Introduction to Writing Fiction: Lesson 5 – Sentence Structure

Hey all, many of you may remember my commitment to write up my Introduction to Writing Fiction lesson notes in blog form for the benefit of all would-be writers out there back in November 2015, and many of you may have noticed that I sort of didn’t manage to post anything after the 4th lesson… actually I’m pretty sure no one noticed but it’s nice to pretend I’m Internet famous eh. Anyway, it’s nearly August 2016 now (holy cowww), and I am back on my writing game and wanted to share all the tips Jen left me with at the end of last year. I have started my Instagram mini-side-project #ANovelInAYear to motivate me to complete my initial novel draft by the end of this year, and my desire to enter the Write Now call out by Penguin Random House that I stumbled upon recently, has also re-energised me to get on top of my writing game. I found that re-reading all my writing blogs have been really useful in helping me refocus my writing and refining it, so without further ado, here’s all the useful stuff from where I left off.

baby-at-typewriter
Here we go!

So this lesson focused on sentences and how to make them great. Sentences need intention, purpose, meaning and sometimes, not always, some punch.

Jen shared with us some examples of great sentence structure:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Even now that there is no real money anymore, there’s still a black market. There’s always a black market, there’s always something that can be exchanged.”

This is a great sentence as there is so much possibility laced in this. The sentence is ominous and strongly alludes to the character’s (or even the author’s) opinion of human nature/greed, underlining a larger social commentary on society (somehow even if we got past capitalism and money, this black market, the ability to exchange goods would still be there) and setting the stage of the world they live in. Further, there is a beautiful inner rhythm to this sentence. I finished reading this book a few months ago in fact and would highly recommend 🙂

2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”

This is said by a very strange child who is both eccentric and mature due to a great trauma he has experienced. It is a rather overwhelming, emotional sentence; visceral and creates intrigue. Profound. It is good to alternate sentences between poetic and short sentences to move the plot along. I haven’t read this but it will go on my To Read list.

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

This is a powerful sentence. It puts you in a certain frame of mind and immediately intrigues the reader by mixing sudden death and beauty.

4. The Angel in the Alcove by Tennessee Williams

“In eight yearstime such characters disappear, the earth swallows them up, the walls absorb them like moisture.

Again, a very powerful image is created, especially “the walls absorb them like moisture.”

5. A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Blume

“I have made the best and happiest ending that I can in this world, made it out of the flax and netting and leftover trim of someone else’s life, I know, but made it to keep the innocent safe and the guilty punished, and I have made it as the world should be and not as I have found it.”

An undercurrent of morality is evident here as well as the writer’s technical grasp of syntax and diction.

Alternating Sentences

It is important to alternate between long and short sentences in your writing, otherwise sentences get verbose, chunky and frankly boring. Long sentences enable you to set the scene and tell the story in some sort of stylistic way, and short sentences allow you to create pace and build tension. It is good to try and disperse action and dialogue between longer and shorter sentences.

Key things to do:

  • Intersperse your writing with action and dialogue so it keeps moving forward.
  • If unsure whether your sentence is effective or not, ask: Is the sentence conveying what you want it to? Or is it just exposition to get character?
  • Avoid unnecessary exposition: write with intention and meaning; write what’s necessary, interesting and beautiful, and gets somewhere.

4 Types of Sentences

  1. Declarative/narrative (statement, explains something)
  2. Interrogative (asks a question)
  3. Imperative (instruction, command)
  4. Container sentence (expresses sudden thought or emotion; dialogue and then continues/dialogue exists within sentence)

6 Basic Structures

  1. S-V = subject verb
  2. S-V-DO = direct object
  3. S-V-IO-DO = indirect object
  4. S-V-PN = predicate normative
  5. S-V-PA = predicate adjective
  6. S-V-DO-C = compliment
  • Subject: who or what, noun or pronoun, compound sentence (more than one noun in a sentence)
  • Direct object: receives action directly
  • Indirect object: relates to the action
  • Predicate: speaks to verb or verb associated with subject. If modified, it can be an adjective or an adverb
  • Compliment: words adding meaning to subject or verb; it clarifies meaning in a sentence

How do we create good sentences?

