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.
&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.
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 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.