Wordplay’s the name, messing around with diction’s the game.
Right there I can tell you there are two grammatical errors in that sentence. It should read: “Wordplay is the name, messing around with diction is the game.” But that’s not as snappy, you know?!
My day job as a copywriter, content writer, SEO, and other gubbins means I have to follow pretty strict style guidelines a lot of the time. But away from my day job, I like to mess around with words.
I’m not too much of a grammar snob, so long as people get the basics right. By which I mean the pesky differences between your and you’re, plus their, there, and they’re. A scan around on social media platforms and you’ll see a lot of people have no idea.
But if we’re on about ending a sentence with a preposition or any of those myths drilled into us at lower level education, hey! Out the window.
As I do enjoy casually studying language and people’s use of it. That’s why I found Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) so fascinating.
Queneau (1903-1976) was an editor, poet, mathematician, and novelist. And he didn’t take himself too seriously, either, instead using his linguistic skills to stylise a mundane story into 99 verbal slapstick variations.
That’s Exercises in Style for you! And that’s what I want to explore, alongside wider examples of messing around with words to create intriguing sentences.
Exercises in Style and the Joys of Constrained Writing
Literature is open to breaking longstanding conventions.
It’s not always a stuffy world where one style suits all, although narrative structure in your average bestselling novel typically follows the old equilibrium established, shattered, and restored routine.
But I’ve done reviews on Moonshake Books covering the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Reprieve (1945). It royally innovates. The French existentialist relied on simultaneous prose to create an intricately woven narrative tapestry that’s at once baffling and fascinating.
Raymond Queneau’s work is infinitely more accessible and playful. It’s a fun book to read, falling into the genre of constrained writing and fiction.
Constrained writing is where a writer is bound by a condition that blocks them from doing certain things. I’ll cover the genre in more detail later!
As, for now, I want to explore Queneau’s work and how it played out more for comedic value.
Here’s the concept! We have a narrator on a busy bus in Paris. On it, two passengers (one a young man with a long neck) have a moment of argy-bargy. The young man ends the altercation by choosing to take a seat. Later that day, the narrator sees the young man again. One of the young man’s friends informs him he needs a new button on his overcoat.
Here it is, verbatim, under the first section—Notation:
On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in questions get annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling hi every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.
Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
Mundanity. But in that, if you have a lively imagination, you can take remarkable ordinariness and turn it into something special.
How? Well, it’s all about exercises in style.
The Rhetoric Styles Queneau Uses
Queneau proceeds to run riot with the boring story, using many and varied literary styles to see how he can relay it to the reader. Here are a few of the techniques put to use:
- Antiphrasis: Using words or phrases to convey the opposite of their real meanings. This can be used for comedic effect or irony.
- Litotes: A figure of speech and form of verbal irony (e.g. Saying “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” during the apocalypse).
- Metaphors: A figure of speech that describes something in a way that isn’t literal.
- Retrograde: A story is told back to front—in reverse.
- Prognostication: Predicting events.
- Synchysis: Words are deliberately scrambled to create confusion.
- Anagrams: Words rearranged using all the original letters.
- Homoeoteleuton: The repetition of endings in words.
- Polyptotes: A bit like tautology, where words with the same root are repeated (e.g. “Who’ll watch the watchmen?”)
- Aphaeresis: The loss of an initial sound from a word.
- Apocope: Removing the final sound of a word (e.g. from “photograph” to “photo”).
- Gustatory: Taste-based text!
- Gallicisms: A mode of speech borrowed from French (e.g. “Close the light” as a literal translation of “fermer la lumière”).
- Paragoge: The addition of extra consonants at the end of a word (e.g. “among” becomes “amongst).
- Metathesis: Rearranging two consonants in a syllable so they switch position.
- Homoephones: A word pronounced the same as another word, but with a different meaning.
- Spoonerisms: The reversal of the initial letters or syllables in two or more words (e.g. “bunny phone” instead of “funny bone”).