3 rules to follow people!

1. Clarity

It’s easy for meaning to get lost in figurative or fancy language so it’s very important to make sure your sentences are clear. Writing in plain English usually works best. Remember: readers want to be entertained first, educated second and challenged third!

2. Concise

If your concise, then you’re probably clear in your writing – but it’s important not to confuse being concise with being brief. Being concise helps to confirm clarity of sentence structure. As a rule of thumb/quick test check, if more than 4 words separate the subject of the primary verb, then your sentence might not be that concise and so is worth reviewing.

3. Active

Active voice is when the subject performs the action denoted by the verb e.g. the man ate five burgers vs. five burgers were eaten by the man. This is more effective as it takes readers along for the ride with the characters and makes the story/sentences more interesting. It also helps to create a clearer visual picture, tends to be less wordy and sounds more natural – most people speak in active voice.

Jen’s 2 Key Rules of Writing

1. Show, don’t tell

Young writers have a a tendency to tell when they’re writing e.g. Jack was a pretty boy. To make your writing more powerful, interesting and impactful, show that Jack was a pretty boy e.g. Jack had luscious curly black locks that fell into his eyes, which were framed with the most beautifully long lashes. All the girls in class would squeal in delight if he as so much glanced at them accidentally. Always try and show rather than tell, focusing on body language, senses, visceral experiences and using techniques like phonetic sounds e.g. ‘glub, glub, glub’ to make your writing really come alive. If you’re reading a sentence and it seems bland and is telling, and not showing, then get into your character’s head and ask yourself what is the purpose of this sentence? What am I trying to say? Is it necessary for the reader?

Some more examples:

  1. The man was angry -> The man clenched his fists and hissed beneath his breath
  2. The girl was sad -> The girl hid her face behind her hair
  3. The man stabbed his toe -> The man swore loudly as he walked into a table
  4. They were best friends -> Her friend walked into her house unannounced

2. No adverbs

This rule is important as it helps you take a good look at the language you are using and demands you to use the right verb. Adverbs should be avoided at all costs; it should be loaded into the verb. If you have the right verb then you won’t need unnecessary adverbs that chunk up your writing and demonstrates a stronger writer! Examples:

  • I ran quickly -> I sprinted
  • I shouted loudly -> I screamed
  • I walked slowly -> I dawdled

Writing Session 1: Using long and short sentences

Describe a room in one sentence, using as many words as you can.

This is what I came up with:

‘The walls of the room were purple and white with books hanging off shelves that had been fitted so precariously, they looked as if they may fall at any minute on an unfortunate soul in need of a book who had unwittingly stopped by to have a browse.’

Write this passage again using sentences that can have no more than 6 words.

‘The walls of the room were purple. It had white bits streaking through. One wall had some precarious shelving. It was lined with books. All at peculiar angles. Waiting to fall on someone passing.’

Writing Session 2: Show vs. Tell

Examples of Tell:

  1. She’s dead.
  2. He’s single now.
  3. They got lost.
  4. The party is over.
  5. The vase broke.
  6. The child cried.
  7. The car crashed.
  8. He fell down the stairs.

Task: Take all of these and make them longer and more show than tell.

