Crafting Fabulous Fiction:
Sensible, Sensitive Sentences

by Victoria Grossack

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May 1, 2014

Sentences are critical to storytelling, because this is where and how your characters take action. With subjects and verbs -- elements contained by most sentences -- your tale moves along. Depending on what you write, your sentences could show setting, movement, emotion and voice -- basically everything you need in your story. In this article we'll consider the structure of sentences, the role their structure plays in conveying the sense and the emotion of your story, and touch on a few other ideas along the way.

What Are Sentences?

If you click on Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary, the relevant definition appearing is this:

4 a: a word, clause, or phrase or a group of clauses or phrases forming a syntactic unit which expresses an assertion, a question, a command, a wish, an exclamation, or the performance of an action, that in writing usually begins with a capital letter and concludes with appropriate end punctuation, and that in speaking is distinguished by characteristic patterns of stress, pitch, and pauses

This may be too technical. For our purposes, sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a piece of punctuation that is either a period, exclamation point or question mark. For example, in the right context, the exclamatory sentence fragment,

What a piece of work!

functions perfectly well.

Sentences Should Make Sense

What should your goals be in creating sentences? The first goal is basic: your sentences should make sense. You may think I am stating the obvious; of course, your sentences should make sense, but this goal is not always achieved. Write them, read them, then come back later and read them again.

Secondly, you want your sentences to convey the meaning you intended. Far too often I review my work to discover that an unexpected meaning comes through. For example, I recently wrote:

The rest of the audience seemed to share her opinion, for they coughed, shifted in their chairs, and even spoke impolitely to each other.

When editing this I realized that my audience members were speaking impolitely to each other instead of being rude to the performer! I rewrote it as:

The rest of the audience seemed to share her opinion, for they coughed, shifted in their chairs, and spoke to each other instead of paying attention to the performance.

The above was an example of simply writing something I did not mean to write.

Positive and Negative

You can write your sentences in either a positive or negative manner. Here's an example of the negative:

He did not remember to mail his tax return.

Now we re-write it into the positive:

He forgot to mail his tax return.

Generally, sentences written without using negatives are preferred.

Active and Passive

Should you write your sentences using a passive or an active voice? Using the passive voice means writing with a form of the verb to be, in a way that what would logically be the object of the sentence has become the subject instead. This is much easier to illustrate with an example than it is to explain with words, so here is an instance of a sentence in the passive voice:

The man was bitten by the dog.

Re-writing this in the active voice gives us:

The dog bit the man.

Nearly everyone agrees that the active voice is better than the passive voice. If you indulge in the passive voice a lot, your writing will seem hesitant or bureaucratic. The active voice is much more forceful.

On the other hand, the passive voice has its place. Let's look again at:

The man was bitten by the dog.

This sentence puts the emphasis on the man. The active version puts the emphasis on the dog. Also, occasional use of the passive voice allows you to shift the rhythm of your sentences.

Rhythm

The structure of your sentences has an enormous impact on the rhythm of your overall work. Some writers become monotonous, always doing subject-verb, subject-verb, or, if the occasion calls for it, adding an object. I have encountered passages like the following:

The dogs barked. The birds whistled. The sun shone. The trees grew leaves.

Writing like this could be done for effect; that is, with an artistic purpose, rather like a strong drumbeat at the beginning of a song as you wait for the melody to make its appearance. The anticipation of the melody, or in this case, the story, makes the sentence in which something happens all the stronger by its being delayed. For example, you could continue the sentences above by adding one like the following:

The dogs barked. The birds whistled. The sun shone. The trees grew leaves.

Suzie wondered if she would die from boredom at her aunt's cottage, or if the lack of excitement would simply drive her crazy.

In this passage the first four sentences serve as an ironic introduction to Suzie's feelings, and their monotonous rhythm mirrors the dullness they describe. However, if the writer never supplies her readers with a longer, more intricate and more interesting sentence, readers will eventually be turned off, start to giggle, or become aware, either vaguely or explicitly, that something lacks in the writing. There are exceptions to everything. Hemingway was known for his strong, stark, simple sentences, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. On the other hand, William Faulkner won it in 1954 and his sentences were anything but short and simple.

Pace and Length

The length of your sentences impacts the readers in other ways, by influencing the pace of your story. Long sentences tend to slow down the story, inviting your readers to wander a bit or to get comfortable and relax, like sinking into a soft sofa with a glass of port. It is possible to go too far and to relax (or bore) your readers to the point where they fall asleep. On the other hand, shorter sentences quicken the pace. Long sentences are good for delivering complicated, subtle concepts to your readers -- information that can make a second reading worthwhile. Use short sentences when you absolutely must get the point across, when you are shocking your readers, when you want to make sure that they are paying attention. For example, you could write:

He didn't die. He's living upstairs.

Depending on the rest of the story, those sentences could be very important, delivering an important plot twist and compelling your reader to keep going.

Sentence length can also be used to characterize your characters. Some may tend to speak in long sentences, others in short. There is a wonderful passage in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I in which Falstaff goes on and on about his favorite subject -- that is to say, himself, and why he should not be banished from Prince Hal's company. The prince slashes through the pompous self-praise with a pair of sentences which could not be more succinct:

I do. I will.

The Order of Words Within Sentences

There is more to sentence structure than the length. Consider the lead sentence from an article on cane toads:

Poisonous and ugly, Australia's cane toads are suckers for nightlife.

In this sentence, we see that the first part of the sentence sets up the context -- cane toads are both poisonous and ugly -- and the last phrase in the sentence, "suckers for nightlife" -- is unexpected. It is also what the article is going to describe. In other words, even within a sentence, you need to be mindful of the fact that within the sentence you are going somewhere, leading your readers on a journey, and that you are responsible for making it easy for them to follow.

The order of the words also impacts the emotions experienced by the reader. If you can deliver a surprise with the very last phrase or word -- whether it be a plot-twist, emotional or informational -- your sentence delivers much more impact. For example, in our novel, Jocasta, the very first sentence is:

I don't want to die.

By making die the last word in the sentence, it has more impact. Imagine, instead, that we had written:

Die? I don't want to.

Somehow, it doesn't have the same force. People fight for the last word, because the last word has more power.

Last Words

Each sentence should be sensible, and convey the information needed for your story. Each sentence should also be sensitive, and be constructed in such a way that your readers experience the emotions you promise them.

References

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sentence

Find Out More...

Counting the Words - Victoria Grossack
http://www.writing-world.com/victoria/crafting61.shtml

Fewer Words Mean Bigger Bucks - Shaunna Privratsky
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/fewerwords.shtml

Less is More: 15 Quick, Clever and Clean Tricks to Reduce Manuscript Word Count - Devyani Borade
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/less.shtml

Targeting Enemy Words - Sandra Miller
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/miller.shtml

Column Index

Copyright © 2014 Victoria Grossack
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


 

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