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Transgressive Fiction Style (Part 2)

Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons in the 1997 'Lolita.' (Source)

In previous article, we talked about some tips on how to develop your own writing style. We talked about the importance of originality, reading and writing a lot more than what you think, editing and rewriting, effects of diction, voice, sentence structure and syntax, and flexibility. Today we will finalize style by few more tips. Let's get started.

Tips Part 2 (Rhythm)

7) Rhythm: English provides an abundance of sentence lengths and patterns. By combining these in different ways, you can create various different rhythmical effects to complement the meaning and purpose of your writing. There are many sentence type in English such as simple declarative (subject + verb + direct object), complex (includes a main or independent clause), compound (contains two main or independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction), imperative (commands the listener to do something), interrogative (question), inverted word order (object to subject to predicate), passive voice structure (converting the actual doer of the action into a prepositional phrase). For these, I'm not gonna explain more. You can find them in many websites that explain English grammar properly. Just remember that you can have fun manipulating sentence patterns in order to achieve rhythmical effects that further your meaning. What I prefer to explain a bit is Sentence Variation Patterns.

Sentence Variation Patterns

I bet you know that everything you write has some sort of sentence pattern. Remember, a phrase is a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, typically forming a component of a clause. Varying the phrases and clauses in your sentences prevents monotony and can keep your reader interested in your writing.

  • Similarity: Within a paragraph, a writer can use similar declarative sentences throughout a paragraph in a way that evoke ideas of conformity, for example you can see this method in Chuck Palahniuk works. However, too many similar sentences can create monotony and the effect of negligence.

  • Alternating: An alternating sentence style shows the power gained by a simple sentence when it is framed on either side by complex sentences. The whole goal of this style is to allow writers to use sentences strategically, emphasizing important points through short sentences and telling stories with longer ones

  • Progressive: In a progressive pattern, the sentences become longer than normal as they build to a climax , reflecting an intensification of a feeling or idea. So, an element of the comment of the previous sentence becomes the topic of the next. This pattern allows the writer to form 'bridges' between parts of the text, while the message develops in a logical way. You can read more about 4 types of Progressive pattern here.

  • Symmetrical: In this style, we find close similarities between the lengths and styles of the opening and closing parts of the paragraph. In perfectly symmetrical paragraphs, the second half of the paragraph represents an exact mirror image in sentence styles of the first half. For example, a symmetrical paragraph of seven sentences might use the following pattern: 1. simple 2. complex 3. passive voice 4. interrogative 5. passive voice 6. complex 7. simple. This also is called Perfect Paragraph and you can find more in depth info here.

Rhetorical Patterns

The term rhetoric refers to language that is used to inform, persuade, or motivate audiences. So, rhetoric uses language to appeal mainly to emotions, but also in some cases to shared values or logic. Examples of rhetoric can often be found in literature, politics, and advertising for specific emphasis and effect-incorporating a variety of figurative language techniques depending upon the desired result.

Rhetoric is the art of communication with your readers using literary devices and compositional techniques. There are many modes of rhetorical writing. The four most common modes of writing are description, expository, narration, and persuasive which I explained in previous article. It's important that you understand that you can use more than one mode for the same written work.

Rhetorical Patterns AKA modes of discourse are very important to understand because they have a major impact on the general style of a piece of writing. Normally, when you know who your audience is and what your purpose is for writing this situation is called your rhetorical situation. Using this you can begin to consider the organization of what is going to be in your story, how you will introduce the idea, and what to write for the ending.

Definition of Rhetoric Patterns: Different definitions of mode apply to different types of writing method, mood, or manner that is not tied merely to a particular form or genre. Each fiction-writing mode has its own purposes. Literary agent and author Evan Marshall identifies five different fiction writing modes: action, summary, dialogue, feelings and thoughts, and background. It is not limited only to what Marshall explains but each writer or writing instructor, has their own categorization of it. But more or less, they explain the same idea that I summarize as below:

1) Narration:

  • Purpose: to tell a story or narrate an event or series of events.

  • Tools: descriptive writing and exposition.

  • Use: for sequencing or putting details and information into some kind of logical order, traditionally chronological.

  • Examples: Anecdote, autobiography, biography, novel, oral history, short story, travel writing

2) Description:

  • Purpose: to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can picture that which is being described.

  • Tools: Exactly the same guidelines that hold for a descriptive or narrative essay can be used for the descriptive or narrative paragraph. Should be vivid, precise, and climactic, so that the details add up to something more than random observations

  • Use: an imaginative guide to stimulate the thoughts of the reader in the form of allowing the mind to personally interact with what the writer has molded through literary enhancement of thoughtful impressions.

