Trail of Lightning and Sentence Structure

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is set in the time after the Big Water, a climate catastrophe that has drowned most of the continent. It’s a world “where the old gods have risen, where monsters threaten the five-fingereds, where death stalks the few who still live on the land of their ancestors.” The narrator is Maggie, a Navajo monsterslayer who has superpowers.

I’m going to talk about a quiet moment near the beginning. The family of a missing girl is deciding whether or not to hire Maggie, and she’s deciding whether or not to take the job. It’s only a few pages into the book, and we are still getting to know the narrator.

But I’m no hero. I’m more of a last resort, a scorched-earth policy. I’m the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags.

My moccasins make no noise as I cross the cracked tile floor to stand in front of the mother. Whispered conversations hush in my wake and heads turn to stare. My reputation obviously precedes me, and not all of the looks are friendly. A group of boys who must be the teenage boy’s friends loiter along the far wall. They snicker loudly, eyes following me, and no one bothers to shush them. I ignore them and tell myself I don’t care. That I’m here to do a job and get paid, and what Lukachukai thinks of me beyond that doesn’t matter. But I’ve always been a terrible liar.

There’s a really interesting and effective thing happening with the construction of these sentences and where the “I” of the narrator does and doesn’t appear. 

The first paragraph has three sentences in the same formation, each beginning with a contraction of “I am.” There’s repetition and emphasis on identity. The first sentence is short, the second stretches, and the third goes even longer. 

There’s certainly a rhythm. And despite the content of the sentences, in which the narrator claims humility, there’s boldness in the way she describes herself so directly.

But then something strange happens. We no longer have “I” as the subject of the next five sentences. Instead, it’s “my moccasins,” “whispered conversations,” “my reputation,” and a “group of boys.” We know the passage is about Maggie walking across the floor, but instead of describing the action, the narrator only describes the effects the action has on the space.

Of course, it’s still the “I” that is speaking, but it feels like the narrator has dived below the surface because of the way these sentences refuse to make the speaker the subject. Maggie is slipping beneath the scene, purposefully disappearing. Still, we can feel her moving through the quietness of her shoes and the conversations in her wake. 

I think it’s pretty common, as writers, to get sick of the “subject-verb-object” construction, especially with a first-person narrator, when so many sentences start with “I.” 

This repetition occurs in the first short paragraph of my selection. I like the way the repetition works there, the rhythm and emphasis it creates, but I also like the contrast, when that construction is cut short. 

But reducing the number of sentences that start with “I” is not the only function of Roanhorse’s sentence structure. It also creates a particular atmosphere and focuses our attention on it. 

It’s a description made from negation and opposites. Instead of describing the narrator walking through a space, the passage describes a space as the narrator walks through it. We don’t see her body but the ripples her body makes through the atmosphere. And that atmosphere is made up of sound and breathing and stares and opinions. 

We don’t hear the moccasins but the absence of them. Yet there is noise in the phrase “cracked tile floor,” which not only tells us what the floor looks like but makes a sound, with onomatopoetic words like “crack” and so many tapping letters. So it’s not a blank silence but a sound erased by those moccasins. When whispered conversations hush, the silence has energy like a wave. The word “hush,” in fact, sounds like a wave, and the word “wake” helps us to understand it that way. The language itself provides sounds that the content disengages, so it’s not a quiet silence but a loud one, not peaceful but harsh.

The landscape is not only the silence but the power dynamics in the room and the judgments of the people. Look at how these dynamics are described. “My reputation obviously precedes me, and not all of the looks are friendly.” It’s as if that reputation is an invisible wind, rushing ahead of her through the room. The snickers of the teenage boys remind me of ripples, the way water moves when wind crosses it. These reactions precede and follow the narrator. Again, we know her movement not by a description of her body but through the way the room reacts to her.

I love the way this increases her power, even as she disappears. She doesn’t have to be on top of the sentences to influence them.

And when this narrator disappears beneath the atmosphere of the room, when she ducks her head beneath the sentences like they are water—what a good trick for a hunter! After all, she is a monsterslayer!  

And then she surfaces—“I ignore them and tell myself I don’t care”—in the final three sentences.  When the “I” emerges, it’s a release from the tension of that atmosphere, a held breath that is let loose.

I said it was a quiet scene, but it’s intense. The room is roiling with conflict, just a subtler kind, beneath the surface—then erupting. I think it’s all made possible by the structure of these sentences.