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How to Build Authority, Sell Products, and Build Fictional Worlds with a Rhetorical Device Anyone Can Use
Exploring "congeries" through fiction, sales pages, and an economist's deep knowledge
After I got fired from my big boy corporate job in the middle of 2020, I made a rash, sweeping declaration: I needed to read all the "classics" of literature.
Moby Dick. Frankenstein. Great Gatsby. Love in the Time of Cholera. Howl. Farewell to Arms. 1984.
Maybe if I read those, I'd be less replaceable in my next job.
(The sound you're hearing now is 1 million English degree holders, laughing hysterically).
Anyway, the first book on my list was a monster called 100 Years of Solitude.
Within that book is one sentence that goes on... I kid you not... for nearly two full pages. And I loved every minute of it.
Since that time I've been thinking: great writing isn't always simply being as brief as possible. (Even though that advice is easy to tweet) Sometimes, great writers belabor their work. They take more time to describe a scene on purpose.
They are unnecessarily long... and that's the whole point.
One of those “unnecessarily long” rhetorical devices is called a "congeries." That's what I'll be covering today.
Hope you enjoy,
Among the plethora of writing devices -- the simile, the metaphor, anaphora, epistrophe, rhythm and rhyme, iambic pentameter, isocolons, tricolons, tetracolons, -- there is an unsung hero which doesn't get much credit:
Don't be mistaken. We're not talking about a listicle. Those get plenty of attention, for good reason. Listicles offer real benefits. The writer gets an easy structure. The reader knows what they’re getting into.
But the good old-fashioned list, when used properly, can accomplish a great deal more.
When you put a tuxedo on a list and send it to Harvard, you call it a congeries. That's the term I'll be using throughout the rest of this post. Mark Forsyth, writing professor and author of an excellent book, describes a congeries like this:
"Congeries is Latin for a heap, and in rhetoric it applies to any piling up of adjectives or nouns in a list."
Don't get hung up on that "adjectives or nouns" part. Focus on the pile
To understand why a congeries is effective, it's helpful to first look at its stunted little brother: the infamous "items in a series." Many of us are taught this is the "proper" way to write, so we never depart from that structure: three items, lined up with neat commas.
"Susie went to the store to pick up juice, sausage, and a new husband."
(Sorry. I've been studying syllepsis. Let me try a normal one):
"Susie studied English, Science, and Math at school."
This sort of writing is functional, practical, and reasonable. It works whether you are writing an email to Vice President Bob Smith, or if we go on to compose, say, The Declaration of Independence.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
A congeries is essentially when you decide: "to hell with the items in a series! I'm just going to keep listing things!"
That would have been a terrible choice for Jefferson, but for George Orwell, who needed to build an imaginary would full of hatred and stifled sex and government overreach, a congeries was the perfect device. Although 1984 carries powerful moral lessons, it is also a masterful example of using a congeries to build a scene.
Take this example, from midway through the book. (The congeries starts at "processions"):
"The preparations for Hate Week were in full swing, and the steps of all the ministries were working overtime. Processions, meetings, military parades, lectures, waxwork displays, film shows, telescreen programs all had to be organized; stands had to be corrected, effigies built, slogans coined, songs written, rumors circulated, photographs faked."
Without reading a single additional page, you can visualize what's happening here.
Consider the standard "items in a series" approach:
"...the steps of all the ministries were working overtime. Processions, meetings, and telescreen programs all had to be organized."
It works. It's also empty.
Fiction is a natural home for the mighty congeries. It's a concise way to sell your reader on an imaginary world. This is why, 73 years after Orwell’s masterpiece, Gabrielle Zevin used his go-to device in her tragic wonder Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.
"You are flying more slowly than last time, because you don't want to miss any of it. The cows. The lavender. The woman humming Beethoven. The distant bees. The sad-faced man and the couple in the pond. The beat of your heart before you go onstage. The feel of a lace sleeve against your skin. Your mother singing Beatles songs to you, trying to sound like she's from Liverpool. The first playthrough of Ichigo. The rooftop on Abbot Kinney. The taste of Sadie mixed with Hefeweizen beer. Sam's round head in your hands. A thousand paper cranes. Yellow-tinted sunglasses. A perfect peach."
15 items. As you can see here, none of the elements are in complete sentences. They just rattle through, untethered, like fired bullets.
A well-placed congeries, like most rhetorical devices, works outside the world of fiction as well. Writing is writing is writing is writing, after all.
Ligaya Mishan, a terribly good writer for the New York Times, opened her essay on the creative life with this one:
"Say ‘the artist's life’ and already we are in thrall to the old romantic myths: the garret in winter with wind lisping through the cracks, the dissolving nights at mirrored bars nursing absinthe, the empty pockets, the feral hair, the ever-looming madhouse."
Ligaya selects specific nouns and specific adjectives for her specific vision. This particular list includes a myriad of other writing techniques, but the list is central. The congeries is king.
Nonfiction writers who don't wish to be so artful can also benefit from deploying a congeries every now and again. Maybe you're a lawyer. Maybe you're a politician. Maybe you're a teacher. Few things say "I've thought about this more than you" like using a congeries.
Here's economist Erik Brynjolfsson in his essay, The Turing Trap.
"(The philosophers suggested) no machine could play checkers, master chess, read printed words, recognize speech, translate between human languages, distinguish images, climb stairs, win at Jeopardy or Go, write poems, and so forth."
Nine items here. Why? Why not just the standard three?
One reason is to provide further nuance without taking up much more space. It also gives you the idea that the author knows far, far more than you on the topic.
This is exactly the reason good copywriters put congeries into their sales pages.
Here’s a final example from the world of sales. You’re looking at Drayton Bird's membership site, but you could be looking at any sales page.
Drayton rolls out 14 items. 14 says "yeah, you can trust me. Give me your money please." (The magic trick all great copywriters perform)
The congeries is at once simple and difficult. It's difficult at first to shatter the old habits of the three-item series. Once you pass that, though, you begin to ask, which word should you use? Which items should you write? Which should you omit?
This is the daunting, endless challenge of every writer: knowing where to start. Knowing what to include. Knowing what to cut away. And, of course, knowing when to stop.
Much love as always,