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Monday

The Although-Construction in George Saunders’ “The Falls” (And Your Own Writing)

In his essay “The Drama of Gram­mar,” Dou­glas Glover coins the term but-con­struc­tion to describe the ten­sion that can be cre­ated within sen­tences by using the con­junc­tion but or a syn­onym to pro­duce con­trast or antithe­sis. Accord­ing to Glover, the but-con­struc­tion helps provide, “the men­tal drama, the ele­ment of sur­prise and mystery…that den­sity of action, inter­est, and delight which we expect from good writing.”&³1;

 

Glover believes that pru­dent use of the but-con­struc­tion helps writ­ers recre­ate the para­doxes and com­plex­i­ties of human nature and expe­ri­ence. None of us is entirely one thing or the other. We’re not com­pletely good or bad, pretty or ugly, happy or sad. We’re some com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ing degrees of var­i­ous attrib­utes. As writ­ers, if we fail to include these fun­da­men­tal human con­tra­dic­tions, we’ll likely miss our com­mon goal of cre­at­ing rich, iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ters. Also, our per­cep­tions of events as they hap­pen are often incon­clu­sive, just form­ing, and those per­cep­tions may shift from one reac­tion to another almost instan­ta­neously. The but-con­struc­tion is very use­ful in con­vey­ing this ambi­gu­ity of per­cep­tion that takes place in our heads con­stantly as we process expe­ri­ence.

 

By way of exam­ple, I’d like to look at George Saun­ders’ short story, “The Falls,” in which he employs the con­junc­tion although (closely syn­ony­mous with but) repeat­edly to great effect in his ren­der­ing of Morse, a neu­rotic char­ac­ter des­per­ately striv­ing to dis­cover some­thing to value in him­self. Saun­ders likely chose although over but because of the pre­ci­sion of its mean­ing. The New Oxford Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary defines the con­junc­tion although as “in spite of the fact that” and but as “nev­er­the­less; on the con­trary.” Saun­ders has cho­sen to use although because of the coex­ist­ing self-views of Morse. Morse’s con­flict­ing inter­nal states exist in spite of each other. They aren’t merely in con­trast. They are two parts of the whole of Morse’s social neu­ro­sis. When you’re writ­ing, you’ll sim­i­larly want to con­sider the effects of your choice of con­junc­tions for your own but-con­struc­tions. Maybe your con­junc­tion will reflect the speak­ing style of your pro­tag­o­nist, as in a char­ac­ter who says, “and then,” when they mean, “but”—or maybe it will reveal a per­son­al­ity quirk, like a char­ac­ter who says, “but really,” every time he/she is about to tell a lie. As Saun­ders demon­strates, there’s plenty of room for cre­ativ­ity within the but-con­struc­tion.

 

As “The Falls” begins, we meet Morse, a “nobody,” a last name with­out a first, a lost soul. He’s walk­ing past a Catholic school­yard at dis­missal time, wor­ry­ing that his facial expres­sion might be mis­taken for that of a per­vert. Yes, he’s so self-con­scious as to be intim­i­dated by the pos­si­ble opin­ions of school chil­dren. As he walks, he’s passed from behind by Aldo Cum­mins, a 40ish local who lives with his mother and stews in his delu­sions of future lit­er­ary great­ness. Cum­mins suf­fers no angst about who he is. Sep­a­rated by some dis­tance, they both con­tinue walk­ing and more or less simul­ta­ne­ously dis­cover two young girls stranded in a canoe on the river that runs through town. The canoe is break­ing up and sink­ing, and the girls will face cer­tain death by a water­fall if they aren’t res­cued. Cum­mins appears to freeze. How­ever, after an intense inter­nal debate, heav­ily sea­soned with althoughs, Morse, an out of shape mediocre swim­mer at best, dives into the water.

 

So, here we have a char­ac­ter, Morse, engaged in a rel­a­tively sim­ple plot, all of which tran­spires dur­ing a walk home. The meat of the story is in his inter­nal monologues—or might they be dia­logues between two aspects of self, posi­tioned on either side of Saun­ders’ although-con­struc­tion. As we will see in text sam­ples below, Saun­ders employs the although-con­struc­tion to cre­ate a char­ac­ter with an inter­nal back and forth, which pro­vides the com­plex­ity that makes for a sat­is­fy­ing pro­tag­o­nist.

 

The first although appears in the first para­graph of the story as Morse is pass­ing by the Catholic school grounds, inter­nally mas­ti­cat­ing the per­vert issue: “Some­times he wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t a wacko of sorts, although cer­tainly he wasn’t a per­vert. Of that he was cer­tain. Or rel­a­tively certain.”&³2; In Saun­ders’ inim­itably humor­ous style, he por­trays Morse in all his neu­rotic, binary glory. He’s the study of a man oscil­lat­ing between who he thinks he might be and whom he thinks soci­ety would have him be.

