Is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t heard Grammy-sweeping Adele’s hit song, “Someone Like You”? If it doesn’t give you chills or produce a tear or two, check for a heartbeat. Admittedly, I’m a fan; the last CD I bought was “21”. Can’t get enough of “Rolling in the Deep.”
And that’s why an article in The Wall Street Journal caught my eye recently. The article, “Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,” by Michaeleen Doucleff, featured a picture of the distraught-looking Adele, hand on her heart, along with a few bars of the song. A graphic tear added to the last measure pinpoints the exact note that gets the waterworks going; it’s described as an “appoggiatura…a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.” Martin Guhn, one of the psychologists quoted in the article, says appoggiaturas generate “tension in the listener,” and the song itself “creates mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution.” It’s this tension and release that results in the “tears and chills” of deep emotion.
As writers, we can’t rely on appoggiaturas to elicit this type of response in a reader…or can we? Writing has notes and beats too, right? Not that we will be prevailed upon to sing selections from our memoirs during our scheduled cross-country book tours, but there are ways to simulate this feeling of unexpected dissonance in our writing; we can create surprises along the way by inserting notes that vary the pattern and rhythm of words on the page.
I had originally intended to write about sentences this time around: how variations in the kind of sentences we use can create a particular tone or rhythm or tension in writing. I had planned to write about the different types of sentences we discussed and experimented with in my MFA program, and how they can enliven writing—and not how a young woman’s impassioned song gives me goose bumps. I planned to mention how, in my first craft of nonfiction class, we were challenged to write pieces that utilized what my instructor called “freight train” sentences, which are the kind of long, labyrinthine sentences that can go on for several lines, whole paragraphs, or pages even, as the writer tries to establish a scene, or create tension, or speak to the reader with a kind of rushed breathlessness that indicates anxiety or eagerness or youthful energy, or the joy of remembrance about a long-ago world—or, the pace could be more leisurely, a story unspooling slowly as the narrator speaks from the recesses of a rocking chair on the porch some hot, lazy summer afternoon—and how these sentences challenge the reader to stay with you, the writer, as you go down the rabbit hole, or back to your youth on the farm, possibly following your gaze the night you got the first glimpse of the love of your life across a crowded room—but no matter where you go, you need the reader to travel along with you willingly through the thicket of words and memories, not getting lost or becoming confused by the colors and sounds and emotions that swirl around on the page, and then, naturally, you have to come up for air at some point when you finally get the chance, when the sentence reaches a crescendo or runs into a cul-de-sac, or simply comes to the end of the line, back to earth, and I wonder, just how do you feel when you come to that final period? Relieved? Confused? Exhausted? I hope you feel the way I wanted you to feel as I wrote it.
And what about short sentences? They can work to change the rhythm and tone too. Even one word sentences. One word. Really. See?
Now, here’s the kicker.
The kicker is like the appoggiatura. It strikes a note that takes the reader by surprise. It’s the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter; it’s the foreshadowing that lends an ominous note to a childhood remembrance. The moment you realize that something isn’t right, or when the missing piece fits at last, or when a memory pops up unbidden and shakes you to your core. This type of sentence creates tension in the listener—I mean, the reader—that is, your reader. Or mine. And what I really mean is: Someone like you.