What's discussed in this post
When reader expectation is not met, the narrative may read awkwardly, causing the reader’s concentration to break briefly or the reader to backtrack to glean meaning out of what they just read. This disrupts the reader’s immersion and gives them the opportunity to put down your book!
This guide explains how to meet reader expectation at the sentence level with the known-new contract, repetition, and parallelism, so you can revise your sentences for cohesion with confidence.
The known-new contract
Out of the 3 techniques used to create cohesion, the known-new contract is the most important because it’s how the reader learns new information: by connecting it to what they already know. If you struggle with meeting the known-new contract, your sentences may provide new information consecutively, creating a choppy, disconnected flow.
To understand this concept, we need to go over how sentences present information:
Starting with a simpler concept of what the reader already knows de-emphasizes it and allows the reader to focus and understand the new information. The new information should be presented in the predicate, where the natural emphasis is, because it allows the reader to retain more complex information and carry it onto the next sentence.
This sentence couplet comes in the scene right after the protagonist, Icelyn’s pet mini-dragon (Ember) had gone missing, sending Icelyn into a depressed panic. Since the reader would already have that in the foreground of their mind, Clemens begins the sentence with Ember finding her way home yesterday and ends with how Icelyn feels today about it, was such a relief it made today feel brighter, which is new information to the reader. In this case, the known-new contract also has a cause-effect structure. Clemens uses cause-effect to connect the first sentence to the second. The effect of Icelyn Humming a winter tune isn’t new information because it is caused by and exemplifies Icelyn’s relief making the day feel brighter, and those emotions are pulled through and motivate Icelyn’s actions in the rest of the sentence.
This may seem like a promotion for redundancy, but there’s a major difference between redundancy created through repetition and repetition as lexical cohesion. When repetition is used as a cohesive tool, it acts as a link between sentences. It’s the known in the known-new contract, allowing the reader to focus on the new information, the purpose of the sentence. Repetition only becomes redundant when it has no purpose.
Additionally, as stated above, lexical cohesion isn’t only the repetition of words and phrases; it includes the use of synonyms and related words, such as pronouns. Using pronouns is one of the easiest ways to create lexical cohesion because the subject or direct object of one sentence can be the subject of the next, yet they still add variety.
Here’s an example of lexical cohesion using pronouns from my work-in-progress, Girls to the Front:
We set down the desk in the main room, and I greet Nana. She sits in her usual house dress on the living room couch, watching Murder, She Wrote reruns.
The direct object of the sentence I greet Nana sets the reader’s expectation to see Nana in the next sentence. Since Nana is in the foreground of the reader’s consciousness, the use of the pronoun she links two sentences together naturally, and the reader’s expectations are met.
A more advanced way to create lexical cohesion is to use a scheme of repetition. A scheme is a structure used to convey meaning. Schemes of repetition include isocolon, anaphora, alliteration, assonance, epistrophe, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, antimetabole, and polyptoton. (I’m going to talk about these in a future post. Stay tuned!)
Parallelism becomes a cohesive device when it’s used to connect sentences and paragraphs by creating an echo structure across them. When you echo a structure from one sentence to another (or one paragraph to another), you remind the reader what should be in the foreground of their mind. This adds intensity and drama.
Here’s an example from Girls to the Front:
Over the last few years, the church transformed the old school gym into an all-in-one kids entertainment center, with a set of trampolines, a video game setup, and an enclosed, padded play area (for the littlest kids) on the left; and an obstacle course made of ropes, beams, and climbing structures on the right.
Here, I use parallel structures to concisely describe a setting. A set of trampolines, a video game setup, and an enclosed, padded area (for the littlest kids) and an obstacle course made of ropes, beams, and climbing structures both consist of three parallel noun phrases. The parallel prepositional phrases on the left and on the right connect the two descriptions to create one image.
Finally, parallelism can also be used in the scheme antithesis, which is a comparison of contrasting ideas. An example of parallelism used in antithesis is Neil Armstrong’s famous “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Here are some quick tips based on what we’ve learned in this post:
Style and Statement by Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors
Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup
Sarah Hawkins is a geek for the written word. She's an author and freelance editor who seeks to promote and uplift the authors around her.