In March 2005 I presented you with an article on levels of structure in writing. So far we have examined words and phrases, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the challenges of writing a series. This month’s column presents you with a few thoughts about another of the levels: sentences.
Sentences are critical to storytelling, because, literally, this is where and how your characters take action. With subjects and verbs – elements contained by most sentences – the 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 column 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?
When I click on Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary, the relevant definition appearing is this:
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, an exclamation point or a question mark. My version of Microsoft Word alerts me when I type groups of words that do not make sentences, or when I write sentences that it finds objectionable, by putting squiggly green lines below them. Usually the program informs me that these groups of words are fragments. Occasionally the program is wrong, usually because it’s confusing a verb with a noun or vice versa. Most often the program is right, and I have written a sentence fragment -- but it’s OK, because I meant to do this. Most often this is because my characters are either speaking or thinking, and to write more would sound unnatural.
For example, in the right context, the exclamatory sentence fragment,
functions perfectly well.
In other contexts, sentence fragments such as:
which is a command, may be the best choice. In this situation the subject, You, is considered understood.
When your software signals that what you have written is not usually considered a sentence, you should take a look at it. Bad grammar, unless intentional, should not be a part of your writing.
There is much more that could be written about the grammar of sentences, but this information is beyond the scope of this short article, and, I confess, beyond the author as well. Still, having a good facility with grammar helps any writer. There are many good grammar sites on the internet.
Let’s move on to some of the goals sentences should achieve in your storytelling.
Your Sentences Should Make Sense
What should your goals be in creating sentences? The first goal is the most basic one: your sentences should make sense. You may think I am stating the obvious, of course, your sentences make sense, but this goal is not always achieved.
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:
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 above was an example of my simply writing something I did not mean to write. However, there are more complicated ways in which you can change the sense of a sentence. You need to consider the sentences and how they relate to the sentences around them.
For example, if you wrote:
Each sentence by itself is fine, but when they are placed together, they confuse the reader. Which “she” is dropping the spaghetti in the shopping basket? If it’s Janet, to convey your meaning you could write:
This is no longer confusing, but we now have the name Janet appearing twice in very close succession. Here’s another possible revision:
In the example above, I still could not use the pronoun “she” to represent Janet, because it would have been unclear. But I mitigated the problem of having “Janet” twice in close succession by inserting another phrase, “Grabbing a shopping basket.” Remember, you can add or remove words if you want to – these are your sentences and your words; you are free to change them if you wish.
Positive and Negative
You can write your sentences in either a positive or negative style. Here’s an example of the negative:
And here we have re-written it into the positive:
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 of the sentence. 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:
Re-writing this in the active voice gives us:
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. Writing,
puts the emphasis on the man. The other version puts the emphasis on the dog. Also, occasional use of the passive voice allows you to shift the rhythm of your sentences. And this segues into the next section.
How you construct your sentences has an enormous impact on the rhythm of your overall work. Some writers become monotonous in their writing, always doing “subject-verb,” “subject-verb,” or, if the occasion calls for it, adding an object. I have encountered passages like the following:
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:
Now 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. (For everything, there is an exception. 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.)
The length of your sentences impacts the readers in other ways, by setting the pace of your story. Longer sentences, in which you can get lost, tend to slow down the story, inviting your readers to get comfortable and relax, like sinking into a soft sofa with a glass of port. This can go too far, relaxing your readers so much that they fall asleep. Shorter sentences, on the other hand, tend to speed up the pace. Longer sentences are good for delivering complicated, subtle concepts to your readers – information that can make a second reading worthwhile – but 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:
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 – and structure - 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 One in which Falstaff is going on and on about his favourite subject, himself, and why he should not be banished from Prince Hal’s company when the prince slashes through the pompous self-praise with pair of sentences which could not be more succinct:
(Not only Shakespeare needs to be credited with this example, but whoever found it to put into this website: http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/sentences.htm. For more on sentences please visit it.)
The Order of Words in Your Sentences
There is more to sentence structure than the length. Consider the lead sentence from an article on cane toads:
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, and 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, the very first sentence of our novel, Iokaste, is the following:
By having “die” as the last word in the sentence, it has much more impact. Imagine, instead, that we had written:
Somehow, it doesn’t have the same impact. People fight for the last word, because the last word has more power.
The art of creating sentences is something that I have not yet mastered, so I cannot give perfect instruction on the subject. But I know that each sentence should be sensible, and convey the information I need for my story. Each sentence should also be sensitive, that is, be constructed in such a way that my readers experience the emotions I promised them.
Despite being considerably over the column limit for Fiction Fix, we’ve barely scratched the surface on what could be said about sentences. I hope this article prods you to think a little more about the sentences you write. If you want to ship a few sentences on this subject to me, I can be reached at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. Thanks for joining me this time.
About the Writer: Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste:
The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own
series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about
Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about
Iokaste and other books in the series at
Tapestry of Bronze.
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.
About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.