Exploring the art of prose


Insinuating Life: Diction and Syntax in the Short Story

Image is a color photograph of a window with white transparent curtains; title card for the new craft essay, "Insinuating Life: Diction and Syntax in the Short Story," by Rose Smith.


By Rose Smith •

Here’s something I am curious about: when is a well-placed flourish, maybe even a flurry of adjectives and adverbs, perfect for a story, and when are the simplest of sentences called for? Two stories came across my radar recently. I am in the habit of listening to The Writer’s Voice: New Fiction from The New Yorker podcast when I walk around Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas, where I live. First, I heard Kevin Barry read his story “The Pub with No Beer.” The diction (word choice) and syntax (word order) are surprising and idiosyncratic. The story is a marvel, truly, especially to hear it in Barry’s deep brogue. When I rushed to read it on the page, I found that the sentences delighted just the same. The hypotactic syntax soars and swoops across the page. Soon after, I heard Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From” on The New Yorker: Fiction podcast. The staccato delivery of the narration, infused with wry humility, communicated something new to me about this story. In contrast to Barry’s, Carver’s paratactic syntax and straightforward diction march across the page and yet the prose, like our protagonist, ends up disorderly nonetheless. Two stories could not be more different in their syntactical construction while touching on so many of the same thematic concerns: manhood, alcoholism, a life interrupted, a suspension of time, sanctuary. We could just say these are stylistic choices. One might say: this is how Carver wrote; this is Barry’s prose style. That may be true, but I am interested in parsing further what each author’s choices around syntax and diction are doing for their stories.


Raising the Blinds

Let’s start with “The Pub with No Beer,” a pandemic story that feels like a haunting. Set in a West Ireland coastal town, almost four hundred days into the COVID-19 lockdown, a publican continues to go to his pub each afternoon. In a failing attempt to simulate routine, he polishes his bar top, wipes down the empty tables, cleans the unused bathrooms. On this particular day, he can hear the ghostly echo of voices that once filled the room. Snippets of conversation come to him from different corners of the bar, all evocative of the regulars who don’t come in anymore. Each voice is rendered with care and specificity. But the narrator’s voice is lush too. Nary a sentence goes by without multiple qualifiers or clauses—adjectives and adverbs abound. In this first paragraph of the story, notice how Kevin Barry varies the architecture of his sentences, allowing the music of his prose to draw us in:

He hadn’t noticed the voices at first. In the endless stretch of the afternoon he entered the pub through the side door with a soft hushed aspect as if broaching a place of burial. It was late March by now, the clocks about to change, and the first heat of the year was intimated when he raised the blinds a few inches to allow the sunlight through. He did so as to show the place up. The effect of the light was to insinuate life. The motes of dust in the sunbeam were life. He opened the window a fraction to freshen the air and looked out—the bay was filling on a neap tide and the Stags of Broadhaven thrust at the clear white skies in raucous appeal.

So many modifiers in these sentences! The diction here is wonderfully strange. And so much is communicated in this opening about what this story will be: right away, Barry equates the bar with a “place of burial.” And then by raising the blinds he gets his protagonist to “insinuate life” into that place. He puts us on notice that this story is an elegy, and an attempt to breathe life into something long gone. The language of the whole story seems to offer a “raucous appeal” toward that end. Nothing here is just the thing: it is not just an afternoon—it is an “endless stretch” of an afternoon. Our protagonist does not just approach his pub—he enters with a “soft hushed aspect as if broaching a place of burial.” And the Stags of Broadhaven? They “thrust at the clear white skies.” The grandiosity of the language contributes to the sense that this is a story that sets out to capture something precious, something lost.

The syntax here, too, is fascinating. Three modifying clauses (“late March,” “clocks about to change,” “first heat of the year”) precede the fundament in the third sentence alone. A fundament is the most essential unit of syntax: in English it contains a subject and predicate (he raised the blinds). In The Art of Syntax, Ellen Bryant Voigt explains: “The elaborate introductory material (modification) delays the subject and predicate. The brain isn’t perplexed: it knows to suspend comprehension until the fundament is revealed, the eye moving from twigs and branches to the trunk of the tree.” Suspense is built into the very construction of the sentence, infusing the story with mystery and momentum, right out of the gate, at the elemental level.

Barry’s opening paragraph has an interesting shape as well. He varies the structure of his sentences: after the long branching sentence we get two powerful declarations, and an effective use of repetition: “The effect of the light was to insinuate life. The motes of dust in the sunbeam were life” (emphasis added). The musicality of this prose is undeniable. Voigt herself relies on musical composition as a metaphor for the kind of syntax that creates layers of meaning in a text: “Essentially composers create a syntax, using rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic markers to create phrases or chunks with which to build ‘complex hierarchies’.” Barry uses these declarative sentences to punch through the lyrical language. The musicality in the cadence leans heavily on the straightforward syntax to create contrast and a complicated hierarchy of meaning. By the end of this first paragraph we find ourselves ready to both grieve and celebrate, to contemplate death and strain toward life.

