Today I’m going to look at sentence construction on the micro level, particularly at the effect of word placement. This is something I don’t stop to think about until my second and third draft; in first drafts I just want to get the bones down as quickly as possible. But as I’m revising my work, I will keep an eye open for opportunities to strengthen the prose by getting the words in each sentence in just the right order, and one of the primary things I look at are the word or phrase at the very beginning and (especially) the very end of each sentence.
What’s so special about the ending of sentences?
The answer will sound flip, but it’s true. What’s special about the end of the sentence is that’s where you’ll find the period (or question mark, or exclamation mark).
Because when the reader gets to the punctuation mark at the end of each sentence, they pause. It may only be for a micro-fraction, but that’s punctuation’s job: to make the reader pause. When they do so, that last word or phrase lingers, giving it extra weight.
Consider this: In my first draft of this essay, the opening sentence originally ended this way: “…particularly at the effect word placement has.” With “has” as the last word, the sentence ends on puff of empty air. It’s weak. But with a slight rearranging, the sentence reads “…particularly at the effect of word placement,” and now there is something solid. The reader knows concretely what I’m going to be talking about.
So one of the things you can accomplish by carefully considering your sentence’s last word(s) is to take some of the fluff out of your writing.
What else can it do?
Just now I pulled out my copy of David Coe’s novel, The Sorcerer’s Plague, randomly flipped it open, and found this: “After a moment, the bloody mixture in her hand began to swirl, as if stirred by some invisible hand.”
By ending on “invisible hand,” David places his ‘ending emphasis’ on the most magical element. All of the same information could have been conveyed by writing: “After a moment it appeared as if some invisible hand was stirring the bloody mixture and it began to swirl.” But the point isn’t the ‘swirling,’ it’s the magic, so the focus needs to be on the invisible hand.
If this were a horror novel, or David was going for a more horrific feel in this scene, he would probably have focused more on the bloody hand by writing, “After a moment it began to swirl, as if some invisible hand was stirring the bloody mixture.”
Again, the information is exactly the same in all three versions, but the order the information is presented in, especially the emphasis given to what comes last, has a significant effect on the feeling the reader takes away from it.
Now, to a lesser extent, this is also true of the power/effect of the word or phrase that begins a sentence. And to an equal extent, it is also true for the first and last sentence in any paragraph.
As I’ve said before, this isn’t something you should worry about during your first draft, but as you’re reviewing subsequent drafts keep it in mind, especially when revising any sections that don’t flow well or don’t have the emotional impact you had in mind when you first wrote it.
It’s definitely not something to obsess over – trying to apply this principle to every sentence you write could lead to insanity – but it can be a useful/helpful tool during the revision process.