 

We observe Morse see­ing him­self as a “wacko,” but not a “per­vert.” By com­bin­ing these con­flict­ing traits and adding a final note of doubt—the phrase, “or rel­a­tively certain”—Saunders cre­ates drama and ten­sion within his sen­tence. Though it’s slightly exag­ger­ated in Morse for comic effect, it doesn’t feel con­trived because inter­nal fluc­tu­a­tions are part of human con­scious­ness. As a reader, in this first para­graph I’m already sens­ing that the energy of the story may come from the para­doxes cre­ated by the use of the con­junc­tion although. Con­sider employ­ing your own ver­sion of the but-con­struc­tion in your protagonist’s thoughts in the first para­graph of a piece. By doing so, you’ll intro­duce ten­sion and drama into your story as it begins, and your reader will imme­di­ately start to iden­tify with the inter­nal dynamic of your char­ac­ter.

 

Let’s take a look at another exam­ple to see how the although-con­struc­tion works. Here, Morse is waver­ing about his low eco­nomic sta­tus:

…he knew he should be grate­ful, although at times he wasn’t a bit grate­ful and won­dered where he had gone wrong, although at other times he was quite pleased with the crooked lit­tle blue shack cov­ered with peel­ing lead paint. &³3;

 

Okay, let’s imag­ine you’re at the wheel com­pos­ing this story, and you’ve just had your pro­tag­o­nist utter that “he should be grate­ful.” Now, think of what con­flict­ing thought might occur in his mind nearly simul­ta­ne­ously. How about “he wasn’t a bit grate­ful.” Now that sets up a strong oppo­si­tion, doesn’t it? Now, to buffer the con­trast a bit, think of a third more sub­tle thought that moves back toward the orig­i­nal: “at other times he was quite pleased with the crooked lit­tle blue shack.” Effec­tive and real­is­tic, if a bit ironic, isn’t it? With prac­tice, it actu­ally gets fun to flesh out the con­tra­dic­tions within your char­ac­ters as you write. By using but-con­struc­tions, you’ll begin to notice nuance in your char­ac­ters that will help you under­stand their com­plex­ity.

 

This might not be such an effec­tive story were it not for Saun­ders’ deft use of con­trasts and para­dox. Through his craft, he makes it easy for the reader to feel the inten­sity of Morse’s dev­as­tat­ing inter­nal con­flict. Here’s another exam­ple from Morse’s rumi­na­tions:

His child­hood dreams had been so bright, he had hoped for so much, it couldn’t be true that he was a nobody, although, on the other hand, what kind of some­body spends the best years of his life swear­ing at a photocopier.⁴

 

Vir­tu­ally no thought is with­out its com­pan­ion alter­na­tive, and each oppo­site exists in spite of the other. Writ­ing although-con­struc­tions allows Saun­ders to explore his character’s most pro­found thoughts and long­ings. As a writer, when you per­sis­tently mine your own but-con­struc­tions deeper and deeper, you may arrive at an essen­tial truth about your char­ac­ter, as Saun­ders even­tu­ally does in “The Falls.”

 

Hav­ing thor­oughly estab­lished the although-con­struc­tion to char­ac­ter­ize Morse in the first half of his story, Saun­ders employs a mas­ter­ful writ­ing turn—he uses the absence of the although-con­struc­tion—to cre­ate an abnor­mal char­ac­ter, a delu­sional. In the first para­graph of “The Falls” Morse says, “Being overly cer­tain, he was rel­a­tively sure, was what even­tu­ally made one a wacko.“⁵ This thought sets the stage for Cum­mins, the delu­sional. He pro­vides con­trast to Morse’s inter­nal oscil­la­tions. There are no although-con­struc­tions in Cum­mins’ thoughts, only elab­o­rate fan­tasies of future lit­er­ary fame and revenge on those who don’t respect him. In an extended inter­nal rant, we lis­ten to Cum­mins’ thoughts: “Wouldn’t revenge be sweet when such for­mer foot­ball play­ers as Ned Wentz began beg­ging him for lessons in the sonnet?“⁶ Saun­ders is using the absence of the although-con­struc­tion to indi­cate an abnor­mal per­son­al­ity. Cum­mins has no inter­nal back and forth, because he’s a vic­tim of delu­sions of grandeur, which allow for no self-doubt or inter­nal con­flict. Saun­ders is only able to accom­plish this because he has pre­vi­ously employed the although-con­struc­tion repeat­edly in Morse. In your own writ­ing, you might want to exper­i­ment with a sim­i­lar form, when you’re cre­at­ing an abnor­mal char­ac­ter. Any char­ac­ter who is remorse­less, self-right­eous, blinded by false faith, or by delu­sions of grandeur like Cummins—in short, a char­ac­ter who suf­fers from any sin­gle-minded inter­nal process—could be por­trayed by the absence of the but-con­struc­tion.

