Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon expounds on phrasing, "one of writing's most ingenious tools."
We writers face a daunting challenge whenever we try to lasso life and pin it on the page: how can our skinny string of words convey the truth that life is gazillions of simultaneous events exploding in the headlong rush of expanding time?
One strategy is purely visual. We write our sentences word-by-word, yet they get printed, not in continuous tickertape strands, but on pages of close parallel lines, just as here. We follow the word sequence when we read, yet our eyes also skip ahead, bounce back, and see words on neighboring lines. Vladimir Nabokov laments the problem in Lolita: "I have to put the impact of an instantaneous vision into a sequence of words; their physical accumulation on the page impairs the actual flash, the sharp unity of the impression." Yet, as a reader, I find the staccato images that follow Nabokov's complaint so closely packed on the page—
Rug-heap, car, old man-doll, Miss O.'s nurse running with a rustle, a half-empty tumbler in her hand, back to the screened porch— where the propped-up, imprisoned lady herself may be imagined screeching, but not loud enough to drown the rhythmical yaps of the Junk setter walking from group to group—from a bunch of neighbors already collected on the sidewalk, near the bit of checked stuff, and back to the car which he had finally run to earth, and then to another group on the lawn, consisting of Leslie, two policemen and a sturdy man with tortoise shell glasses.
—that I see them all at once, just as did Humbert Humbert, Nabokov's narrator, when he rushed out of his house to find the wife he hates killed by a car.
Another strategy is phrasing, one of writing's most ingenious tools. To see how phrasing works let's look into the structure of a single sentence.
One sentence's complete thought, says my grammar book, "may contain any number of constituent thoughts," each a group of words within the sentence. Grammarians call such a subgroup a phrase; some phrases, depending on many factors, are called clauses. Here is a simple sentence:
JOHN FED FIDO.
Adding a phrase, in this case a subordinate clause set off by commas, makes a complex sentence:
JOHN, THINKING OF BETTY, FED FIDO.
The phrase's three words convey a new thought, and its two pauses add to the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables:
BUH (PAUSE) BUHBUHP BUH BUHBUH (PAUSE) BUH BUHBUH.
The first pause marks a shift to a new tone of voice, the second a return to the original tone. "John...fed Fido" is a confident statement that spans the whole sentence; "thinking of Betty" is an inserted comment. The shift in tone matches the shift in the writer's point of view from eyesight to insight: the primary phrase reports what the writer sees; the subordinate phrase expresses what he thinks is going on invisibly inside John's mind.
The effect of phrasing is that of an actor whispering a stage aside, of a mother turning from chatting with a neighbor to hush her child. Their pauses and shifts of tone convince us that the action we are watching is going forward on several levels at once; likewise, the phrasing of our sentence lets us know that John was feeding Fido and thinking of Betty at the same time.
Grammar includes countless phrasing devices, each shaping or turning, but never breaking, the onward flow of a sentence. "On one hand...on the other hand" balances two phrases; "either...or" contrasts two. "If...then" outlines an imaginary event in one phrase and posits a possible result in a second. "But" adds a phrase that takes off at an oblique angle from the first: "John fed Fido, but Fido wasn't hungry."
A descriptive phrase paints a picture: "John, a sandy haired fellow with glasses..."; a parenthetical phrase publishes what the writer privately thinks: "(and an utter fool in my humble opinion)." Since each phrase has its own tone and point of view, a sentence with many phrases becomes a thought presented in counterpoint by many voices from crisscross perspectives. I count seven pauses, ten phrases, and five points of view—Don Quixote's, Sancho Panza's, Dulcinea's, and those of the curate and the barber who are speaking—in this gorgeously phrased sentence by Cervantes:
If his master should ask him, as he was bound to do, if he had delivered the letter to Dulcinea, Sancho was to say that, not being able to read and write, she had replied by word of mouth, her message being that her lover was to come to her at once, under pain of her displeasure if he failed to do so. —Don Quixote
When grammarians diagram complex sentences, they show its phrases branching off from a central trunk. If we turn the diagram vertical, we emphasize its treelike form:
As written, however, the words in a complex sentence still follow in linear sequence just like the words in a simple sentence. Phrases don't really branch off, they go in a straight line:
JOHN, THINKING OF BETTY, FED FIDO.
Yet the grammarian's diagram makes sense because the pauses and tonal shifts create the illusion of simultaneity. The words "John, thinking of Betty, fed Fido" may walk in single file, but we experience them in parallel—
THINKING OF BETTY,
JOHN, FED FIDO
—because the phrasing lets us know the two actions happened in parallel.
Thus, while adding to writing's melodic lilt, phrasing gives the art the means to leap the limit of word sequence. The words still follow one-by-one, but the images they generate happen together in our minds just as events happen in life.