The Grammar of Discourse is a difficult read for those just starting to learn about discourse grammar, but it is chockfull of useful terms and examples.
This book may be a difficult read, but it is chockfull of useful terms and examples.

Now that I’ve had ample opportunity to look over my textbook, I think it’s high time that we started talking about all the fun stuff that Patrick Rothfuss does in The Name of the Wind.

If you all read my last post on the topic (and you really should, if only to get some important background information), you’ll remember that Rothfuss’ novel is basically a bunch of different narratives layered on top of each other—and we’re about to jump right into the whole mess.

Some Important Terms: It’s About to Get Real Technical

Before we delve into The Name of the Wind and all its awesomeness, though, we should probably take a look at a few more terms that Robert E. Longacre defines in The Grammar of Discourse.

In his book, Longacre categorizes narrative clauses into a series of bands that help reveal the overarching plot and structure of a given story. Let’s go over some of the more prevalent bands:

Band 1 is what Longacre calls “storyline” or “mainline” clauses (he uses both terms interchangeably). These clauses are independent, found in simple past tense—at least in most narratives—and are arguably the most important clauses when considering monologue discourse. They function as the main action and motion of a story, forming its structure and plot.

This diagram is taken from p. 24 of the second edition of The Grammar of Discourse.
This diagram is from p. 24 of The Grammar of Discourse.

Band 2 is reserved for clauses that include “background activities” and “cognitive states”—for instance, whenever there’s action in a story that doesn’t pertain to the main plot. Unlike Band 1, these clauses are usually found in the past progressive aspect (dependent clauses with –ing verbs).

Band 4 is the designated category for descriptive clauses and is most prevalent in a story’s exposition. Similar to Band 2, these clauses provide background information and help set the stage in a given scene. Grammatically, Band 4 is characterized by the use of to be and similar verbs.

As with most things involving storytelling, though, it pays not to set these rules in stone. As Longacre admits, “promotion” or “demotion” of bands can occur—specifically, with the inclusion of a punctiliar adverb (like suddenly) or through the subordination of an independent clause (Longacre 25).

Passive Beginnings

Now (finally), we can take a close look at The Name of the Wind.

An alternate cover for The Name of the Wind! I’m pretty sure it’s the UK version.
An alternate cover for The Name of the Wind! I’m pretty sure it’s the UK version.

Rothfuss begins his tale with a prologue entitled “A Silence of Three Parts.” Instead of opening with an inciting incident to draw readers into the story, the author layers description on top of description.

Though simple past tense verbs occur in the prologue—suggesting Band 1, mainline clauses—for the most part, the section is written in passive voice with several dependent clauses that provide more description than anything else.

For instance, take the first couple of sentences: “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts” (1, emphasis added).

Instead of detailing specific action, these clauses include copular and similar verbs such as “lay” that help provide a description of the story’s setting. Since they only serve as exposition, they wouldn’t be considered storyline clauses.

The following sentence in the prologue is similar, stating that “[t]he most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking” (1). Not only does this sentence include a copular, state of being verb, but also past progressive participles such as “echoing” and “lacking.” If we go back to Longacre’s chart, we can see that progressive participles tend to indicate Band 2, or background action, and in this case help set the scene and provide even more exposition.

At first glance, the next few clauses seem to provide the first source of action in the story:

If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. (1, emphasis added)

“Get off the road, quick!”
“Get off the road, quick!”

Although the bolded words are in fact action verbs, they’re demoted from storyline through the use of the past perfect “have” and in some cases the modal “would.” Since these clauses also describe what’s lacking rather than what actually occurs, they are therefore what Longacre terms “negation” clauses (24) and can never be mainline.

In the next sentence, Rothfuss continues his theme of negation, but special emphasis is placed on what’s missing: “If there had been music . . . but no, of course there was no music” (1). Although the author uses the past perfect “have,” the inclusion of the adverbial phrase “of course” hints at the fact that something specifically has triggered this lack of music—which could have some bearing on the plot of the main story.

The first non-subordinated action verbs come in the beginning of the second paragraph. Rothfuss writes, “Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news” (1, emphasis added). The verbs in bold are both in simple past tense with no subordination attached to them, suggesting that they’re mainline.

However, the context reveals that these verbs aren’t actually punctiliar since their action occurs over an indeterminate period of time. As such, they further add to the description of the inn.

This lovely picture of Kvothe is from AlyaW’s “Kvothe and Bast” on DeviantArt.
This lovely picture of Kvothe is from AlyaW’s “Kvothe and Bast” on DeviantArt.

The only other non-subordinated, active verbs come in the second-to-last paragraph of the prologue, where Rothfuss describes Kote, the owner of the Waystone Inn: “The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things” (2, emphasis added). The first two clauses are just descriptions of the owner’s appearance, but the last clause includes the active verb “moved,” which could be considered storyline if not for the fact that it also describes Kote’s actions over an indeterminate period of time.

In the last paragraph of the prologue, Rothfuss finally reveals the reason behind the silence of Waystone Inn, though he does so without the use of any mainline clauses:  “The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. . . . It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die” (2). These sentences include copular and descriptive verbs, making for an entire prologue with no storyline clauses.

Instead of starting his story with an inciting incident where “the planned and predictable is broken up in some manner” (Longacre 35), Rothfuss strings a long chain of descriptive clauses together in order to develop an overall tone of passivity.

This passive opening may seem unusual, but it isn’t unheard-of. According to fiction author Sandra Scofield, “Often a story has a short passage that ‘sets a scene,’ or introduces some information in a close-in way, without going into real action” (13). Though the prologue is for the most part devoid of action, the passive tone is also intriguing, focusing in detail on the main character and providing readers with a sense of the weary, disheartened soul of the innkeeper himself.

A Brief Works Cited

  • Longacre, Robert E. The Grammar of Discourse. 2nd ed. New York: Plenum, 1996. Print.
  • Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
  • Scofield, Sandra. The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
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2 thoughts on “A Silence of Three Parts: Discourse Grammar in The Name of the Wind (Part 2)

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