  • Examples: Journal writing, poetry

3) Exposition:

  • Purpose: to explain, inform, or even describe. To explain and analyze information by presenting an idea, relevant evidence, and appropriate discussion.

  • Tools: details must be selected and ordered according to the writer's sense of their importance and interest. Writer isn't can't and shouldn't try to keep their opinions completely hidden.

  • Use: To set forth in detail, so that a reader will learn some facts about a given subject and provides background information to inform or entertain.

  • Examples: Business letters, news articles, academic writing, user guide.

4) Argumentation:

  • Purpose: to prove the validity of an idea, or point of view, by presenting sound reasoning, discussion, and argument to thoroughly convince the reader.

  • Tools: a discussion between people representing two or more sides of a problem or idea. It is often conducted orally, and a formal oral argument is a debate.

  • Use: a reasoned attempt to have one's opinions accepted.

  • Examples: Advertising copy, job evaluation, letters to the editor, CV.

To learn more about these forms visit here.

Rhetorical Devices

"I said, 'Who killed him?' and he said, 'I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right,' and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was all right only she was full of water."

He used this device to make the reader feel the character's anxiety.

"It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain."

  • Parallelism: uses to stress contradictory notions. The repetition of parallel sentence structures forces the reader to more deeply contemplate the time period that is being described. Here's an example from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

  • Rhetorical question: Solely for the purpose of making an argument instead of a genuine desire to hear the answer. Here's an example of Harlem by Langston Hughes:

"What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

I emphasize that the main tool for the writer is indeed rhetoric in which a particular author’s fictional world and its moral norms are communicated to the reader. Booth sets out to consider "whether rhetoric is compatible with art" (1961) and he explains that every move a writer makes is rhetorical: fiction is rhetoric. Booth demonstrates that despite the claims of the purists, each element of a novel (including dialogue, setting, symbolism, and so on) is part of its system of persuasion. The good example of Rhetoric Patterns in fiction writing can be G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and of course Rhetoric by Aristotle.

The Modes of Persuasion

According to Aristotle, rhetoric uses three primary modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. (look at the diagram below)

Here are some example from my latest anthology Feminomaniacs:


I am the prisoner of a butt naked cell dying out by the electric fan that sounded whoosh whoosh. (From Seasonal Depression of a Confused Bonsai)


I know it's hard to accept that ye were lucky enough to reach the beginning of the queue. If ye were at the end, ye may never gotten this chance. (From Operator)


We either have to waste our time on such stupidity, or we have to jump and save ourselves. (From Babylift)

Rhetoric in Transgressive Fiction

Transgressive writers have used rhetoric to capture a reader's attention while communicating important ideas about the subject more than any other fiction writers. Transgressive genre provides a scope to understand the world's divergence. The transgressive fiction prominently feature horrific and pessimistic concerns in its adoption of "a less straightforwardly rational mode of argument".(source) In so doing, they incite feelings of terror, disgust or challenge conventional understandings of the world through their representations of monstrosity, violence and self-destruction.

In Ligotti’s fictions, for example, this self-destructive separation of self from moral allows for an imaginative engagement with transgression that escapes the morose existential predicament befalling the story subject. As Fred Botting in "After Transgression: Bataille, Baudrillard, Ballard"(p. 39)mentions, the appeal of philosophical nihilism within transgressive fictions is the result of various novels' capacity to expose and negate both, socio-political and existential concerns through violence and self-destruction.

For example, "Fight Club describes how the narrator’s desire for freedom relies on a rhetorical mechanism which equates feminized passivity with the need for action; by stating that his body is ill, he invokes the need to cure it, and thus redefine it."(source) Another example, Lost Souls uses vampirism as a rhetorical means to show the physical basis of the nuclear family as an ideology and focus on how the family came to function as a unit of ideological and sexual (re)production.

Normally, in Transgressive fiction, writers use satire as a form of rhetoric to mock societal, economical, personal or political issues. Here's a nice example for you: "I am assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or ragout." (A Modest Proposal, Swift, J.)

Now, time, it's time for your homework:)

Evaluating Sentence Variety
Download PDF • 94KB

Fun Fact

Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita considers the real-life kidnapping of Sally Horner as a direct influence on Nabokov’s famous novel of obsessive romance and sexual abuse. Although Sally is mentioned by name in Lolita, Nabokov never acknowledged her case as having any serious bearing on the book, and The Real Lolita makes a compelling argument that this demurral is both specious and, in many ways, tragic. (Source)

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