.

    (as a pervious comment said, you might want to define the m-dash… I had to read the comment to know what it was)


  4. Its funny you should mention ‘implied personal pronouns’. I wrote a really short peice that takes full advantage of this to create a sense of panic. Average readers fully understand this – its the writers that keep telling me: “This is a fragment sentence…that is a fragment sentence, etc.”

    • I can agree that fragmented sentences can lend some variety to prose. Of course a lot of those tricks can from reading Fitzgerald and he seemed to be a master at understanding what the reader understood. And, I do find non-writer reactions to be oftentimes more helpful at honing craft because they are providing input from a reader’s perspective.

  5. marsdencyn says:

    Nice to see another fan of the semicolon. I don’t understand why this little multitasker is so often maligned; my guess is those who dis it don’t know how to use it.

    • I like the semicolon because to use it correctly really is almost an artform unto itself. Many people stear clear from this challenge in their writing and others misuse it.

      Thanks for stopping by and reading!

  6. J. J-B says:

    Very cool. I found this article while searching for info on Fitzgerald’s “variable length em dashes,” as you put it. They mystified me and I couldn’t really find any good info on them besides this. Many thanks.

    • Awesome! I’m glad you found it of benefit. Thanks for stopping by. I’ve got several other essays on here especially about Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Maybe I’ll be able to read some more of your comments. The variable length em dashes are really a mystery though.

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