In this ghostly story of disembodied voices rising up from the past, one embodied man arrives in the present and raps at the door. Here’s how Barry describes him: “The face had an antique bearing; it was somehow medieval. The clear, hard gleam in the eyes—these were eyes that might seek a quick killing.” The prose demands that we be attentive. The quick insertion of danger, the sudden ratcheting up of stakes, comes from the lovely consonance in the diction: “seek a quick killing.” The k sound is such a hard one, is it not? Barry then illuminates the stranger’s identity and origins:

Age receded from the stranger’s face then to allow an O’Casey to be made out. A poor family from a sad stretch of the shore road they had been. One of those families that had broken up and trickled away in all directions. They’d left a wound of a house behind them. The gaping maw of the blank doorway had stood on the shore road for years as invitation to the miseries banked within. It must have been three decades since the family had lived there. Hadn’t there been a story about the father gone mad?

In this passage, I’m immediately alerted to how Barry’s decisions around diction and syntax continue to increase the tension. I was curious to know what this passage would look like without syntax that delays the fundament. Here’s a version without all the modifiers:

They had been a family from the shore road. One of those families that had broken up and trickled away in all directions. They’d left a house behind them. The doorway had stood on the shore road for years. It must have been three decades since the family had lived there. Hadn’t there been a story about the father gone mad?

Sounds a little more like Carver now, eh? Without the Carver magic, though. And I still love that final sentence of the paragraph—the mystery isn’t totally stripped away, but the passage is much diminished in this simplified syntax.

A passage near the end of the story synthesizes the effect, and the meaning, of Barry’s characteristic arrangements of diction and syntax. We see that the reverie and the elegy of his prose comes from the very root of the narrator’s experience. In a passage that flashes back to his childhood, what is revealed is what has been only partially hidden in his prosody:

He knew that his father spoke to God in the night. Once he had heard his father whisper so in the night. His father told God that he was very proud of him and of all his godly works. A high tide sounded beyond, roughly and unseen, in heavy booms and deep answering echoes, and as the wind roared to his boy’s mind the Stags were baying at the sky. Such was his world then. He was the prince of the room and invulnerable.

Barry returns to an early and foundational memory, one of a voice whispering in the night, not unlike the voices that populate this story. Again, Barry uses repetition—ending the first two sentences with the phrase “in the night”—and the punctuating effect of a short declarative sentence. The protagonist’s wistful longing for that time when he was “the prince in the room,” and his father’s misplaced pride, are communicated not only in what he remembers, but also in the prose itself: “Such was his world then.”


Through a Slanted Blind

In “Where I’m Calling From,” Raymond Carver employs a different set of craft choices around syntax and diction, resulting in a story that, at least at first, seems straightforward and unembellished. The story begins just after our narrator checks himself into rehab. He’s got a wife he’s left behind. And a girlfriend too. But it’s not his own story that this narrator wants to tell. He meets J. P. on his first day, and he just can’t get enough of the man’s tale. J. P. tells him all about how he met his wife, Roxy, how she taught him to be a chimney sweep, how he started drinking, how Roxy broke his nose, and he returned the favor. Listening to J. P.’s story helps the narrator “relax, for one thing,” he tells us with a detached tone. “It’s taking me away from my own situation.” Meanwhile, the narrator’s own story of how he ended up here, and of his life before he bottomed out, is glimpsed in slivers, like light through a slanted blind. In this way, we’re intrigued: the dominant narrative, the one about somebody else, becomes less important than the private one he’s holding back. We read on, waiting for more to come.

In a hypotactic sentence, like the ones that populate “The Pub with No Beer,” we wait for the revelation, we consider the possibilities, we engage in a kind of mental suspension—we don’t just observe one sequential event after another. Parataxis, on the other hand, is linear and sequential—the clauses are of equal importance rather than subordinate, and they are full of coordinating conjunctions like and. Let’s take a look at the first sentences of Carver’s story:

We are on the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J. P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep. It’s his first time here, and he’s scared. I’ve been here once before. What’s to say? I’m back.

We find remarkably few modifiers in this opening—only “first and foremost” would qualify as “extra” in my book. And of course, in Voigt’s “complex hierarchies” this distinction might raise the importance of J. P.’s identity as a drunk. But the syntax doesn’t make this interpretation so easy. In Carver’s style, every single phrase, no matter how prosaic, carries weight. And isn’t it interesting that even in a passage of straightforward sentences, where the fundament is always up front, where we don’t have to wait for the revelation, Carver still manages to surprise us? “What’s to say? I’m back,” simplifies the prose even further, while simultaneously opening the story up to complications, piquing interest in our curious minds. Already, in the first paragraph, Carver’s singular syntax and diction create voice and character, build tension, and signal meaning, all before we even get into plot.

