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Jack London's Periodic Sentences

June 10, 2021   

Beloved American author Jack London (1876-1916) demonstrates the power of the periodic sentence structure (end focus). In Southern’s English Department, you will study authors like London and explore techniques they used to make their writings powerful and enjoyable, qualities all writers want.

A sample of London’s writing below (in numbered sentences) is the last paragraph of his short story “To Build a Fire.” If you have not read this story, try an experiment with the power of the periodic sentence. If possible, read only the underlined portions of the text and contrast them. You will quickly see that the first two words of each sentence contain little information and that the last two words of each sentence contain a lot of information.

In fact, so much information is given at the end of each sentence that you might be able to predict how the story ends having only a bit of information about the story. The story is of a man and his dog who are travelling, against advice from old timers, in extremely cold weather in the far north. Try reading the underlined portions only and predicting the outcome!

  1. Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.
  1. The dog sat facing him and waiting.
  1. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight.
  1. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire.
  1. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man.
  1. But the man remained silent.
  1. Later, the dog whined loudly.
  1. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death.
  1. This made the animal bristle and back away.
  1. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky.
  1. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.