Everything in its place by Bill Kirton

An approximation of more or less any leading UK politico and THE leading US one.
By Poliphilo (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I was sorting through (and chucking out) old notes and files this week and came across a cutting from way back when the appalling Michael Gove was Education Secretary. It concerned a 15-year-old schoolboy, Joe Cotton, who was the first ‘child’ (as the Guardian called him) ever to address the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers. He was speaking about some of Gove’s  cynical, sinister ideas, one of which was to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to help with his budget cuts. This is what young Joe was quoted as saying: ‘Well, I don’t know how nifty Michael Gove thinks he can be with a loaf and some fishes, or even a bus pass and some textbooks, but he’d need nothing short of a miracle to replicate the benefits of EMA with that budget’.

First, I admire enormously a 15-year-old with the confidence to stand up in front of a hall full of teachers and articulate the feelings and ideas of his generation, and I’ve no doubt his words – and that sentence – were well received. But I saved the clipping to make a structural point about forming effective sentences. So many of them tail off, finish on a down beat and are consequently less powerful.

I'm not suggesting that is necessarily the case here. The word ‘nifty’ is good. It implies sleight of hand, ducking and diving, smoke and mirrors. Applying it to Gove as well as to one of Jesus’ miracles puts both it and the ‘miracle’ in a different light. There’s no longer the po-faced, respectful kow-towing to the specialness of divine intervention; instead it conjures up (see how subtle I was there?) a seedy bloke on a music hall stage with a wand, hat and rabbit – or, if you like, ‘a loaf and some fishes’.

So it’s good, and it’s worth a laugh. BUT…

The laugh has to be delayed while he finishes the rest of the sentence, and that ‘rest’ consists of a much weaker joke, then a serious political point and finally an ‘explanation’ of the loaf and fishes reference (in the word ‘miracle’). So, if we get rid of the weaker – and rather confusing – joke about bus passes, the sentence has 4 elements it needs to juggle:

1. the benefits of EMA,
2. the budget cuts,
3. the fact that 2 and 1 are mutually exclusive,
4. the gag about Gove being miraculously ‘nifty with a loaf and some fishes’.

It’s a good gag not only because it’s funny but also because it skewers Gove’s self-importance and calls attention to the sleight of hand involved in his economics. By rewriting the sentence and putting the elements in the above order, the gag is made even better and more effective because it’s now the punchline and also offers light relief after the seriousness of 1, 2 and 3. You can then, of course, refine it even further by moving around the words inside each element. It’s not rocket science but it does illustrate the important difference between writing and editing.

I wonder, for example, how much the wonderful Nora Ephron, who wrote When Harry Met Sally, juggled the 2 elements of Sally's line 'You’re gonna have to move back to New Jersey because you’ve slept with everyone in New York'. Try it. If you swap them around or relate them to each other differently, you get different emphases and therefore different jokes.

In schools, I get students to isolate the different elements in their own sentences, then move them around and see the changes that makes to their meaning, impact, power. It’s something I still do myself. And, of course, it’s not just for comic effects. Satire, irony, sarcasm, tension, misdirection - they all depend on the coexistence of distinct frames of reference operating simultaneously. In talks and workshops with readers and writers, I often digress into the tricks and effects we can get by establishing separate narrative layers.  At one level the subject is 'normal'; but interpose another level and he/she is simultaneously assessed through different criteria. You probably do it already but if you don’t, give it a try. You  could be pleasantly or, better still, unpleasantly surprised.


sandra horn said…
Oh yes, Bill! I love doing this - and in picture books it's crucial because the rhythm is a key element.
Dennis Hamley said…
Bill, how I value your blogs. This is exactly the profound, insightful interrogation of language in action that I would expect from you, and which I love. I too spend a lot of time weighing up the sentences I write because order and balance, as well as rhythm, can turn everyday statements into epigrams. I'm at last finishing my oft-delayed Coleridge novel because someone actually wants to publish it and in it I make much play throughout the story with a simple sentence, the actual provenance of which is unknown though I'm convinced I know who the author is. It's about Kubla Khan and whoever wrote it seems pretty out of sorts with STC. 'The writer of the above had much better keep his sleeping thoughts to himself, because they are, if anything, worse than his waking ones.' Look at the superb balance, the rhythmic unity, the dry sardonic tone perfectly caught in these few simple words. It's merely a main clause and an adjectival cause of cause or reason, just as I used to teach so many years ago, but it tells us so much.
Interestingly, I'm applying much the same as your analysis of that superb kid's sentence to the prose of a mentoree's novel in progress - and, would you believe it, she's grateful!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Sandra - great to hear you using the word 'rhythm'. I've bored readers here before by going on about it. I think it's much neglected in 'advice to young writers' articles and workshops and, without it, prose (as well as poetry) is not nearly as effective.

Thanks, Dennis. Your sentence is an excellent example of what I was getting at - it's beautifully turned and any further manipulation of it would undermine its impact. And I know what you mean about gratitude - not from a novelist but from pupils and students who, when one encourages them to try some restructuring, suddenly 'get it' as if they've been taught some excellent magic trick.
Fran B said…
I enjoyed the creative writing lesson, Bill; less so the sideswipe at Christianity. Luckily, Christians have a sense of humour and are good at/used to batting the jokes away. If it had been an islamic reference, you might have had to go into hiding.
Fran B said…
. . . and so probably would I for missing the capital letter for Islamic!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Fran. Sorry for any offence caused (and genuinely so, as opposed to the political and Press 'apologies' offered with such breathtaking insincerity). Plenty of my posts demonstrate that I'm not a believer but I do respect the faiths of those who are.
glitter noir said…
Beautifully done, Bill. It got me to tinkering with Oscar Wilde's classic epigram: 'A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?'

What if this were changed to: What more could one want from a pleasure than this? A cigarette doesn't leave one satisfied, although it is exquisite."

Wilde knew what was he doing, eh?
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Reb. Once one gets started on this sort of analysis, it's great fun. I love the Wilde and your reworking of it. It made me start moving its elements round, too but, to coin a phrase, I couldn't get no satisfaction.
Umberto Tosi said…
The three rules of sentence structure are position, position, position. Your game works well with song lyrics too. Like, I can't get any satisfaction (and no wonder with that syntax). Nora Ephron never failed to hit the right keys. I wish she were still with us, making her magic. Thanks for a fun post!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Umberto. I love your gloss on the lyrics of (I can't get no) Satisfaction - the parentheses suggesting that even the lyricist was aware of its grammatical shortcomings. And, in my head, I could just hear Jagger snarling:

'I can't get no-o
And no wonde-er
With that syntax.
And I tried...' (etc.)

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