Monday, May 28, 2012

Week 22 - The Sentence

27 May - 2 Jun: It is.

In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark offers a number of pointers on sentence structure:

1. Begin sentences with the subject or the verb so that the focus of the sentence is brought to the attention of the reader early.

2. Apply the 2-3-1 rule to sentences and paragraphs.  That is, the strongest elements should appear at the end and the beginning of sentences, paragraphs and even chapters.

3. Don't be afraid of long sentences.  They are useful for cataloguing or listing items or images, can add meaning to descriptions of long things, and offer variation to stories where short and medium-length sentences are the norm.  One needs to remember, of course, that although a long sentence is long, every word still needs to count.

4. For effect, establish a pattern through parallel construction and then break it, e.g., Peter, Paul and Mary; Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

5. Complex ideas are better served with short sentences containing simple language.

6. Use sentence length to set the pace.  Short actions require short sentences; flowing actions require long sentences.  A choppy sentence that slows the pace may be useful for simplifying complex ideas, creating suspense, or creating an emotional impact, e.g., He froze.

7. Use verbs with a purpose in mind.  Active verbs move the action forward; passive verbs highlight a victim; 'to be' links words and ideas.

8. Be conscious of the number of elements within a sentence and how each relate to each other.  E.g., He is handsome, focuses the reader; He is handsome and divorced, divides the reader and can be useful for contrast; He is handsome, divorced, and looking for a wife, offers a complete triangle of information; He is handsome, divorced, looking for a wife, and has a good family, is getting ridiculous.

John Gardner offers further advice:

9. Don't overload a sentence.  One or two syntactic slots can be modified, but too many modifiers can make a sentence confusing.  Gardner provides the following example:  The man (1) walked (2) down the road (3).  Describe the man, the way he walked, or the road, but don't describe all three in one sentence.

10. Avoid using 'that' and 'which' as the added information can undermine the focus of the sentence, and lead to an anticlimax.

Okay, that's enough to think about for this week.  Next week I'll pull together the rest of the bits and pieces relating to general word choice and sentence structure, before venturing on to cliches and stereotypes.

Exercise 43Write a very long sentence (e.g., a page or more) using proper grammar.  Don't place semi-colons and commas where full-stops should be.  (Hint: a character's indecisive ponderings might be a good topic for this exercise.)  Reference: Gardner, The Art of Fiction.

Exercise 44. Think of a simple modern story (from a memory, news item etc) and retell it as a fairytale.  Use symbolism (boss=evil witch, credit card=magic sword etc), customize vocabulary, and change sentence structure to add to the tone (e.g., "Call me Lancelot you may").

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