Twisting the End

[I’m just back from a month-long vacation in the wilds of Maine, with lots of ideas for new blog posts.]

Readers continually set expectations as they read, even at the sentence level. These expectations often take the form of images in their heads. Sometimes a sentence rolls along and then suddenly, something at the very end shifts all the readers’ expectations and pictures.

I don’t know a technical term for this device, so I’ll call it “Twisting the End” temporarily.

The most famous example comes in the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. King Arthur’s Round Table banquets in Camelot, when suddenly, a giant knight in armor rides his horse right into the hall and demands an audience. The poet describes man and mount in detail, ending with “and oueral enker grene” ‘and overall bright green.’

Readers have pictured the pair as normally colored, and suddenly, with the last word, everything changes. Instead of just a huge, rude intruder, they see two creatures clearly from another world, where even horses are green.

The effect comes from leading the readers in one direction, followed by a last word or phrase that warps the world.

Here’s an example by Maureen Dowd: “Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, was having dinner with [Billy] Wilder years ago when the subject of Swifty Lazar, the very famous and very short agent, came up. Putting down his knife and fork, Wilder announced: ‘That man should go hang himself from a bonsai tree.’”

Timing is everything, as in telling jokes. Dowd plants the key detail that will explode later, “very short.” Then she delays us with “Putting down his knife and fork,” and saves the warping detail for the end: “bonsai tree.” Short Swifty shrinks further.

John Hodgkins writes a World War II memoir of his life as a child paralleling his father’s Army service in A Soldier’s Son. His dad returns on furlough: “This is the first time I have seen him in uniform. He wears a dress khaki coat, buttoned tight against his chest, a necktie tucked neatly between the third and fourth buttons of a tan shirt, creased khaki trousers that barely reach highly burnished shoes. He is adorned with an array of gold buttons and insignia that, it seems, blink like so many stars in the night. He stands straight, like soldiers I’ve seen in movies or in Life magazine, and commands the kitchen.”

The glowing portrait creates a larger-than-life heroic military figure, who finally “commands.” But the sentence does not end with “commands.” The last words are “the kitchen,” and the Army private shrinks to life size.

I doubt the author intended that effect, to diminish his father. We have to close such passages with care, to make sure that we don’t twist when we want to stay straight. And remember, that ending spot has most punch by emphatic position.

[Anybody know a term for this effect?]

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Published in: on August 11, 2009 at 10:29 am  Leave a Comment  

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