Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sunday Musings: Sentence structure

Happy Sunday and Happy Thanksgiving to all in Canada!

Let's move straight to Terri's question:   How does your sentence structure define your writing style? Do you use simple short sentences or go with longer, more complex sentences? In your Reading will expand your vocabulary; however, how do you maintain the memory of new words and pull them up to use?opinion, is one better than the other? Also, what is your favourite sentence...written or read.

I craft my stories to a cadence that fits each one. My Bowdancer series is written in what I call heroic voice. I never use contractions and absolutely no phrasing or words that seem jarringly 21st century. In my contemporary novels and my archaeology thrillers, I use modern language.

I have a slight Hemingway style, meaning that I don’t write large blocks of text like Faulkner of Steinbeck. Like Papa Hemingway, I was first a journalist so we get the facts down. I try to keep paragraphs and sentences middle length with some shorter and longer sentences mixed in. I also vary beginning with subordinate clauses so I don’t use two in a row, and I’m careful about repeating a word too near where I’ve used it previously.

All of this creates keeps the pacing smooth and keeps readers turning pages. Like a singer/songwriter, though I am aware of the rhythm of sentences. This creates better phrasing and can improve pacing.

Words and phrasing can be evocative. Being mindful of how they flow is always an asset.

TERRI BERTHA, Mainstream NEW author

In my opinion, I like simple short sentences.  My mind gets lost when I read a profuse list of adjectives describing a single noun.  By the time I get to the end of the sentence, I’ve almost forgotten what I read at the beginning.

Since I write for middle grade, my sentences tend to be shorter narrative.  I also use the same when submitting longer stories to critique groups and magazines.  I think short sentences can add greater suspense and horror.

One of my favorite lines is Rhett to Scarlet, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Scarlett doesn’t question Rhett repeatedly on what he is trying to say.  He stated his position and the response is clearly understood.  Nothing more needs to be said.  No more questions need to be asked.  The sentence is simple and understood by both parties.  I like that.  Say more with less.

MJ LABEFF, New Mainstream author

Sentence structure is important to pacing. I like using a combination of both short and simple and long and complex sentences. Short sentences are great for creating tension, conveying action, and ratcheting up fear. Complex sentence are great for slowing down a scene and giving it some closure. Some being the key word. Do you like my fragment? It’s okay to write a fragment when appropriate, after all, we don’t think in complete sentences. As a suspense and thriller writer, I think it's important to give readers a little break but still keep them turning pages. We all love to stay up late devouring a book, but let's face it; we all need to sleep too. Shorter sentences leave a reader breathless. Longer sentences leave a reader feeling satisfied for now. One of my favorite sentences came from fellow Muse author, Jenna Storm. Years ago, I had the privilege of beta reading her book, The Burning Seal. This sentence has stuck with me ever since. The novel had opened with: Don't open the door. Of course, I wanted to open that darn door. So I kept reading.

Pre-retirement, my working life required the writing of succinct and grammatical English, so I am good at precis. In one of my local government jobs I had to lead the “plain English” campaign, which some colleagues perceived as dumbing down (it was an education department after all!). One of the first lessons a budding writer learns is “less is more”, giving enough for the reader to follow but space for interpretation and imagination. It’s fascinating and fun to try putting across a story in six words (like Ernest Hemingway’s “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”). While I enjoy constructing longer sentences, especially in my historical novels, it is the brief, pithy, often paradoxical, sentences that tend to stay with me (they’re easier to remember for one thing). For example:

“Experience is the name we give to our mistakes.”

“Nobody regrets what he leaves, only what he does not find when he comes back.”

“Life has to be lived for something, not just against something.”

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

(Sorry not to attribute, these are quotes I copy into a notebook, when I hear or read them, and I don’t always note the source.)

I try to vary sentence length, relying on how the rhythm sounds when I read it aloud. Occasionally, if I'm trying to convey urgency, for example, I may use several short, simple sentences but I rarely use many complex sentences together. I'm not sure if one length is better than the other, I think it depends on the context.

My favourite sentence is the crawl at the beginning of all the Star Wars movies "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." It's delicious anticipation and I know I'm going to be plunged into a world of excitement from that point on.

I am very conscious of the rhythm, the flow, of the tale, and the only way to create and control that is through the words used to tell it.  I tend to favor complex sentences and the richness they impart to the mental image but will use shorter, sharper ones when the situation warrants, in dialog, for example, and during moments of high, rapidly moving action.

I am a big fan of the comma. And the semi-colon. One of my points I work at is having a diverse sentence structure. Short sentences are great for action--they create tense bursts of information. Just consider: would you feel more tense while reading a paragraph like "She ducked low to avoid the blade flashing at her chest. The man lunged closer; she scrabbled towards the wall. With a glint flashing in his eye, he closed in." or "She ducked low, hands flying protectively in front of her like a shield as she attempted to avoid the blade flashing at her chest. The man lunged closer--she scrabbled towards the wall--with a glint flashing in his eye, he closed in." Okay, not gonna lie--I really did like the last sentence of the latter, but do you feel how some tension is lost in the second scene? Just a little. On the other hand, it depends which style you prefer to read. I myself would probably end up enjoying the longer, more wordy descriptions. I really believe that diversifying your style should be the bottom line. Don't have too much of everything, but go with whatever suits you! And my favorite sentence, written or, that's really hard. Of course I can't think of a specific one right now, but I remember being really pleased with the turns of phrase in Lyndsay Faye's Gods of Gotham. Oh--and last night I watched the Sherlock special The Abominable Bride, where I heard the line "There are no ghosts in this world, save the ones we make for ourselves," and I got the chills. 

I think I vary mine a bit. I do have some seriously long sentences, but I also have sentences as short as a single word, if that's what's needed. In general, I think I tend to fall on the longer side of the average, though.

Better is subjective. I have one very articulate character who would feel "wrong" if he were to answer a yes or no question in under 90 words. He'll have conversations with another who sums up how he gets information or acquires things with "I know a guy." Both are right for them. If the story is a wordy one, then longer is better.

My favorite "sentence" (of mine) is a three sentence block which comes at the end of a rant where it was implied the female character was on the trampy side (which is true enough, but rude) by a female magazine publishing powerhouse. This happened in a room with many wealthy/influential people who had been subjected to similar abuse. The sentence needs so bee framed for full effect.

"The others here have to accept your condescension due to their station in life and the image they need to maintain.  I have no such requirement, as I’m certain that there is nothing you can write about me that hasn’t been said more accurately, and read by more people, on men’s room walls throughout New England.  Often in verse."

What makes it my favorite is the whole paragraph built to it and I had no idea what she was about to say as I wrote it. I wrapped that up and giggled as if I'd just heard it said, rather than conjured it. It was the first time one of my characters just ran off on their own.

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

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