During the years of research leading up to my book How to Write Short, I have read countless short works, texts that span the history of writing itself. It turns out that Steve Jobs did not invent the tablet, folks, unless he led a previous life as a Sumerian.
So, yes, I have looked at the content of those cuneiform messages written with a stylus onto clay. And I have read a googol blog posts, text messages and tweets. The arc of my research spans the earliest written messages to the most recent: the once and future language. That perspective ‒ across epochs of communication and information ‒ has led me to this: While technologies and forms of delivery change, the content and rhetorical strategies designed to express that content remain the same.
It just so happens that during this research on short writing, I also have been dabbling in cosmology, the science of the universe, and the theories of mathematics and physics behind it. In 2012, big news broke about new data on the so-called Higgs boson, controversially called the “God particle,” a subatomic particle that could help us understand how matter ‒ in all of its manifestations ‒ came into being.
I became fascinated by the notion that if enough particles collided at high enough speeds, you would be able to detect evidence of something real but invisible and indescribable. That idea in physics began to intrude into my thinking about language. In short, I wondered if the energy and matter created by a writer came from something so small that it could not be directly examined, but only inferred from its effects. I am speaking analogically or metaphorically, of course; there is no phoneme collider under the Alps ready to reveal the secrets of style, rhetoric, news judgment or literary meaning. In essence, I have become the collider.
The words bump into each other through my eyes, ears and memory. In my work on short texts, fewer words collide, leading me down to a subatomic level of language. At a macro-level, the language forces I seek to measure are at work in a thousand-page novel. But they also work at the sentence level, at the phrase level, sometimes inside a word, sometimes inside part of a word.
The secret knowledge I seek, I now believe, is embodied by and embedded in the number two. Just as two defines the binary information coding of computer science and genetics, two has become in my mind the essential number to create meaning in all texts, most visibly in short texts:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Is it possible to examine the effects of these combinations of words so closely that they would reveal a unified theory of language and literature ‒ with a few writing tips along the way?
Let’s begin with the “Jesus wept” effect, arguably among the shortest, most memorable and most powerful sentences in the Gospels. The context is the news that the cousin of Jesus, Lazarus, has died. Jesus will raise him from the dead, a foreshadowing of his own resurrection. But that act of divine power is preceded by one of deep human vulnerability. One cousin dies. Another weeps. In that sense, “Jesus wept” can be seen as the narrative expression of a theological doctrine centuries in the making: the idea of the God/Man, the dual nature of the Christ.
I am no linguist, but I can understand an essential two-ness in how meaning is created, expressed by the collision of subject and verb. “Jesus wept.”
Let’s move to a very different type of savior: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lest you dismiss this creation of screenwriter and director Joss Whedon as lacking high seriousness, know that it has been the subject of more scholarly attention than any similar work of popular culture.
Until Buffy came along, vampire hunters in film and literature were older men, usually doctors or scientists, with serious names like Van Helsing. Instead, we are given a blond high-school girl from Southern California and a name associated with the empty-headedness of the San Fernando Valley beach and galleria culture. Watch any of the more than 150 episodes, and you come to realize that the entire narrative is contained in the homunculus of that name and title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I am back to a metaphor of collision and energy. To make meaning, especially in literature, requires a bit of rub between the elements. No rub, no friction. No friction, no heat. No heat, no light. No light, no illumination, no seeing, no understanding, no meaning.
The rub can be expressed even in a name. Tonio Kröger is a novella written in 1901 by German author Thomas Mann. The story describes the journey of a young man whose father was a north German merchant and whose mother was an Italian artist. As an artist himself, Tonio struggles for a sense of identity and community, torn between the conflicting cultures of northern and southern Europe. The brilliance of the title becomes clear by the end, that the very name of the protagonist – Tonio Kröger, Italian and German – expresses the friction deep within his soul.
Let’s play this out in a longer phrase, attributed to the young boxer Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I could argue that these eight words form one of the greatest catch phrases in the history of sports.
The most obvious expression of two-ness in this sentence can be found in its parallel clauses. At first glance, they look perfectly parallel:
Float = sting
like a = like a
butterfly = bee
But while the patterns seem to repeat syntactically ‒ imperative verb –> simile marker –> noun for insect ‒ the power of the language, the burn, comes from the friction between the parallel elements. In pugilism, the traditional figures were either boxers or punchers. Among the greatest, of course, were men who could combine dancing footwork and defense with knockout power: fighters who could float and sting.
Butterfly and bee, at first glance, are marked by their similarities. They alliterate; both are nouns that describe insects; both are objects of the preposition; both are second terms in a simile. But I feel a rub, which has at least four sources:
- length (three syllables versus one);
- poetics (flow versus stop);
- semantics (you try to catch one, but run from the other); and
- connotation (something beautiful versus something that could cause anaphylaxis).
On the macro level of language and literature, you can always catch me chatting about the encompassing power of three, the sense of a whole that comes from beginning, middle and end.
I now think that my attention to three may have been myopic. Now I have another lens ‒ I’m biopic! ‒ that sees the more fundamental effects of two. We may have the analytical skills to slice a long work into several parts. But when we seek the sources of energy, again and again, it seems to resolve itself to two. In a story, it’s Robert McKee’s inciting incident colliding with the safe patterns of daily life; in news, it’s a radical variation from the norm: Man bites dog.