Good list, eh? Except there are 99 of them in total, which is an impressive creative feat. Imagine re-writing something in 99 different ways. Not easy!
And it’s worth exploring some of Queneau’s efforts closely. I’m going to add in my favourites, alongside some of my musings on the style in use.
I started my other blog, Professional Moron, back in 2012 with the aim of making absurd content that messes around with English. There’s a slight problem there, as Google’s quality guidelines for SEO mean you can’t overdo it. Otherwise your website will look a bit rubbish and won’t rank very well.
Initially, for laughs, I was writing “time” as “thyme” to develop the concept of ignorance and stupidity. However, I’ve since had to go back and repurpose that content so it’s correct.
That means puns in headlines, and other wordplay, have to be quite restricted. It can be annoying.
I don’t harbour any issues with Google about this, as it has a mammoth task on its hands with sorting the colossal vastness of the internet.
And if you use its quality guidelines to your advantage, you can get a lot of traffic through SEO. You could argue it’s a new form of rhetoric. You do have to write in a specific way, after all, and that’s constrained writing (and that gives me an idea for an SEO-based short story! But, hey, I’ll figure that out later).
Queneau’s goal was to entertain readers and make them think and he did so in a way that’s (crucially) free from pomposity.
He wasn’t showing off. He was displaying the fun you can have with language.
And it’s that approach that makes me want Exercises in Style taught in high schools. Instead of forcing kids to read Shakespeare, Beowulf (BO Wolf), and the like. Plays and works of literature that’ll bore most students and put them off reading for life.
Instead, use stuff like this. Fun! “Hey, kids, look at this! Reading can be lively, energetic, and intriguing!” That’s my idea, anyway. But, hey, I don’t run the national curriculum.
Enough prattle! Let’s get the show on the road with our first choice from Exercises in Style.
About Those Conversational Fillers
One of my favourite sections—You Know. It’s a play on conversational fillers, which are the little phrases and noises we use to keep our conversation flowing.
You may not even realise you’re doing this at times, but when you stop to think about it you’ll spot what you’re up to.
Here’s Queneau’s take on it.
Well, you know, the bus arrived, so you know, I got on. Then I saw, you know, a citizen who, you know, caught my eye, sort of. I mean, you know, I saw his long neck and I saw the plait round his hat. Then, you know, he started to race at the chap next to him. He was, you know, treading on his toes. Then he went and, you know, sat own. Well, you know, later on, I saw him in the Cour de Rome. He was with a pal, you know, and he was telling him, you know, the pal was: ‘You ought to get another button on your coat.’ You know.
After studying English Language at A Levels between 2001-2003, our bohemian, whistling (due to a gap in her teeth) teacher really put us on to fillers.
Following her classes, all of a sudden we were picking up on people using fillers in the likes of TV interviews.
We all do it, of course, it’s a way to let us think a moment before continuing what we’re saying. Or by blocking someone from butting into the conversation. Some of the best fillers for that are:
- You know
- Uh huh
- Kind of
- I think that
- At the end of the day
- What it boils down to
- What I’m trying to say is that
And many more! I don’t have issue with many of those, but there are two that really irritate me. I think as they’re such lazy, overused terms to fall back on.
“What it boils down to” is the first. I was at an SEO conference in 2012 in Manchester and a speaker used that term constantly throughout his speech, driving me half mad.
It just doesn’t make any sense in your average conversation. What it boils down to? The bottom of the pan, whereupon a fire will likely kick out if you’ve got noodles or rice in there.
The other one that irks me to an infinitesimal extent is the dreaded, “At the end of the day…”
It plagued my existence in 2011 as I ran into various people at work who used it incessantly. Ever since, I’ve been determined to avoid it at all costs. Why?! In the name of non-tedious fillers!
That one is such a dreary, drawn out experience as a filler. It really takes quite a while to churn out.
