Worried that worrying about nervousness will cause nervousness, all that stupid self-conscious stuff you let into your brain that takes over your mindspace and mucks up your mnemonic, derailing your already precariously teetering train of thought.
The Guest Lecture, by Martin Riker
After reading this sentence, I'm anxious. True, there are the words "worried" and "worrying" and "nervousness," but the structure, too, creates anxiety. How?
Repetition can create anxiety. It's mimetic of a mind spiraling the same subject matter, unable to move from it because of worry. You know, those sleepless nights where your mind throws a hook into something and won't let go.
To create that repetition Riker uses polyptoton, the repetition of words derived from the same root but with different endings, with "worried and worrying." This technique focuses the reader's attention on this word in its various iterations.
Repetition continues with the refrain, "nervousness will cause nervousness." This technique is called epanalepsis, in which the beginning of a clause or sentence is repeated at the end of that same clause or sentence, with words intervening.
Look closely, and you’ll see this isn’t a complete sentence; the subject "she" is missing, as if anxiety has eliminated the subject, along with her ability to think in complete sentences. (I worried that worrying…) The subsequent clause and phrase add more details fleshing out the character's frenzied mental state.
Despite the worry, the sentence has a comic tone, and that's accomplished, in part, with alliteration and assonance. The sentence is a pleasure to read. I hear an almost sing-songy tone with the "s" of stupid/self conscious/stuff; and mindspace/mucks; and teetering/train, with the "t" sound ending the sentence with the word "thought."
Assonance, too, adds pleasurable sound, repeating and emphasizing vowel sounds: worried/worrying; brain/takes/space/derailing; mucks/up; and stupid/mnemonic.
One of the best ways to write humor is by mixing high and low-register words. Register is a name for a kind of diction, from formal or Latinate to colloquial: "stupid" (informal) "self conscious" (formal) "stuff" (informal). Riker "mucks up," (informal) with "mnemonic," (formal).
Begin with an independent clause, right-branching, but leave out the subject. Add polyptoton, such as Riker did with worried/worrying.
Then use epanalepsis, repeating a word(s) at the beginning of a phrase and ending with the same word.
What follows elaborates on this opening independent clause. Add a clause giving specific details about some aspect of the first clause. Can you revise and add alliteration and assonance? Can you play with the register?
I’ve taught “Style in Fiction,” “Word for Word” and “Cultivating Your Prose” at the University of San Francisco and Stanford Continuing Studies since 2007. In each of these classes, we spend 10 to 15 weeks drenched in the beauty of sentences, reading them and writing them. It’s such a pleasure! I’ve watched my writing and my students’ writing blossom with this practice of paying close attention to the sentence.
Please visit my website to find all of my books, www.ninaschuyler.com. You’ll find my book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, and my new book, Stunning Sentences: A Creative Writing Journal.
I’d really love it if you preordered my novel, Afterword, which will be published by Clash Books in May 2023.
Publishers Weekly said:
…there’s plenty of great character work. In flashbacks, Schuyler makes palpable the love between Haru and Virginia, which informs Virginia’s conflicted desire to keep his memory alive and leads to many clever insights (“The definition of human should include the world ‘flaw’ in it”). This will move readers.
My recent essay about ChatGPT: Does ChatGPT Have Style? I look closely at a story written by ChatGPT to see if it invokes any style techniques.
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I really appreciated your article on Chat GPT. I’m thinking about it a lot as a writer and writing teacher, and I swing between hope and despair over how it will change the literary world.
Nervous about moving because the legs can't move; the nerves are wracked and the muscles spasm around the spine and I sit here, stagnant and stultifying, wringing my hands and thinking about crossing that road but not making it on the other side; a speeding car tossing my spastic body in the air. Perhaps then the pain will end.