We Were Liars: Compositionally Unstable


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Warning Potential Spoilers: We Were Liars is a bit of a mystery novel, so I endeavor to not give away too much about its plot. Thus I have used an example from early in the book. Also, I have truncated this post for the sake of the novel’s potential readers. 

After posting Cress: Word Choice in YA, some writers created a Query Tracker forum to discuss the piece. In their chat, there was confusion regarding the section about Dr. Erland’s fingers:

During a highly emotional moment, Cress describes Dr. Erland, “The tips of his fingers were shriveled and blue” (pg. 376). Technically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence. However, removing the ineffectual verb “were” strengthens the incident’s poignancy. It is common for correct grammar to yield to direct emotions — especially when the close third person narrator partakes in the intense event. Further, deleting “were” enhances the descriptive “shriveled and blue,” allotting a clearer visual.

Re-reading the paragraph, it is, admittedly, ambiguous. (A failure of my writing rather than an overly complex idea.) The point I was trying to convey is that sometimes the best word choice is no word at all. Further, releasing the writerly bonds to grammar can, if done properly, elicit a more direct and/or sharper emotional reaction from the reader. I’m unsure why this is true. Possibly it is due to the reader’s emotional connection laying in imagery, like poetry. Perhaps it is something else entirely, something too cognitively complex for me to comprehend.

In close third person narrative Cress watches her father die, “The tips of his fingers were shriveled and blue” (pg. 376). For me, as a reader, this description would be more emotionally poignant if the sentence read: “The tips of his fingers shriveled, blue.” This may be caused my penchant for experimental fiction and preference for fewer words dividing me, the reader, from the image. Further, the close third person narrative means the reader experiences the moment through Cress. In essence, the reader is watching their own father die. In highly emotional and tragic situations, one’s mind cannot be depended upon to form full sentences — and the grammatical incorrectness, the breaking of writing rules can illustrate the emotional state of the character more genuinely.

E. Lockhart’s sensational young adult novel, We Were Liars, is written in an emotionally heightened state of grammatically incorrect, poetic prose sometimes bordering on the experimental. Sections of it even look and read like poetry. Written in first person, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, our narrator has an accident at the age fifteen which causes dilapidating migraines and amnesia. Throughout the novel she is in a heightened emotional state, traumatized by life events.

Cady watches her father leave her and her mother:

Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into the flower bed.
Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,
then from my eyes,
my ears,
my mouth.
It tasted like salt and failure.

(Nook App, iPad Mini, pgs 16-17)

Dismissing the bonds of typical fiction prose, Cady’s emotions are expressed using poetical elements and style. By doing so, the images dominate and the words visually stand out on the page in contrast to the normal paragraph structure. By disengaging the language from “the rules”, Cady’s emotional state is clear — she is out of sorts, wrecked, in the same state of shock one would experience when actually shot. Further, Cady’s character is established by illustrating how she deals with dramatic situations. Her mind, agitated, creative, sensitive to crisis is primed for the mental havoc that is to come. Essentially, Lockhart’s breaking the novelistic format symbolizes Cady’s emotional decay; and expertly blends the writerly choices of style, story, and character1.

There are many other examples of this idea in We Were Liars and reasons for Lockhart’s choice to breakdown the language, to breakout of the normal paragraph structure. However, I do not want to post them, at least not right now when the book is still fresh to the market. Doing so would give too many hints and I do not wish to ruin the book for you. Know it is worth your reading time and your own writerly analysis. If you do and you would like to discuss, please feel free to contact me to discuss.

1: For more on this subject see On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of Writing “On the Aims of the Artistic Process”

6 thoughts on “We Were Liars: Compositionally Unstable

  1. Pingback: Cress: Word Choice in YA Lit | How Y.A. Fiction Works

  2. Pingback: Half Bad: Engaging Expectation in YA Lit | How Y.A. Fiction Works

  3. Pingback: We All Looked Up: Imagery, Metaphor and Word Choice in YA Lit | How Y.A. Fiction Works

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