Tuesday Tips is a new category of posts here at Writerly Life that will be appearing every Tuesday. It’s a series of concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now, and they’re chosen to immediately re-vitalize your writing in some small (but meaningful!) way.
This week’s tip is:
Use Parataxis for Power
Writing styles can be defined by the use of two techniques: hypotaxis or parataxis. Hypotaxis is the writing of more old-fashioned, flowery writers, such as Fitzgerald or Austen or Bronte. With that route “hypo” (“under”), it means that the parts of your sentences are subordinated underneath others. For example:
While Mabel was suffering from a cold, she still went to work.
In this sentence, “while Mabel was suffering from a cold” is a dependent clause; it the piece of information that is less important than the fact that Mabel went to work. It has been subordinated. If you use a complex interplay of subordinate and dominant clauses in your sentences, you are using hypotaxis, directing us to the important information and subordinating less important information. Skillful use of hypotaxis can create a complex, layered, and very sophisticated style.
But there’s something to be said for parataxis in moments of heightened emotion. Hemingway is the quintessential parataxis user. The root “para” (as in “parallel”) indicates that the parts of his sentences (and all the sentences together) are given equal weight. Nothing is subordinate to anything else; the heft and impact of each piece of information is equal. Here’s an example:
It rained all day. We shot Smith around noon. He fell to the wall and breathing quietly for a while. We were scheduled to leave the town by nightfall. The dogs howled.
With an absence of qualifying and tempering words like “because”, “since”, or “while”, every sentence here is given an equal emphasis. That leaves us with a disturbingly blank feel, an absence of judgment. It allows us, the readers, to make our own conclusions about what is important and what is not. It allows us to trust the writer more, because it seems that he is presenting the facts objectively as a reporter would. In moments of great significance, parataxis can feel much more honest and cutting than hypotaxis.