Emotion in Syntax

imagesThe first thing I was taught when I started writing was how to correctly use both diction and syntax to further the emotional response evoked from the reader. Emotion is something I really focus on when writing and I think it also gives me new ideas when I want to convey raw feelings. An author that I studied who is exceptional at this technique is Tim O’Brien, the author of The Things They Carried. His use of masterful language and various sentence structures puts the reader in the mind of a soldier in Vietnam who watches others battle with the mental and physical struggles of the war. A single word in a sentence can make the reader go off into a completely different direction of what the story was depicting, so it’s important to pay attention to these details.

Tim O’Brien understands both his characters and plot, so his use of this particular style works in favor of the writing. If he were to be talking about WWII instead of Vietnam, then everything would change. The characters, the setting, the time period, and the pressure. But most importantly he would need to change the style in which these characters talked, walked, even just stood there. The words in how he first described the characters would change. The reader can get different themes when reading a story, and a lot of the time those themes come from the idea of particular word choice or sentence variance that conjures up emotions that lead to a recurring symbol or idea. This is another example of how you need to pay attention to your styles. If Tim O’Brien took out his theme loss of innocence and the corruption of war the story would not be the same. It would be about how this war was like every other war and things were hard, but good. This is not Vietnam nor the story Tim O’Brien wrote. All these things are so important to the piece of work, so it’s fascinated me how these things can change one small detail and shift the entire writing into a different direction. I admire his writing style and hope to one day incorporate what he uses in his work into my own. As I read multiple style types my writing increases in emotion. I evolve and learn all I can about a specific style of writing to help arouse rawer emotions just from small detail choices. Both my peers and teachers also help me by critiquing my work and pointing out specific instances where something doesn’t feel right or a detail is saying something it’s not supposed to. It’s always good to have someone else look at my writing because it’s not their darling and they can rip it to shreds without second thought. Once I can catch on how to see those choices (how to kill your darlings) and how to quickly change them, I’ll be able to write in ways I wasn’t able to before and I think that’s something I really look forward too.

-McKenzie Fox, Fiction Editor


On Saunders and Sentences

george-saundersI have a thing for deeply flawed voices in stories. Those characters who immediately rope you into a new way of seeing the world. Use of diction and sentence structure is crucial to sending the reader straight into a character’s head. There are many great examples, but no one author has influenced my way of composing sentences like George Saunders.

A creative writing teacher lent me his book Tenth of December because she thought I would enjoy the stories, but also look at his use of craft when forming my own writing. I read the book, with few breaks, over one weekend, sitting on my chilly porch, each gnawing breeze pushing me further and further into the work. His characters are gritty, realistic people in slightly unreal situations. The really incredible part is, he can put me into a way of thinking without so much as using first person. His word choice and forming of sentences is largely to thank.

Take, for example, this passage from the first story, “Victory Lap” of his recent Tenth of December: “Had he said, Let us go stand on the moon? If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}. And if no wry acknowledgment was forthcoming, be like, Uh, I am not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?” What stuck me, what would change the way I write, is how a character’s’ thoughts become part of a stream, the way both dialogue and action are projected in his mind. He doesn’t think in clear patterns, the way people are expected to in stories. Instead, it’s much more real. When a person becomes jittery and nervous, they cram their thoughts and reactions together. This is what Saunders does in the anxious stream of possibilities, of a character with that “super-cold”, creating a condensed form of thinking, the way I have internally.

Reading this style of writing strikes me, because it’s unusual, but once I fall into the patterns of it, my thinking matches up with the character and suddenly, at least in my experience, the two of you are one. The story is immediate and palpable, not distanced and planned. This is what I wanted to create. A kind of writing so direct, so natural, that it becomes synonymous with a reader’s own mind. At the moment, I have many stories with the subtleties of Saunder’s style creeping up in them.

I wrote a story last year about the destroyed landscape of a Florida swamp swallowing its abusers in a storm, “Song”. The terror of the characters needed to be visible, but just as important was their way of interacting with the world from the beginning. Anyone can be scared. Only Johnny, a doomed Floridian, could arrive with his background of going to work each day to smother the land in concrete and wood, a life dripping with heat and humidity, the whole system of values instilled in him so, when the land finally did claim him, it was as a product of place being consumed by place. When I revised the story, the sentences were just as much a product of the place as Johnny himself. The words were carefully chosen in both vernacular and specificity. The land’s reaction isn’t the first violence; this is a setting fraught with battles over control. Word choice, whenever possible, held that history of conflict.

In the end, that story was published in the 2016 edition of Elan. And I plan to keep reading George Saunders, keep inventing characters that are so saturated with individual views, so honest through language, that a reader can’t help but delve into their world, headfirst.

Ana Shaw, Junior Editor-in-Chief

Revision Techniques

We’re approaching the end of our first year as an online literary magazine. Did you submit? Were any of your pieces published? If so, congratulations! If you weren’t published, however, or if you received an email from one of our staff members asking for revisions and didn’t know how to go about that, then I might be able to help you out.

Here’s a few revision techniques I’ve picked up from four years at Douglas Anderson:


  • Symbolism is your best friend.
    You never want to give your intent away, or in other words, be “too tell-y.” Instead, utilize devices such as extended metaphor and related imagery to communicate what you would like to say about your topic. Think of it this way: You wouldn’t tell your best friend that the pair of shoes or the shirt he/she picked out was in every way revolting, would you? Hopefully, you would show them another pair of shoes or shirt in an attempt to dissuade them from buying that crime against vision.
  • Diction is your favorite aunt.
    Poetry is all about what specific words are used and where they are used. How you describe certain events, atmospheres, or even people says a lot about how you or your narrator feels about the topic of the poem and goes a long way in building an intent (what you want the reader to leave with after reading your poem [or story]). It’s similar to how aunts tell stories. Aunts always seem to have the best stories and usually they are the best because the way in which the aunt tells it is exciting or thrilling, depending on the type of story being told.
  • Syntax is your parent.
    In my experience, not many writers are fond of utilizing structure and line breaks because it is so simple that in poetry it seems almost unnecessarily acknowledged. However, your line breaks can say a lot about the tone of your poem. For instance, choppy lines that break before the thought is finished (and usually at a grammatically incorrect spot) help to build tension. Don’t brush syntax and structure aside because, like a parent, it is often trying to guide you to the best possible outcome.


  • Characterization is key.
    Writing to communicate an intent is all about specifics. What did this character do? Why did he do it? How does he feel about that blue vase in the kitchen that was given to his mother by the character’s stepfather? Remember that you can characterize by what a character does, what a character says, what another character says about that character, and what the narrator says about that character.
  • Perspective, perspective, perspective (and POV)
    A lot of times, a story that has met a road block can be freed with one question: Whose story is this? This is a huge huge concept for a writer to tackle. Ask yourself what you want the reader to know and how you want him/her to view your character. This is where you start playing with pairings. For example, a first person point of view from the perspective of one of the outlying characters (such as the narrator in The Great Gatsby ) brings the reader in close to the action but still allows the writer to keep secrets from the reader until the time is right for a big reveal.


  • It’s all about using techniques from poetry and fiction to make a true story more fun, creative, and relatable.
  • Use poetic imagery to communicate how you feel and foreshadow possible events without having to spoon-feed the reader.
  • Use fiction techniques such as dialogue and setting to bring the reader in close to the story.

–Sarah Powell, Non-Fiction Editor