And in 2012 in a hotel, I had to listen to a noisy neighbour at 1am talking on his phone for hours reeling off “at the end of the day” three times a minute. My personal hell. And certainly the best way to make me lament a term like that.
To note, where I’m from (the North West of England) conversational fillers have morphed to rely on expletives. Particularly with Northern men, they’ll chuck in f bombs left, right, and centre instead of the standard “you know” or “erm”.
A simple conversation about buying a pint of milk can go like this.
“Fuckin’, I were, fuckin’, walkin’ down the road and the, fuckin’, traffic light went green an’, fuckin’, I went over the road an’ into the shop an’, fuckin’, got the pint of milk an’, fuckin’, bought it.”
And that’s not a comical exaggeration, I hear that type of discourse all the time in Lancashire, Manchester, and Greater Manchester.
It’s becoming an irritating conversational filler trope in its own right now. Do these men even understand they’re doing it? Probably, I think. It’s like gobbing in the street. They think it makes them tough and cool.
But these fillers are essential to conversation.
And they can help speakers overcome their nervousness or even speech impediments.
The next time you watch an interview on TV, particularly with a member of the public, pay attention to the amount of times they use “you know”.
It’s often just down to nerves and they won’t realise they’re saying it as many times as they are.
The likes of actors, celebrities, and politicians are trained to speak in public “properly” and tend to use less fillers. That’s down to the training and experience over time.
It reminds us of that scene from Blackadder III where Prince George (Huge Laurie) gets some elocution lessons from trained actors. Without long-term experience and a genuine knack for it (plus, being a happy-go-lucky moron), the Prince makes a mess of it.
On the speech impediment side, we can refer to The King’s Speech (2010) and its final scene.
King George VI’s speech impediment required him to receive constant supervision from Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. The latter instilled various speech techniques for the King to rely on to get him through his radio broadcast about the arrival of WWII.
Much more advanced than casual fillers, sure, but Queneau and The King’s Speech highlight the complexity of language. And how we all need a little help to get us from A to B when we’re talking to someone.
It’s something many of us take for granted, yet others struggle with stammers, apraxia, ankyloglossia (tongue-tied), selective mutism, Tourette’s, autism, and articulation issues.
The next time you use “at the end of the day” keep the above in mind… and do better!
Active Voice VS Passive Voice
In my day job as a copywriter, style guidelines are common. Businesses all have a tone of voice (TOV) they aim for. And one of the common inclusions is the demand to write in active voice.
That’s a sentence where a subject acts upon its verb.
As an editor, Queneau will have been (passive voice right there) well aware of this practice. The preference is usually to write in active voice as it’s supposed to be sharper and all that.
Generally, it doesn’t bother me and I tend to drift in and out of active and passive as I see fit. That’s because 99% of people reading the copy won’t know what either are and wouldn’t care if they did. A lot of professional writers working for companies and magazines tend to forget that.
Regardless, Queneau sticks in Passive:
Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the young gentleman. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him. As soon as a vacant seat was espied by the young gentleman, it was made the object of his precipitate movements and it became sat down upon.
The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He was clothed in an overcoat and was having a remark made to him by a friend who had happened to be there, to the effect that it was necessary to have an extra button put on it.
For anyone particularly pedantic about active voice (such as one former content manager we worked for), that paragraph will make them churn violently inside.
Yes, so I went off and re-wrote that in active voice so you can see the difference.
Midday struck on the clock and passengers began getting onto the bus, but it was very busy. One passenger, a young gentleman, wore a hat with a plait pattern encircling it. He also had a long neck. The man next to him argued with him as he believed some jostling from the young gentleman was deliberate.
Then a seat became available and the young man quickly positioned himself onto it.
I later saw the young gentleman in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He was wearing an overcoat and a friend indicated a button was missing and he required a new one.
Anyone who’s worked in content writing will know the time and effort it takes turning something from passive voice into active voice. It’s a pain—you really have to mangle sentences to reach the desired result.
