Forever Overhead

January 26, 2010

For tonight’s exercise, let’s start with a quote.

“You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. At some point the wrongnesses have piled up blind: pretend-boredom, weight, thin rungs, hurt feet, space cut into laddered parts that melt together only in a disappearance that takes time. The wind on the ladder not what anyone would have expected. The way the diving board protrudes from shadow into light and you can’t see past the end. When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required.”

-David Foster Wallace.

Here’s one of his exercises, reprinted from kottke.org. I’m really excited about this one.

Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace

A Primer for Kicking Ass
Being the Result of One Man’s Fed-upped-ness With ‘How to Write’ Books Not Actually Showing You How to Write
By James Tanner. Reprinted with permission.

0. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.

Ex: Mario had help with his movie. He did a lot of the work himself.

1. Use them in a compound sentence:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, But…Mario did the puppet work, And…It was his shoes on the pedal.

2. Add rhythm with a dependent clause:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work, and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

3. Elaborate using a complete sentence as interrupting modifier:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

4. Append an absolute construction or two:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops moved out of frame.

5. Paralell-o-rize your structure (turn one noun into two):

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and the puppet work — his arms and fingers are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and buckets moved out of frame.


STOP HERE IF YOU ARE A MINIMALIST, WRITING COACH, OR JAMES WOOD

6. Adjectival phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word ‘little’):

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets moved out of frame.

7. Throw in an adverb or two (never more than one third the number of adjectives):

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out of frame.

8. Elaboration — mostly unnecessary. Here you’ll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a matter of synonyms and prepositions. Don’t be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elaborations will contribute to voice — for example, ‘had a hand in’ is longer than ‘helped’, but still kinda voice-y — but that’s just gravy. The goal here is word count.

It’s obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario’s little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame’s borders on either side of the little velvet stage.


STOP HERE IF YOU ARE NOT WRITING PARODY

9. Give it that Wallace shine. Replace common words with their oddly specific, scientific-y counterparts. (Ex: ‘curved fingers’ into ‘falcate digits’). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: ‘shoes’ into ‘Hush Puppies,’ ‘camera’ into ‘Bolex’). Finally, go crazy with the possessives. Who wants a tripod when they could have a ‘tunnel’s locked lab’s tripod’? Ahem:

It’s obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and falcate digits are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario’s little square Hush Puppies on the H^4’s operant foot-treadle, the Bolex itself mounted on one of the tunnel’s locked lab’s Husky-VI TL tripods across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame’s borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

10. Practice. Take one sentence — any sentence — and Wallacize it. Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones.

Ex: “John wanted to play ball, but he sat on the couch.”

Or did John _________________________________ ?

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