The tension in texts has its equivalents in other forms of expression, such as music. I attended a lecture by singer-songwriter Billy Joel in which he demonstrated the “rub” that exists in a musical chord that is called “suspended.” When that chord returns to its original form, it becomes “resolved.” Notice that we use versions of these words – suspense and resolution – to express literary techniques.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. He is the author of Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar and Help! For Writers.
A chat with Roy Peter Clark
What drew you originally to the world of words and writing?
I was born into an Italian-Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York City. This was a family of talkers and storytellers. My mother kept a baby book and writes that by the time I was 2-years old, I was talking, singing, reciting nursery rhymes, recognizing letters and telling jokes. I was swimming in language.
What’s your favorite work of short fiction and why?
No question, it’s “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. I can’t think of another work so economical and yet so chilling. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about the ending – a horror that is foreshadowed by the actions of children in the first paragraphs of the story. After it appeared in the New Yorker in 1948, people thought it described an actual sacrificial ritual in an actual town. Talk about suspension of disbelief.
You talk about the “song lyric” as a good short form. What’s your favorite lyric?
As an old garage band musician, I’m tempted to quote the fake dirty lyrics that replaced the undecipherable mumblings in “Louie, Louie,” a song that was banned in Boston and raised First Amendment questions. In my book, I devote a chapter to “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty. I love the line: “All the vampires walkin’ through the valley/Move west down Ventura Blvd.” There is real danger in all those “v” words.
“Tweak the predictable” is terrific advice. Let’s see how you do tweaking this one: People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Hmm. There must be a joke somewhere with this punch line: “People in glass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.” Or, in the spirit of my boyhood hero Soupy Sales: “People in glass houses shouldn’t invite Halle Berry over for the weekend.”
What do you think we can learn from today’s short tech forms such as tweeting and texting?
I have almost 5,000 followers on Twitter, and I try to give them something special every time I tweet. There’s no dumping allowed. I revise everything. I treat each of those 140 characters as special. There are wonderful writers on Twitter. To riff off the Pirandello play, I think of Twitter as “140 characters in search of an author.”
From How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
Chapter 13: Hit your target.
Imagine writing a long passage that looks like the flight of an arrow from a strong bow across a distance and into the center of a target. The bow is the subject, the bow string the verb, the arrow crosses the distance of the message, but stops suddenly on some emphatic point. The more humorous or satirical the passage, the sharper the point:
“Groundhog Day has been observed only once in Los Angeles because when the groundhog came out of its hole, it was killed by a mud slide.” (Johnny Carson)
“When I was young, the Dead Sea was still alive.” (George Burns)
“When they circumcised Herbert Samuel, they threw away the wrong part.” (David Lloyd George on a rival)
Stephen Greenblatt is an author, Harvard professor, and one of America’s most public scholars. He has written award-winning books on Shakespeare’s life and works and an oddly beautiful book on the influence of an ancient poem in the making of the modern world. The book is called Swerve, and in this passage on the philosophy of the Roman poet Lucretius, the author aims at and hits his target:
That Lucretius and many others did more than simply associate themselves with Epicurus – that they celebrated him as godlike in his wisdom and courage – depended not on his social credentials but upon what they took to be the saving power of his vision. The core of this vision may be traced back to a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist is put together out of indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number. The Greeks had a word for these invisible building blocks, things that, as they conceived them, could not be divided any further: atoms.
If you are counting, there are 108 words in that paragraph. Who could doubt that the first 107 words are in service to the last one? Everything points to “atoms,” the word that will allow the arrow of the sentence to fly from a world of Roman aqueducts to one of quantum mechanics.
To demonstrate that this move is strategic, rather than accidental, I can offer another example from Greenblatt, also from Swerve. In this passage, the author describes the special talent that turned a common worker named Poggio Bracciolini (1417) into one of the great book hunters and copiers of the Italian Renaissance:
After the defeat of the Ciompi, as the working-class revolutionaries were called, the resurgent oligarchs held on to power tenaciously for more than forty years, shaping Poggio’s whole knowledge and experience of the city where he determined to make his fortune. He had to find a way into a conservative, socially bounded world. Fortunately for him, by innate skill and training he possessed one of the few gifts that would enable someone of his modest origins and resources to do so. The key that opened the first door through which he slipped was something that has come to mean next to nothing in the modern world: beautiful handwriting.
Coincidentally, we have another paragraph of 108 words, and once again all the early words are in service of the last two. What follows any paragraph, of course, is a bar of white space that helps to show where the word marksman has hit his target dead center.
The target move turns out to be perfect for contemporary forms of short writing, as shown in these examples from Twitter Wit:
*Some people don’t like Vietnamese food, but I don’t know what they’re complaining pho. (spdracerx)
*I got an extra two years just because I laughed every time the judge said penal. (Juniorwad)
*You can’t outsource balls. (StephenAtHome)
As you continue your reading of short texts, new and old, keep these strategic moves in mind. You will begin to notice them more and more in your reading and can rehearse how to use them in your own writing.
1. To practice hitting your target, try writing a short focused paragraph, fiction or nonfiction, that ends with one of the following words or phrases:
- the world’s greatest lover
- a chocolate stain
- a one-armed man
- the greatest story never told
- Aunt Mabel’s pajamas
2. Now make a list of words or phrases that have special meaning for you. Use them as targets, placing them at the end of paragraphs for special emphasis.
3. Because of its compression and emotional intensity, poetry often magnifies the effects of hitting the target. Read your favorite poets to check out this rhetorical move, as in this poem by Emily Dickinson:
Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the culprit – Life!
Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company