But it’s one of those quirks of the professional writing arena. Active voice is expected, unless you (as we suspect) want to make a point like Queneau’s.
Getting Abusive in the Social Media Age
It’s fun to hurl verbal abuse at people, eh? Vent! Let it all out. Belligerence is the way forward in society (if you want a life of antagonism, that is).
Here’s a look at Abusive, a rather common form of expression online these days. Queneau takes it as follows.
After a stinking wait in the vile sun I finally got onto a filthy bus where a bunch of bastards were squashed together. The most bastardly of these bastards was a pustulous create with a ridiculously long windpipe who was sporting a grotesque hat with a cord instead of a ribbon. This pretentious puppy started to moan because an old bastard was pounding his plates with senile fury, but he soon chickened out and made off in the direction of an empty seat that was still damp with sweat of the buttocks of its previous occupant.
Two hours later, my unlucky day, I came upon the same bastard holding forth with another bastard in front of that nauseating monument they call the Gare Saint-Lazare. They were yammering about a button. Whether he had his furuncle raised or lowered, I said to myself, he’ll still be just as lousy, the dirty bastard.
This section is a reminder that Exercises in Style is prescient—many of the styles Queneau covered in 1945 are ever-present in the modern era.
The above copy is reminiscent of a type of bloke on social media or any online comments section—I’m dubbing it Belligerent Bloke Syndrome.
Often right-wingers lingering around to dispense with their ego, they’ll complain obscenely about anything and everything (usually relating to veganism, feminism, leftists, and “the woke”).
They all seem to be 50+ and be of the impression everything was better in “the good old days” etc. And how they’re unequivocally correct under every single circumstance, despite often being incredibly ignorant and dense with their critical thinking (i.e. Dunning-Kruger effect).
I just find it staggering these guys can go around in life so full of negativity. The joy is gone, replaced by a desire to bring everyone down with them by being a bit of a obstinate chore.
Engaging with them online will usually result in them using this laughing crying emoji 🤣.
Seriously, they’ll jam that one in like crazy as they think it’s an effective way to wind people up. When most intelligent people will just be surprised by their immaturity and lack of intelligence.
And the relentless inclusion of 🤣 is just an indicator that it’s wound them up previously. So they’ve nabbed it, overuse it, and undermine their stance. It’s very odd.
So, yes, what’s noteworthy about Belligerent Bloke Syndrome is how this sect of online geezer writes in an incredibly similar way:
- Needlessly belligerent.
- Often obscene.
- Caustic for the sake of it.
- Convinced of their brilliance, despite relentless specious reasoning.
- Manic overuse of 🤣 due to the lack of a proper argument.
There’s no point reasoning with that lot as they’ll just respond with the emoji, ad hominem, and/or more specious reasoning.
Instead, it’s best to either ignore them or, for a fun time of it, use wit and ridicule to point out the flaws of their logic. They sure don’t like that.
Anyway, online abuse extends beyond this caustic endemic and into much more abusive territory. It’s common for teenagers and what have you to send out death threats and all sorts of gubbins to try and belittle someone they’ve taken a dislike to.
The online world is notoriously hellish at times, especially on Twitter. That platform has a terrible reputation—it’s effectively a 24/7 verbal warzone. We’re sure Queneau would have noted that with discerning interest.
Telegraphing That Homophonic Haiku Harmony
Three more examples to round off this section about Exercises in Style. Queneau didn’t shy away from outright confusing his readers. Take Homophonic as the first.
Won date bout mid Dane the plait former finesse boss, I naughtiest aitch up with a longing egg and a nodder rat – a bitterest ring a row and it. All over sodden he star tedder Cree eight bee cause us odd was trading honest toast on purr pose. But then nurse eat bee came they can’t, Andy rushed often RQπ ditto band on in the ark you meant.
