Establishing Syntax in Stories

Syntax is important.  The syntax you establish in any piece of writing informs reader comprehension, pacing, and a host of other things.  Establishing that syntax is relatively simple, once you realize how many things it can do— and syntax is extremely versatile.

What is syntax?  Syntax is essentially another word for something.  It’s a dictionary you build in your audience’s head that helps them file and understand all the new information you give them.  Every time you mention a word from your syntax, they remember the idea it symbolizes.  This makes it easy to reference things that you have already explained or discussed, things that have already happened in a story, or anything like that.  Establishing this syntax makes it easy to refer to anything you’ve already noted.

I feel like I’m writing a computer program tutorial.  Bear with me for a little while and I’ll get to the fun stuff.

Creating syntax is simple.  It’s a dictionary— all you have to do is define ideas as a certain words.  Associate an explanation with a name and that name will bring to mind the explanation.  Associate a description with a name and that name will bring to mind the description.  You might not realize it, but you see this fact at work in all corners of fiction and nonfiction alike.  After all, what is a character’s name?  Naming a character doesn’t really do anything… except establish syntax.  When you describe the character, then add the character’s name, we associate the name with that character without thinking about it.  The same goes for places.  Describe a place, name it the Shire, and all of a sudden those two words bring a wealth of description with them wherever they go.  As the story progresses, emotions are added to the description, until by the end of the book, those two words are powerful enough to convey a huge amount of emotion.

That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t really help anything.  Knowing syntax exists and that we use it all the time doesn’t make us better at using it.  It doesn’t seem that important yet.  Until you see what you can really do with this.

Take the movie Tangled.  (Disney is the master of syntax.)  Near the beginning, during a thrilling chase scene, the writers tell a joke.  The captain of the guard gives orders to his men, then the captain’s horse gives orders to the other horses.  It’s a joke, it’s funny, we all laugh, seemingly the end of story.

But what did that actually do?  It established syntax.  We see the captain speaking, then we see his horse seeming to speak identically— we associate the horse’s expression with speech.

That isn’t too important yet, but as the story progresses, we see the horse “speaking” again and again, using facial expressions and grunts to make his point.  The horse suddenly has a speaking role without ever speaking.  And, by the end of the movie, that syntax is used to create an emotional arc that otherwise never would have existed.

That’s body language syntax, and authors use it all the time to show characters’ emotions.  In Robert Jordan’s The Dragon Reborn, the author describes a character pulling on her braid when she’s upset.  He describes it once, equates the body language with the emotion, and henceforth only describes the action.  She pulled on her braid all the time, but he only had to describe her emotions once— every other time, he showed it through body language.

Where else is it used?  For concepts.  When a specific piece of magic is performed, you can equate it with something, creating syntax.  (That’s why naming a magic system works.)  A complicated gesture of respect can be described as a salute once it’s introduced.  A character’s peculiar vocal inflection can be described in a single, little-used word once that syntax has been established.

Furthermore, syntax speeds up references to past events.  With the flexibility of time in fiction, it’s difficult to refer to events as “yesterday” or “a couple days ago”.  Instead, you can refer to them based on the most striking thing that happened during that time— using the syntax you automatically created.  It’s simple, but sometimes it’s overlooked.  It can be easier to ignore that syntax at the beginning, but later it becomes necessary.

My personal favorite use of syntax is in Disney’s Frozen, with the reindeer, Sven.  The syntax is similar to that of Maximus in Tangled, but with more emotion added.  The movie includes a musical number included specifically to introduce that piece of syntax, which is handled expertly from then on until the low point, where it plays a major part.  It’s brilliantly done, all around.

Do you remember when I went on and on about the one word that Orson Scott Card used to convey such huge emotion in Ender’s Shadow?  That one word was just a piece of syntax, defined once and then implemented perfectly.  It was a master syntax move.

Is this the most helpful of posts?  Probably not.  It isn’t that applicable a concept.  However, it’s really fun to study and pick out in all sorts of stories.  Have fun with it.

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132 thoughts on “Establishing Syntax in Stories

      1. Can Tempest hand you anything, considering cats don’t have hands?

        Bananas are dangerous and effective… before they’re sharpened. They’re useless when they’re pointy.

      2. Stop putting holes in my nefarious plots! * decides to make banana bread with the otherwise useless sharpened fruit*
        Tempest! Fire the pineapple cannons!

      3. How am I the one seeing things if you’re the one taking the hallucination drugs… Or was that you drugged me and it’s kicking in?

      4. Well, in these kinds of instances, there’s only a few options. You are either an overlord trying to take over the world and have drugged me… or you are the knight in shining armor who is supposed to save me from the other option.

      5. I figured. You seem to be lacking in armor, anyway.
        Nice to meet you. I’m… I think I’m a writer. I have a pen and a notebook and this really deep callus on the top of my right hand middle finger.

      6. It’s crazy. We finish each other’s sandwiches… No, wait. Those are song lyrics about something else.
        Though, I think I actually did lose a sandwich once… Do you know anything about that?

      7. I suppose so. I mean, after all, besides drugging me, making me forget who I am, and telling me that using LEGOs in an argument is cheating (when everyone knows the pineapple cannons are really the illegality), what reason have you ever given me not to trust you?

      8. What harm could a cat do? Oh look! It has a collar. It’s must belong to someone. *reads tag on collar* “Tempest.” Huh. Must belong to a Shakespeare fiend. It’s not your cat, is it?

      9. It just gave me a website URL. And it told me everything would make sense when I went there. Wait a minute, this cat is talking… Do I have a talking cat?

      10. Well, never mind that. I shall keep it. Since you think it’s mine anyway. And it seems to know me pretty well. I shall call him Tempest and he shall be mine and he shall be my Tempest.

  1. Actually it is very helpful. I’ve definitely heard the word thrown around but didn’t know what it actually meant until now!! Thanks for all the great examples as well!

  2. This is one of those posts I read and go “This makes sense. I’ve never thought of it before, but it makes sense. Did I know this already? *Confers with other parts of brain.* Yeah, maybe. But now I know I know it and will therefore pay more attention to it. Cool.”

    Good post.

  3. Huh. So what happens if you start to lose the meaning of the syntax because it’s only been described once? I’ve noticed that I’ll often get a mental image of a character, and then I’ll go back and reread the book, and discover the author described something completely different from what I had in my head.

    1. As a writer, you can describe it twice or thrice— just make sure not to do it more than that, because it can get annoying. As a reader, reread the syntax definition when you start to lose the image.

  4. Syntax… I generally use this word for grammar and call my background information “background” or “grounding.” 😛 But yes… It also helps if one is using a common word for an unusual purpose.

  5. …I admit I did think of computer programming. It’s probably my dad’s fault; he uses the word in describing his work quite frequently.

    But I suppose I’ll go along with Lily and say, “I think I already knew this without actually knowing what it was.” But it is very interesting. Lovely how our brains work, isn’t it?

    1. Howard Tayler first used the word on a Writing Excuses podcast a few weeks ago— that’s the only reason I brought it into this discussion. Howard likes making comparisons between writing and computer programming and… just about everything else.

      1. Oh, maybe I’d get along with this guy. I use writing analogies a lot. “How writing is like life” “How writing is like exploring a cave” “How writing is like falling off the roof of your house and faceplanting on the sidewalk”–Okay, maybe not that last one. But come to think of it, it does feel like that at times…

      2. Howard mainly just puts sections of the conversation into a different format— never anything really philosophic, but a quick rephrase. But I think you would like him.

        You’re right about that last analogy; you just let it happen, then try to recover from the pain.

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