As expected, my students are finding the Scarlet Letter to be a slog. If Twilight is like wading through feathers, Nathaniel Hawthorne is like wading through…cement. For your average 16-year-old, it’s not easy reading. In an attempt to both broaden their appreciation of his writing style and their own sentence variation skills, we did an exercise today they dubbed Mad-Libs with Nathaniel. We started by breaking down a sentence from chapter 2:
“The grass plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes fastened intently on the iron-clamped oaken door.”
We started with very basic grammar, identifying the subject and the verb. They were fascinated at just how long Hawthorne made his sentences – and shocked that none of them were run-ons (this is, in fact, a rather short example). We then discussed how Hawthorne seems to tell entire stories in one sentence. In this particular one, he tells us not only the what, but the who, the where, the when, and the how:
Who: a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston
Where: before the jail, in Prison Lane
When: on a certain summer morning not less than two centuries ago
How: all with their eyes fastened intently on the iron-clamped oaken door
Together, we then used this template to build a new sentence.
_________________ (subject), ___________________(where?), ________________________ (when?), ___________ (verb) ____________________(direct or indirect object), _____________________________________ (description of object/subject/verb).
The craziest ones were:
“The spankin’ giraffe, in the Arctic tundra, on a dark winter’s night, flies over Canada, with great concentration and discipline.”
“The bald koala named John, in outer space, in 900 BC, ate a candy cane, upside-down, with malicious intent.”
Are they odd? Certainly. Were my students able to go off on their own and write using this complex template? Yes. A few even managed to use vocabulary words from the text (although I was a little unsure how school-appropriate a “ponderous harlot” was…). Most wrote sentences that were better than anything they’d ever written before. One boy suggested I turn this into a whole book of literary mad-libs, and it actually sounds like a pretty decent idea, like a gag gift for English teachers that is both entertaining and teaches sentence structure. Try your own from Pride and Predjudice:
They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance.
___________ (subject) __________(motion verb) for ______________ (length of time), and then _________ (subject) found him/her/themselves at ____________ (superlative location), where ____________ (location feature), and the eye was instantly caught by _________________ (noun), situated ___________________ (location), ________________ (description of location)…
It’s harder than it looks, isn’t it? Good writing always sounds effortless…but getting there never actually is. Or so I understand.