Too ours lay terror sore him Infanta the Cars antler tsar in gauge din along conifer rents a bout abut on.
Gibberish worthy of any red top tabloid! But then compare the Haiku section below, which has a lyric flow.
long neck trod on toes,
cries and retreat.
And then we have the comedic Telegraphic.
BUS CROWDED STOP YNG MAN LONG NECK PLAIT ENCIRCLED HAT REPROACHES UNKNOWN PASSENGER NO APPARANT REASON STOP QUERY FINGERS FEET HURT CONTACT HEEL ALLEGED PURPOSELY STOP YNG MAN ABANDONS DISCUSSION FOR VACANT SEAT STOP 1400 HOURS PLACE OME YNG MAN LISTENS SARTORIAL ADVICE FRIEND STOP MOVE BUTTON STOP SIGNED ARCTURUS
Queneau could have done many more of these, but Exercises in Style’s success is in its brevity.
It’s a concise work that’s light, breezy—that makes it so much fun to read. It’s free from self-importance. It’s just embracing its genre and I can doff my Reni hat to it out of respect.
Some More Fun Examples of Constrained Writing
Constrained writing isn’t a stunningly popular genre, as most writers will steer clear of it in favour of traditional prose. But those who dare to wade into it will find a variety of styles to have fun with.
The intellectual challenge is immense, but the rewards no doubt satisfying.
There are some styles Queneau missed out in his book we want to flag up below. Others he did include in his book, but we want to build on them a little to understand what they’re about.
This is a poem where the first letter of each line spells out a word, message, or the alphabet.
Back in my college days of 2001-2003, me and my friends did this during out General Studies A Levels. My friend, Barbarella (not his real name), sent a group email out calling for us to stick a funny word I’d invented into the exam.
General Studies wasn’t of any importance to university entrance expectations, so we deemed it appropriate to mess around in the essays.
Oh, and the word? Goatbirth. Don’t ask why, we just found it amusing at the time.
And I stuck that in as an acrostic, beginning each letter starting each word to spell out the silliness. Something like this:
Generally speaking, one must…
organising the obvious examples…
around the same time as the…
terrible examples of ketchup…
brewing within the maze of…
irrigation ditches everywhere…
rather than just stab him…
today it’s less important…
however insane that may be.
Clever, eh? Or petulant. Whichever way you want to look at it!
This has nothing to do with dating men and everything to do with only using certain words in your copy.
Dr. Seuss’s various works are probably the most famous example of this. Particularly in the form of 1960’s Green Eggs and Ham. That most legendary of tomes! Here’s a segment:
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
For this kid’s book, Dr. Seuss could use no more than 50 words. It was a literary bet his publisher set him. He picked these words… and the rest is history!
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, and you.
One of the more challenging ways of writing, a lipogram prevents the writer from using a particular letter of the alphabet. This was, famously, put to incredible use in Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition.
It was translated into English for the first time in 1995 as A Void.
The entire work is written without the letter “e”. Really, it’s a marvel to behold—here’s an extract.
“A gap will yawn, achingly, day by day, it will turn into a colossal pit, an abyss without foundation, a gradual invasion of words by margins, blank and insignificant, so that all of us, to a man, will find nothing to say.”
Perec (1936-1982) took quite a lyrical approach to his prose to complete A Void. We wouldn’t say it’s an interesting story (being a basic crime novel), but it’s one hell of a literary achievement.
This is a type of linguistic purism. For English speakers, we often forget there’s an enormous amount of borrowing from other cultures to make up our language.
Particularly from Old French, Latin, and Greek.
And we’re surprised since Brexit there haven’t been more mindless nationalists pursuing Anglish, as its goal is to remove as many words borrowed from other cultures as possible.