  1. She lay there, her chest not moving up and down, up and down, as I had expected, but still as sea water with all the sea creatures and life removed from it.
  2. I had been watching for a while now, and pleased to hear that he broke up with his girlfriend at the local pub. Yes! He’s single now.
  3. They were in the car and the satnav had decided that it had a life of its own and that it would be entertaining to play games on the driver and the passenger helplessly looking about for a map. The satnav had took them all over the city. The were officially lost.
  4. She ran into the room, her face blotchy with mascara drenched tears and yelled “The party is over! Get out! Get out!” The blaring music in the room stopped suddenly and there was an uncomfortable silence as everyone looked at her, standing there with her fists clenched and her face pale.
  5. I was angry. How can one be ditched so easily by a friend for a stranger. I picked up her favourite vase, and just like that, without meaning to, I dropped it on the floor. It broke.
  6. “I don’t want to be here if HE is here!!” the child cried. Their mother stared down at her daughter angrily, “HE is YOUR BROTHER and he will stay here whether you like it or not.” The child threw her face into the back of the chair and continued to cry at the top of her voice.
  7. It was my fifth driving lesson and my instructor did nothing to quell my fears. Instead he made jokes about my incompetency jovially while I struggled to focus on what was happening on the road ahead. I was feeling dehydrated; it was an unusually sunny day and the heat was burning the right side of my face. My foot slipped. I turned the wheel dramatically. The car crashed into the side of the pavement. I sat in my seat squirming as I heard the wheezing of the front tyre as it slowly deflated.
  8. They guy at work who I had seen last week have two perfectly functioning feet came in today with one broken foot. He was using a pair of crutches to get around and as he was using them to slowly trod down the stairs, I said helpfully, “Hey! There’s a lift just there you know.” He looked up at me, “I’ll be fine thanks” he said, and continued to slowly plod down, one stair and one wonky leg at a time. What an idiot. He fell down the stairs about 30 seconds later.

Writing Session 3

Here are 3 scenarios:

  1. Someone recently bereaved
  2. Man running away from and angry mob
  3. Dull Monday afternoon in a care home

Choose one scenario, write both long and short sentences, and make sure you are showing, not telling.

I chose numero dos: man running away from and angry mob. Here’s my spiel:

‘I am a man. I am unfit man. Running is not something I enjoy doing, or ever wish to do, or ever think about doing. I will only do it if my life is in danger, or someone threatens to interrupt my meal times. So being chased by a mob of football hooligans because I accidentally spilled my Coke Zero over some skinhead as I was navigating down some small steps in the park is possibly the worst thing that had happened since I found that I had killed my 8 year old cat by unwittingly mistaking it for a cushion on my couch. For clarification, yes, I sat on it. Perhaps I should stop running and I sit on one of the hooligans chasing me. That might make them stop.’

Activity

Here’s an activity Jen suggested to get used to writing alternating sentences between long and short and establishing a symbiotic balance that works and look at the different effect/impact they can create.

  1. Write a short story of 500 words
  2. Then re-write with short sentences
  3. Then re-write again with long sentences
  4. Read out loud to friend
  5. Get them to take notes on which sentences delivered the message you are trying to get across most effectively – this will help you figure out what work!

What I wrote for this exercise is really rubbish – a real poor effort on my part (it was the end of the lesson and I was starting to get hungry / lose energy) so I won’t bother sharing it here but it’s definitely a worthwhile exercise to do!

Finally….

Sentences should take you on a journey

Jen gave us a simple story and showed us that sentences should take you on a journey: Towards evening, after all; my mother was a bear. This was really random for my but she divided it and explained it in the following way:

  1. Towards evening, (beginning) -> indicate to reader where we are in the day, little reminders
  2. after all; (middle) -> compounds make for very interesting sentences, connect seemingly unconnected ideas
  3. my mother was a bear. (end) -> being playful, so many infinite meanings/ways to describe people; you can compare them to art, music, movement etc.

Haiku

This tip is about using poetic language and converting it into sentences. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry based on syllables  (5-7-5):

  • 5 syllables in the first line
  • 7 syllables in the second line
  • 5 syllables in the third line

For example:

What I like the best

Is that no matter the stakes

You don’t bat an eye

Haiku is about the syllables; the poem itself doesn’t have to make sense (apparently). The tip here is that you can convert these into sentences; for instance, look at assonance, alliteration, sentence structure, diction etc. Haiku helps to create a certain rhythm when turned into sentences. Although naturally novels are remembered for their ultimate sentiment, when reading, sentences help to create the experiences.

So that’s all for the short whizz intro on sentences, next lesson: Style, Symbolism, Tone and Imagery!

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