Creating Sentence Suspense #4
It being a clear day, they follow the helmet all the way down, not saying anything, just leaning out and watching it, squinting their eyes from the sun reflecting off the surface of the bay, and hearing it fall, the cowl fluttering and snapping behind the headpiece, until the helmet hits with a loud, sharp crack, like a gunshot.
“The Bridge,” by Daniel Orozco, from the short story collection Orientation
One more time in the grip of suspense.
A little context here: in the short story, “The Bridge,” the main characters work as painters on the Golden Gate Bridge. Yesterday, a woman jumped, headfirst, and died. As she passed by the painters on her way down, she made a small sound, “an oof or an oops.” The next day, one of the workers, on a platform beneath the bridge, accidentally drops his noise helmet.
We’ve seen this type of sentence before. It’s a cumulative sentence, with the accumulation of information after the base clause. The suspense is created by placing the most important information at the end of the sentence: “until the helmet hits with a loud sharp crack, like a gunshot.” This final clause echoes the girl who jumped and died, suggesting that the suicide is going to haunt these characters for a long time.
Let’s take this beautiful sentence apart and see how it works (thank you, Mr. Orozco).
The base clause is: “They follow the helmet all the way down.”
Then the modifiers begin to proliferate, and at first, they point back to the subject, “they.”
1) not saying anything
2) just leaning out and watching it
3) squinting their eyes from the sun reflecting off the surface of the bay
4) hearing it fall
Now, something interesting happens. The modifiers refer not to “they” but to the direct object, “helmet.”
5) the cowl fluttering and snapping behind the headpiece
The sentence ends with a dependent clause, further describing the helmet:
6) until the helmet hits with a loud, sharp crack, like a gunshot.
Orozco’s modifiers are mostly present participles (-ing), which create a feeling of the event happening right now: saying/leaning/watching/squinting/hearing/fluttering/snapping.
The dependent clause wonderfully breaks that rhythm, and, by doing so, draws attention to itself. Instead of –ing words, we have “hits,” which is further emphasized by alliteration with “helmet.”
Then, the sentence slows down with three hard stresses, “loud, sharp crack.” The ending is made even more dramatic because these three words end with the plosive consonants, d,p, and k. Plosive consonant sounds are made by completely blocking the flow of air as it leaves the body. (Plosives are d,p,c, b,t,g.) They explode from the mouth and are more violent than other consonant sounds.
There’s more to say about this sentence, and please, leave comments.
I’ll add one more thing because it’s so cool.
The syntax itself mimics the particular action of the two men watching the helmet fall 245 feet, “all the way down” from the Golden Gate Bridge into the ocean. It’s called syntactic symbolism and one way to create this is by the cumulative sentence, mingled with rhythm and sound.
Try playing with this sentence.
Let me know how it goes.
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