Writing Polysyndeton, Killing [natzees] and Cormac McCarthy

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Polysyndeton: “The use of more conjunctions than is normal.” Often used by literary prose writers to form pattern and fluidity in language and syntax. From motivational film speeches, such as Brad Pitt’s “Killing [nat-sees]” in the Tarantino dark comedy, Inglorious Bastards, to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. (The Road, Cormac McCarthy)

For many literary prosaists, polysyndeton is a primary technique in the art of forming canvas and language enticement. In McCarthy’s above excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Road, notice how the language uses far more conjunctions—and, but—and prepositional phrases—”in the woods in the dark”—than what is formally taught as “good” English. Midway through the section, set off on its own, is a simile wrapped in a phrase. McCarthy breaks many formal rules in order to linguistically hook his reader, pull the reader onto his canvas and entice the reader to follow such a dark, post-apocalyptic journey of a man and his son.
The language also becomes an ironic experience for the reader. Its fluid beauty juxtaposes to the horrific and violent experiences of its characters. This juxtaposition further drives the narrative tension as the reader senses a great tragedy all around them and more still to come. 
As you revise your latest story, essay or poem, consider how your opening words seduce your readers. How might you explore your syntax for perfect moments of what Jacques Derrida termed différance, or the moment in which one both defers and differs from the convention?

 

Polysyndeton

The use of more conjunctions than is normal. Often used by literary prose writers to form pattern and fluidity in language and syntax. (A Handbook to Literature)

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. (The Road, Cormac McCarthy)

 

Asyndeton

The omission of conjunctions. Often used by literary prose writers to form pattern and fluidity in language and syntax. (A Handbook to Literature)

 

Suggested Reading

 

Writing Assignment

  1. Choose a current narrative in revision. Study how the opening tone of the language both parallels and challenges the overall tone of the narrative.
  2. Where, in your opening paragraph, can you play with syntax and sentence variation so to create a linguistic dance and seduction? Have you begun with short, snappy sentences or fluid sentences? Do you see a change within the paragraph from snappy to fluid or fluid to snappy? How might you further play with this change of syntax and use of polysyndeton to manipulate the tonal experience of your opening paragraph and scene?
  3. Does the closing scene of your narrative return to the tonal qualities of the opening? Are the opening and closing both ironic and inevitable? How might you further juxtapose the opening language and closing language so that they form a sort of narrative all their own? (Remember, your reader will have not only contextual recall but also rhythmic, no so unlike a chorus in a song. Use this to your advantage with your language.)
 

Sources

A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Literary TermsMartin Puchner, et al.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.

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