But we did come across a site called The Anglish Moot that states:
The Anglish project is intended as a means of recovering the Englishness of English and of restoring ownership of the language to the English people …
The goal of the Anglish project differs from person to person, but mostly it is to explore and experiment with the English language. This exploration is driven for some by aesthetics, for the ethnic English by cultural needs, and yet for others it is purely an interesting diversion or pastime. Language plays a big role in our lives, so to be able to play with that language, and shape it to our own needs or wants is very important. For this reason, writing or talking in true English is a positive end in itself, in as much as it provides an other outlet for this need.
All very interesting, then, if you like your Anglo-Saxon words over others.
This is a word, or phrase, that reads the same backwards as it does forwards.
But palindromes are common in classical music. Major musical palindromes covering more than one movement are called a chiastic.
In Haydn’s Symphony No. 47, the third movement has a minuet and trio where the second half of the minuet is the same as the first. Just backwards.
There’s also the case of the crab canon, where one line of the melody is reversed in time and pitch from the other.
Back to literature and here are some example palindromic words to impress your friends and family with:
The longest palindrome known to the Oxford English Dictionary was created by James Joyce in 1922’s Ulysses. It is: tattarrattat.
However, the biggest palindrome in the Guinness World Records is listed as saippuakivikauppias. That’s Finnish for a soapstone vendor. Indeed.
You’ve heard of extreme sports where you put life and limb on the line? Well, this is extreme alliteration. Does it get any more pulse-pounding than that!?
In fact, it’s a full text where all the words start with the same letter!
Alphabetical Africa is, arguably, the most famous example of this wordplay. Written by Austrian-American novelist Walter Abish, it was first published in 1974.
In chapter one, he writes only with the words beginning with the letter a. Chapter two is b, chapter three c… and so on.
I’ve not read this book, but apparently there are some errors (perhaps unsurprisingly) along the way. But, full marks for effort! Have a gander at his style.
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement… anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.
We can’t imagine it makes for fun reading as an entire book. But these things are more about the literary exercise over a compelling narrative.
Pretty simple! A pangram is where a sentence must contain every letter of the alphabet. The most famous example is here.
The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.
But other examples include:
- Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.
- Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz.
- Two driven jocks help fax my big quiz.
- The jay, pig, fox, zebra and my wolves quack!
- By Jove, my quick study of lexicography won a prize!
Basically, you have to write complete rubbish to get one of these together. Not recommended for anything other than a pangram competition.
This one must be a bloody nightmare to even contemplate, let alone try.
Pilish is where the writer constructs consecutive words that match the digits of pi (π). That’s 3.14159265359. Now, if that sounds like a barrel of laughs you’d probably be wrong. Unless you love maths and writing.
There’s a guide to writing in pilish on that link. The site states the following.
The idea of writing a sentence (or longer piece of poetry or prose) in which the lengths of successive words represent the digits of the number π (=3.14159265358979…) has been around since the early 1900’s. One of the earliest and most well-known examples is the following sentence, believed to have been composed by the English physicist Sir James Jeans:
“How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”
The first word in this sentence has 3 letters, the next word 1 letter, the next word 4 letters, and so on, following the first fifteen digits of the number π.
A longer example is this poem by Joseph Shipley from Playing With Words (1960).
But a time I spent wandering in bloomy night;
Yon tower, tinkling chimewise, loftily opportune.
Out, up, and together came sudden to Sunday rite,
The one solemnly off to correct plenilune.
Being rubbish at maths, we’re steering well clear of this one.
Quite a simple one here, it’s about erasing words from a text and presenting the changes as a poem.
As with several other constrained writings styles listed here, the style is also effect as art or literature. Some artists block out words from newsprint to create social commentary or stark images.
This one is fun! It’s about taking a novel and turning it into a short story of 50 words.
Think of something such as Sartre’s Iron in the Soul and its weighty themes. How do you sum that up in 50 words? Or Moby-Dick? OR WAR AND PEACE!?
Here’s my take on that most legendary of tomes A Clockwork Orange:
O’ my brothers, total nihilism is the way forward! That is until I’m set to creech because I’m contained within an experimental delinquency centre. Now there’s an appy-polly loggies in order to bolshy bratty chepooka. I’m of relative sound mind, see, and eager to become a conforming member of society.
