How to Use Syntax to Convey Emotion

When reading, you experience a whirlwind of emotions. It’s no secret that if you pick up a good book you’re in for a ride, particularly one of lots and lots of pain. Writers have a way of getting into their readers’ brains without them even knowing and manipulating their feelings, like molding clay. And if you’re a writer yourself, you might be curious- or desperate! -as to how they do it seemingly so easily.

If you were to analyze one of your favourite scenes ((which, not gonna lie, I don’t recommend)) you’d probably notice a couple things; Their word choice and vocabulary, their setting, attitudes, and, if you’re really perceptive, you might even notice the structure of their sentences. But is there any real connection?

The answer is yes.

Now, we’re writers. We don’t have the luxury of romantic background music and good lighting. But we have words, and sentences, settings, themes, motifs! While your favourite movie or tv show might be able to throw in a couple themes and motifs, and get away with half-assing their settings, sentences and words are much more powerful. Using them correctly is where authors mess up.

So what’s the point here, Max?

Shhh. I’m getting there.

The sentence, length, and flow of your sentences is called syntax. This is how an author indirectly conveys emotion. There are three major ways you can use syntax to improve your writing.

Structure is one thing often overlooked by writers. Using things as simple and trivial sounding as well-placed commas, semicolons, and periods can drastically change the mood of a scene. For instance, if you’re trying to create anger, or tension, you might be using a lot of periods. However, if you’re trying to create a more relaxed mood, you could be connecting sentences with semicolons and commas to make longer sentences.

Another important thing to look at in structure would be articles. Not a lot of people notice this, but articles can completely change the meaning of a sentence, and using the wrong one can leave you fucked. Your readers will subconsciously pick up on which article you use and use it to interpret the meaning of your sentence. For example, look at the difference between these two sentences:

    He’s sweet, but he has a habit of lying.

    He’s sweet and has a habit of lying.

In the first sentence, I used ‘but.’ ‘But’ is a harsh, contrasting article. It’s more noticeable and used as a means of diverting the topic. You were originally saying he’s sweet, but then felt the need to also point out he lies a lot. This can create mixed feelings about the character, or even negative feelings.

In the second sentence, however, I used the article ‘and.’ ‘And’ is a much softer article, and used to connect topics. Because I used ‘and’ it made it a lot lighter of a subject. Readers would more likely than not interpret that sentence as seeing him in honesty; Seeing that he has flaws ((lying)) but isn’t all that bad ((he’s sweet)).

The last thing I want to go over under the structure umbrella would be how you organize your sentences. This should be an obvious one, but I’d still like to briefly mention it.

    The man paid the check and left the restaurant.

    The man paid the check, before leaving the restaurant.

    The man left the restaurant after paying the check.

Your readers are most likely to remember the last portion of a sentence. For whatever reason, it comes off as the most important part. Using the first sentence, it’s likely that it’s simply a transitional sentence and not meant to be delved into. However, using the second sentence, while still being transitional, it slows the scene down ((note the comma and extra wording)). Finally, the last sentence sheds a little spotlight on the ‘paying the check’ portion. Maybe that part is important later in the story.

Round two: Length and flow. Length and flow probably makes up the bulk of what syntax really is. It is, in my opinion, the easiest way to convey a mood, and the most definite. For example, using longer sentences, believe it or not, creates a slower reading pace. Shorter sentences makes for a faster one. By using choppy, direct sentences, you can create a heavy tone ((emotions like emptiness, anger, tension, disgust, etc.)), and by using long, well-worded, and flowing sentences, your mood can be quite light ((bubbly, relaxed, relieved, etc.)).

Take a look at these two short passages and think of the mood they give off:

  

    I step into my new house. The man trails behind me, looking around dumbly. I purse my lips as I analyze my surroundings. The walls are beige, spotted with dirt. The wooden panels beneath my feet are caked in mud. It looks impossibly empty. My nose crinkles but I turn to look at the man.

    “Thank you,” I say reluctantly.

    __

    I step into my new house, my eyes carefully scanning my surroundings. The man lingers behind me as I take in the building’s features; Tan walls, hardwood floor, and spacious. It looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in decades, but that’s an easy fix.

    My lips pull into a large smile as I quickly turn back to the man.

    “Thank you,” I say sincerely.

  

They’re essentially the same scene, but in the first passage you can tell the narrator is much more disappointed in their surroundings. In that, the reader is more than likely going to be disappointed, as well.

The last way in using syntax would be through words, phrases/idioms, and themes/motifs ((A motif is something recurring in a story)). This is almost always solely based on who your character is. For example, a psychopathic character might see sunlight pouring in through an open window and compare it to blood pouring out from an open wound, while a more amity character would compare it to golden streaks of angel dust, or the sun’s gift to mankind. A technical character might only use logical phrases and idioms, or none at all, if they believe them to not make sense. And lastly, for themes and motifs, you’re pretty much completely free to do what you will with this.

Say you have an ongoing theme of cigarette smoke. Instead of saying, His ragged breathing came out as white puffs in the freezing air, you might say, He panted like someone who’d smoked for decades, his breath coming out in gray clouds.

That’s all I have for today! Thanks for reading and I hope this helped. If you have any questions feel free to send me an ask on Tumblr @ koalamuffins. Subscribe to my website for more advice, or follow my Tumblr.

❤ Max

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