Friday, November 30, 2018

Types of Sentences and the Way They Love Us

I hate wanting to love something that’s so unlovable. (Although I’ll admit that loving something unlovable is even worse.) Many times I see independent writers committing to their craft, inspiring me with their ideas and tastes, creating striking concepts and hiring excellent graphic artists, to only get to the actual story part and cringe until my insides flip. We’ve all read a fantastic concept was tainted by the clunky word choice.

Voice is probably one of the most subjective aspects of writing, and readers typically have a love-hate relationship with the stronger prose out there. From Shakespeare to Hemingway, you’ll see a lot of polar opinions on the striking styles. So, when I say that the main common denominator of cringy writing is the lack of flow, it’s notable that the other common denominator is me. (Always, whenever reading anyone’s advice, consider your actual tastes and what sorts of things you respond to.)

Facebook recently bombarded me with a webpage similar to my own. His serial online fantasy of short stories had striking artwork and alluring title. I was also seeking a frequently updated website to take my mind off of the bitterness of Reddit, so I found myself clicking the ad link many days in a row only to stop reading after the first paragraph each time, so it was the quintessential right place and right time, wrong material.

What made the writing so bad?

Well, I felt the story summarized the events without painting a picture. You have little understanding of the world or the character. It’s not that you’re overwhelmed with confusion, but that you don’t care. What’s going on within the character is unclear and underdeveloped, and, most importantly, each sentence doesn’t respond to any other’s existence. He tells the story like he’s listing events, with no sense for perspective, tension, mood, or point.

In other words, you could scramble the paragraph and it wouldn’t affect the rhythm or flow.

What does a sentence responding to another look like? Is that something that’s important? From my experiences reading amateur fiction, I’d say yeah. Understanding how sentences can connect to each other is a very simple way of improving the sound of your writing.

Standalone Sentences

A standalone sentence makes its point without implying follow-up or requiring preamble. That point does not have to be deep; “She had blonde hair,” clearly exists to give a description of the character. While it’s not enough information to be a story or interesting, it does not need more explanation before you consider the thought finished. Typically, a standalone sentence can be easily moved anywhere in the paragraph and still work. Deleting the sentences around it does not cause a comprehension or flow problem. It also doesn’t have an obvious next step. It could change subjects without it feeling like a lost thread. It also does not need to be simple, merely that the subject and action of the sentence are clear and feel finished.

There is nothing wrong with stand-alone sentences, and you will find that you use them often. The problem becomes when every sentence is independent of those around it, making the writing feel clunky as if the thoughts aren’t streamed together.

Leading Sentences

Conversely, a leading sentence implies that the thought isn’t finished, or brings up an interesting question that the reader wants answered. “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair,” might not go into why, but it makes the reader feel like it should. A leading sentence often becomes attached to the following sentences and they must both exist (at some point) for it to feel complete. Leading sentences, in contrast to supportive sentences, are usually concept based; their style could allow them to be placed later, turning them into a conclusion instead of an introduction, but they still often need to be kept in the same area.

Supportive Sentences

Supportive sentences give a follow up on the information already provided. They might be capable of being a stand-alone except for the existence of the leading sentence requires them to be nearby to make sense: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. Light colored eyebrows made a woman look like a chimp.”

Supportive sentences often use pronouns to reference pre-established subjects: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. It reminded him of his mother.”

Sometimes they need some information prior for them to be understood or to have proper spatial continuity: “She started cutting her nails with scissors,” may require her to find the scissors first, otherwise the audience feels like they missed something.

Contrary to popular belief, starting a sentence with a conjunction is accepted grammar in unformal writing, useful in creative fiction to convey meaning, inflection, and evolution of thought. In the same vein, there are other phrases and words that directly tie one sentence to another: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. That didn’t exactly explain why he felt compelled to follow her around all of the time.”

Why does it matter? How to apply it?

When you have a series of standalone sentences, typically speaking, the rhythm of speech is repetitive, the information is slow, it’s unnuanced and can come off as juvenile. The author doesn’t have a lot of room to play with the duration of actions, and you don’t learn anything about the characters through descriptions. It’s often too explanatory and doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere. Mainly though, when a writer has an understanding of the narrator’s P.O.V. and tells the story from that perspective, they naturally write a narrative with a smoother evolution of thought and events and organic description of the world. When they write in an object sense, they tend to summarize and be removed.

“Brandon and Kara went hiking but were unprepared for the physical challenge. ‘Hiking is hard work,’ said Kara. She cupped her hands and drank from a limpid mountain steam. They were in the San Gabriel Mountains and from their elevation could see Los Angeles and the smog in the distance. In Los Angeles city people lived in tiny apartments. The tiny apartments had tiny windows.”