 

As the story nears con­clu­sion, Morse falls into denial over the deci­sion he will soon have to make—to com­mit to one side or the other of a life and death choice. In this instance, Saun­ders presents both Morse’s neu­ro­sis and his shift­ing per­cep­tions of an event at the same time:

He hoped sev­eral sweaty, deci­sive men were already on the scene and that one of them would send him off to make a phone call, although what if on the way he for­got the phone num­ber and had to go back and ask the sweaty, deci­sive man to repeat it?“⁷

 

Here Saun­ders uses his although-con­struc­tion to present a man in a state of pan­icked arousal through his con­flict­ing thoughts. He shows us that illu­mi­nat­ing pres­sured cir­cum­stances through the inter­nal fluc­tu­a­tions of your char­ac­ter can have a potent effect. If you’re look­ing to inject ten­sion and drama in a cli­max of your own, try employ­ing the but- con­struc­tion. When you include inde­ci­sion, self-doubt and/or con­fused per­cep­tion in a cli­max, the results will be excit­ing.

 

Using the although-con­struc­tion no less than sev­en­teen times in four­teen pages, Saun­ders employs a con­junc­tion-motif to illu­mi­nate the inter­nal life of his pro­tag­o­nist. How­ever, you can employ the but-con­struc­tion in numer­ous ways. Use it to cre­ate inter­est in your descrip­tions of set­ting, of char­ac­ter appear­ance and traits, even in dia­logue. Exper­i­ment and see how it adds energy and com­plex­ity to your work. And don’t worry, as I did, that your but-con­struc­tions will be too obvi­ous or dis­tract­ing. Remem­ber, the polar com­plex­ity of thoughts and per­cep­tion are nat­u­ral aspects of the human con­di­tion.

 

My own exper­i­ments with the but-con­struc­tion are rel­a­tively recent, but have already yielded sat­is­fy­ing results. Hav­ing seen the suc­cess of Saun­ders’ although-con­struc­tion, I became moti­vated to find ways to incor­po­rate con­junc­tion-dri­ven oscil­la­tion into my work. Revis­ing a story that I’m writ­ing about a ten­nis pro­fes­sional on the verge of self-destruc­tion, I recently wrote, “Hey! I’m Palmer Davies, at least I was, but I’m not who I was when this match started, and he was Palmer Davies, wasn’t he?” In this one line I learned more about my char­ac­ter than I had from any­thing I had writ­ten pre­vi­ously. This waver­ing inter­nal thought process helped launch me toward the core of my character’s iden­tity cri­sis. Using the but-con­struc­tion is mak­ing my writ­ing more dra­matic and help­ing me under­stand my own work more deeply.

 

In “The Falls,” Saun­ders found a way to write his although-con­struc­tions in a style that is uniquely his own. I hope this essay will inspire you too to exper­i­ment with the but-con­struc­tion in your own writ­ing. When you write, be sure to choose con­junc­tions and com­pose your but-con­struc­tions in a way that reflects your own voice, themes and writ­ing style. With a lit­tle prac­tice, you’ll soon notice your writ­ing becom­ing richer and more com­plex. How to start? Take a para­graph from your writ­ing and revise it incor­po­rat­ing the but-con­struc­tion. Then observe any changes to the tone of your work. When to start? Take a cue from Saun­ders’ Morse. Dive in! Although, I sup­pose “dive in” could be an overused metaphor, but it is what Morse does, after all. In any event, you get the idea.

 

End Notes

 

&³1;Glover, “The Drama of Gram­mar,” 64. 

&³2;Saunders, “The Falls,” 175. 

&³3;Saunders, “The Falls,” 176. 

⁴Saun­ders, “The Falls,” 182. 

⁵Saun­ders, “The Falls,” 175. 

⁶Saun­ders, “The Falls,” 185. 

⁷Saun­ders, “The Falls,” 186. 

 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy

Glover, Dou­glas. “The Drama of Gram­mar.” In Attack of the Cop­ula Spi­ders, And Other Essays on Writ­ing (Canada: Bib­lioa­sis, 2012), 63–82.

Saun­ders, George. “The Falls.” In Pas­toralia, Sto­ries and a Novella (New York: River­head Books, 2000), 175–188.

 

About the Author

Jack Stanton.jpgJack Stan­ton recently com­pleted his MFA course work at Rose­mont Col­lege in Rose­mont, PA and is cur­rently writ­ing a book of per­sonal essays with the work­ing title Blue­print. He’s also a Teach­ing Assis­tant at Rose­mont, work­ing with stu­dents in the Devel­op­men­tal Writ­ing pro­gram. In another role, he has been a USPTA cer­ti­fied Ten­nis Pro­fes­sional for over twenty years. 

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