As the story progresses, fragments of the narrator’s own history are revealed, and we learn what landed him at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility this time around. After a week of serious binge drinking with his girlfriend over Christmas, he decides it’s time to go back. I’m curious about the role the girlfriend’s “mouthy” teenage son plays. First of all, he gets two of the rare modifiers in the story: he’s both “mouthy” and “God-damned.” Also, he gets a scene unlike any other when the narrator asks his girlfriend to drive him to rehab:

She tried to explain to her son that she was going to be gone that afternoon and evening, and he’d have to get his own dinner. But right as we we’re going out the door this God-damned kid screamed at us. He screamed, “You call this love? The hell with you both! I hope you never come back. I hope you kill yourselves!” Imagine this kid!

So many exclamation points! Someone finally reacts to all this violence and self-destruction and chaos! The detached tone of the narrator, the matter-of-fact way he has been telling these stories of broken noses and dislocated shoulders and cut-up wedding rings is interrupted by a screaming teenager. I love it. It’s like a truth window in an architectural renovation. He doesn’t stray from the prevailing style of syntax and diction very much—just a well-placed adjective (“God-damned”) and an abundance of exclamations, combined with an effective use of repetition (“screamed”), and suddenly we are able to see the story from a new angle. The stakes are higher. It’s not just these drunks hurting and loving each other in a closed loop. There’s a kid involved. And he hopes they kill themselves.

My favorite part of “Where I’m Calling From” is a flashback near the end of the story. Brazenly, I actually don’t think the story would work nearly as well without it. It’s a moment of heightened emotion, the narrator’s one happy memory in the story:

I push the curtain away from the window. Outside, this old guy in white coveralls is standing next to his ladder. The sun is just starting to break above the mountains. The old guy and I look each other over. It’s the landlord all right—this old guy in coveralls. But his coveralls are too big for him. He needs a shave, too. And he’s wearing this baseball cap to cover his bald head. God damn it, I think, if he isn’t a weird hombre then I’ve never seen one. And at that minute a wave of happiness comes over me that I’m not him—that I’m me and that I’m inside this bedroom with my wife.

Carver eschews any flourishes in his prose, even at this pivotal point in the story. He keeps the syntax simple; his word choice remains mostly quotidian as well. I notice the repetition of “coveralls,” I notice the use of “God damn it” and of the phrase “weird hombre,” but even those choices remain well within the style we have come to expect. I almost feel like Carver has been erecting a dam with his prose style throughout this story. His diction creates the restraint, the distance, the unsentimental tone that holds back the intensity of the content. By the time we get to this moment in the story, the “wave of happiness” threatens to breach that dam. We sense, as readers, that it could break through and overwhelm us with emotion, but in the end, it doesn’t. For me, this tension between the two techniques—the holding back and the threatening to overwhelm—is what makes this story tick. Carver’s language, his characteristic syntax and diction, are essential to the story’s effect.

As Ellen Bryant Voigt put it: “By ‘characteristic,’ we usually mean a writer’s stylistic fingerprints…. In each case, the writer’s preference for certain arrangements of syntax—the order of the words in the sentence, the order of the sentences themselves—is unmistakable.” And yet, I can’t help but wonder about writers like Jim Shepard or Hilary Mantel, whose prose style changes from story to story and novel to novel, as their syntactic strategies are driven by the story they want to tell. It’s a bit like the difference between an actor like Robert DeNiro, who, while an emotionally honest actor, is always essentially himself, and an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, who disappears into the role he is playing.

It’s difficult for me to divorce Carver from his style. And yet the language of “Where I’m Calling From” serves to mirror the thematic concerns of the story and, at the same time, deepen our understanding of the narrator and his world. In “The Pub with No Beer,” Kevin Barry has created a lush language for this elegiac story that fits perfectly with his themes as well. While his characteristic style is definitely more embellished than Carver’s, it is not usually filled with this many syntactical flourishes. Barry found a specific voice for this story, and with it came an idiosyncratic syntax and diction. It almost seems like the author, in this case, disappears into the story he is writing.

So, lyricism or simplicity? To raise the blinds, or slant them? Which does your story require? In “Where I’m Calling From,” Raymond Carver offers us a truth window, albeit slanted, into his narrator’s crisis by breaking form with his usual syntax and diction. When the narrator of “The Pub with No Beer” raises the blinds on his empty pub, Kevin Barry’s exalted, lyrical language serves to illuminate what is precious, and under threat. Either way, the effect of all this language is to insinuate life. What loftier goal do we fiction writers have?


ROSE SMITH’s stories can be found in The Missouri Review and Five Points. She was the winner of The Missouri Review’s 27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 2018 Story Contest. Her films have aired on PBS and Sundance Channel among others, and have screened at various festivals, including Sundance, SXSW, and MoMA Documentary Fortnight. She received her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, and now teaches workshops and classes at Austin Bat Cave, an independent creative writing center. Rose lives in Austin, Texas. Find her on Instagram @rosesmithwrites.


Featured image by Maxime Amoudruz, courtesy of Unsplash.