I might add this author does this intentionally, admitting that he wants to be like Hemingway in his simplicity. It’s a style, but one that I’m pointing out due to the clear way it affects the flow (which is a choice you may want at some point.) The thoughts are disjointed from another and can be moved around fairly easily. The drinking of the stream isn’t what inspires the narrator to think about where they are; the author includes it because it’s information he wants the reader to know and feels it’s the right location for the bigger story, not typical train of thought. He also (intentionally) doesn’t use pronouns very often, which makes something that normally flows together (the windows in the apartments) feel like separate thoughts as well.

But, there are a good number of writers who do this unintentionally, and if you find this as clunky and Dick-and-Jane-ish as I do, then there’s a couple of ways to watch out for it.

Figure out the P.O.V. character

Writers can get unwittingly hung up on being objective. If you consciously decide to go that route for whatever reason, many writers can make it work and it certainly can serve a purpose. But most people read because they want to feel a human connection and see different perspectives on the world. Even a fantasy fiction writer will often have a much more charismatic style when the story is told through a human lens instead of a robotic camera, and readers learn more from (yes even fiction) writers who are honest about their opinions on humanity, the way the world works, and what’s important.

Who is telling the story and how do they think? Is it Kara? Charles? Another character? God? The author himself? All of the above? You are creatively free to decide whatever you like, just so long as you know whose voice is being conveyed and at what times. Description is typically not objective, and the way that Kara or Charles or God describe something won’t be the same. How the story is told teaches the reader more about the people involved than when you’re just stating facts.

Next, consider alternative ways to tell a story instead of linear events

Paragraphs of only description tend to be victim to too many standalone sentences. This is because when you’re depicting a stagnant image, the order of the objects doesn’t exactly matter, so many authors will start listing thing. Using the P.O.V. character, however, you get better ideas about how to make the description flow naturally. Kara bends down to take a drink from the pond, sees the reflection of Charles staring out at the city, and so turns to the city herself. The narrative now flows together, incorporating the descriptions naturally, and you don’t feel like you’re clinically being handed information.

Authors also don’t have to describe an entire scene first, just because the objects were there first, but can progress the events of a scene by sprinkling description throughout. Mentioning objects and places as the character notices them will make it feel more organic and less bogged down with artsy long passages of what every thing looks like.

Also, the same applies when avoiding a practical play-by-play during the actions of the scene, which is important because…

Length of sentence implies duration of action.

Telling the story in the way a person would remember it or in order of what they saw makes it easier to control the duration of an action. Punching someone is fairly quick. Driving down the freeway is much longer. However, when it takes the same amount of time to describe it, to the reader, it doesn’t feel like the timing is right and tension is decreased.

“Davi went to sleep on the second story of a large inn. Despite this, he woke up the next morning staring at the sky on a slab surrounded by debris. Half the roof sat at an angle next to him on the ground. A drop of dew fell off before the wind caught it and directed straight to his forehead.”

The major problem here really is the length—they’re all the same size despite each taking grossly different times to do. And in many cases in this story, the author “zooms in” on small, quick events like the drop hitting him in the forehead, while glossing over things that would have taken much longer, (falling asleep, traveling a good distance) and things that are much more important and interesting (like the revelation that the inn was gone.)

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but his actual pacing consistently fights his desired tension. The jokes don’t land, the fear doesn’t grow, and the timing is generally off. The length of his sentences don’t serve a greater purpose, and they tend to lack that narrative flow I’m speaking about.

By thinking of the character’s mindset about all of this—even if the author decides he doesn’t want to describe the internal aspects—and following his train of thought, connecting some ideas to one another, the prose would be less clunky and more indicative of the mood the author wanted. Though I know it was unintentional, it was clear that he wanted each idea self-contained. Being in a large inn, waking up, the debris, and the dew drop were all separate thoughts and had their own single sentences. However, many of them should have been broken up into separate ideas and given transitions connecting them to one another. The reader needs to be given time to adjust to the normalcy of falling asleep at the inn, then comprehend it is suddenly gone, then look for clues about what had happened. Based on the speed in which the story is told, it feels like the character has already accepted the strangeness of the situation long before the reader even comprehends what exactly they are looking at.

Read the story. Out loud, but also not.

Sometimes beginning authors find themselves overwhelmed to what they’re supposed to be looking for when editing, and I never feel like there’s a lot of specifics other than forbidden words. When I started writing, it was a long and confusing path to really identify what cause contributed to what effect, without many people being helpful. Looking for the above signs and understanding how they related to each other took me longer to figure out than I wanted.

But, all that being said, most times, you will see things you can improve simply by reading what you’ve written. Most people suggest to do it out loud, and in this case, the lack of cadence really will become obvious by doing this. Mostly though, read your own writing. It’s the best advice I can offer and really doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s less of an ego punch than being told, and most people are fairly savvy about what they need to do with their writing all by themselves—just so long as they sit down and actually look at what they’ve done.

Your story should flow from sentence to sentence, thought to thought, and how a story is told gives you just as much information about what’s being said. Check your writing for mechanical tendencies, and remember that people like people, even if it is a love-hate relationship.

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