Today I want to talk about a specific style technique in writing that you can use to your advantage to create a certain tone. The two variations I’m talking about are parataxis and hypotaxis.
Both of these terms refer to sentence structures and how sentences relate to one another in your writing. They are one of the most important ways readers get a feel for your writing and get clues about your mood, tone, and seriousness. So to begin, parataxis is when all of your sentences carry the same weight. They usually have very few clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated to one another. We use subordinated clauses to indicate what the most important part of a sentence is (the most important part is in the independent clause), so when there is no subordinate part, it makes every part of the sentence seem equally important. The effect is flat, declarative, and often somewhat bleak-sounding. Hemingway made this style famous. Here is an example of parataxis:
There were no rooms at the inn. We drove farther until we found a hotel. It was raining heavily and we got soaked on the way to the door. Our socks stank of mildew. We ate dinner there and talked little.
As you can see in that example, the tone feels flat but also spare and uncompromised. It is declarative and direct. It doesn’t beat around the bush, but it also leaves it a little mysterious about what the most important part of that paragraph is.
Hypotaxis, on the other hand, is when clauses in sentences are subordinated to one another. This makes it clear what we should be focusing on, and therefore also can give an emotional cast to the writing. It points clearly at what is important and what should be read with the most weight. Here’s an example of hypotaxis:
Because she didn’t want to go shopping, she decided to go to the park instead. While strolling along a path, she discovered a hidden garden. Inside the garden, while squirrels chattered at her, she rolled delightedly in the grass.
In this case, you can clearly see what the most important parts of the sentences are. She decides to go to the park; she discovers a garden; she rolls in the grass. But with the added coloration of subordination, we get more of a scene, more of an emotional background. Neither choice is better than the other, but you can see how different writers have used these two styles to tell very different stories. Hemingway’s parataxis, for example, is great for showing shocking or traumatizing scenes of war and destruction because it carries that horror and desire to distance ourselves. Jane Austen, on the other hand, might use a sophisticated mix of independent and dependent clauses in order to convey the complex social niceties of her world. Remember these techniques when you next start a writing project, and choose which one will most aptly tell your story.