Proud of that. The Nobel Prize for Literature awaits!
However, minisagas are generally viewed as an educational and business tool to convey an important lesson.
Yes, business types use them to gee themselves up and get into the whole successful frame of mind and all that. Which I find very dull.
This is a short work of fiction of 100 words. There’s actually a 100 Word Story online literary journal dedicated to this style of writing.
The sci-fi movement in the UK popularised drabble in the 1980s and the online era has seen its popularity continue on to this day.
Excellent for those with short attention spans.
It’s Twitter fiction! Hurray! As micro-fiction goes, it uses Twitter’s famous 140 character limit to promote Twiction. That’s a portmanteau, see?
As with all of these constrained writing styles, it’s about the challenge of the character limit.
Common genres within this area include aphorisms, poetry, fiction, fan fiction, Twitter styled minisaga takes on classic books, and haiku.
Here we have the automatic generation of poetic prose through the capricious nature of chance.
Aleatoricism is largely practiced in music, but it’s not foreign to literature as well. Monsieur Raymond Queneau rears up again here thanks to his work Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems).
Published in 1961, it’s a set of 10 sonnet. We’ll take the description of how this works from the online Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia.
[The poems] are printed on card with each line on a separated strip, like a heads-bodies-and-legs book. Each reader will encounter not just poems arranged in a different order, but different poems depending on the precise way in which they turn the sections of page. As all ten sonnets have not just the same rhyme scheme but the same rhyme sounds, any lines from a sonnet can be combined with any from the nine others, so that there are 1014 (= 100,000,000,000,000) different poems. It would take some 200,000,000 years to read them all, even reading twenty-four hours a day. When Queneau ran into trouble while writing the poem(s), he solicited the help of mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, and in the process they initiated Oulipo.
The novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhineheart is also noteworthy, being based on a character who rolls dice to determine all of his life decisions. Rhineheart also wrote the novel using dice to determine plot arcs.
French Surrealists such as the Oulip group hated the idea and didn’t want chance involved in their work. However, they didn’t have a problem with the final item on this list.
There’s one word game we remember fondly from childhood—exquisite corpse.
French surrealist André Breton (1896-1966) created the game as a bit of fun in the mid-1920s. He was part of the Oulip group and they called it cadavre exquis. But the game’s origins hark back further in time to the likes of Chinese whispers and other wordplay games played back when no one had Netflix.
It’s a word game where two or more people assemble different sentences, with the other person unaware of what the preceding sentence was.
Typically, the person sees a single word on a sentence and must construct something from that.
The results are usually amusing and bizarre, which is why the surrealists went ape for it. But it’s also a great game to play with kids so they can understand the joys of language.
As a reminder, this writing lark doesn’t have to be a chore.
A Stylish & Rhetoric Conclusion
Welcome, reader, to the end of the piece! The purpose of all this was to highlight the importance of English as a flexible creative tool. Not a restrictive one.
Sure, businesses, publications, and literary agents can point to style guidelines and tell us what is right and wrong.
As will the lessons you can remember from your educational years. Don’t start a sentence with and or but. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t threaten the reader with blackmail etc.
But we feel those rules are there as a loose reminder for solid writing, rather than remaining sacrosanct fact for moments of brilliance.
Language is fun. It’s essential to remind younger generations of this in an era where digital devices, streaming, video games, and smartphones could shift younger generations away from the written word.
Now, I love all the above. Video games? Yes!
But I also read and write an enormous amount. I consider variety essential in formative development and to help people get a greater understanding of the joys of everything, away from stringent rules.
And that’s what I think Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style stands for.
What could have been a self-absorbed ego exercise about one man’s literary brilliance is, instead, a joyous showcase of the fun that can be had with learning, imagination, and creativity.