Sentence Structure — the Musical Soundtrack to our Writing

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BrokenSoulLoRezCoverWe talked a bit about sentence structure at one of the Cons this year, discussing how important it is to know the various ways to string words together. Sentence structure is one of the most important tools in the writer’s tool box. In fact, sentence structure is the background music to the movie of our book. It sets pace, rhythm, and voice.  It also contributes to the character and narrative voice. It can’t be over emphasized. But it is almost always under emphasized.

Let me illustrate.

The info I (the writer) want to convey to the audience (the readers) in the opening of a short story is:

  1.   Jane Yellowrock has a Harley named Bitsa.
  2.   Jane is riding Bitsa to a meeting withLeo Pellissier (her boss, a vampire, who bit her once).
  3.   Jane is in a hurry, driving through NOLA past Jackson Square.
  4.   It is raining and humid and the city smells different in the rain.
  5.   The storm drains are just now catching up with the hard rain and city waste.
  6.   It is August.
  7.   Jane is late.
  8.   She is wearing biker gear and Lucchese boots.
  9. Jane is a skinwalker. Smells and scents are much stronger to her than to a human.

There are many ways to write this information into pleasing and rhythmic sentences to avoid repetitious structure. I use first person POV, but it easily could be transposed into third.

Poorly written would be this method:

I rode my Harley, Bitsa, through New Orleans. I passed Jackson Square. It was raining and hot and muggy because it was August. The storm drains sucked the rain and trash away. The city smelled better after the rain. I was going to be late to the meeting called by Leo Pellissier, my boss, who had bitten me once.

It reads like a high school kid wrote it between gym class and English class. It’s just plain boring. But the same info can be restructured using gerunds (ing words) and rearranging the info in the paragraph in different ways, as well as changing the sentence structure to impart emotion. It can be personalized by adding character reactions. The version below is written to give emphasis on setting and voice; it is slow and offers more character and less conflict.

I gunned Bitsa between cars and around Jackson Square, the bike puttering, muttering, in the distinctive Harley rumble I loved. August rain splashed up from the steamy pavement washing debris, environmental pollutants, and the human stink of the town into the storm drain system. Pooled rain pelted my riding clothes and old Lucchese boots, soaking the leather. The heated rain filled the air with fresh scents, and if I wasn’t already late for a meeting with my boss, I’d have meandered, enjoying the French Quarter of New Orleans, but Leo Pellissier, Master of the City, wasn’t known for his pacific nature. I carried bad news, and was now late enough that he might threaten to drain me dry. I’d been bitten by those massive fangs once and I’d stake him before that happened again.

Now, let’s try the same info to impart a sense of urgency, as if the music sped up. We’ll do this several ways, mostly by offering negatives and a shorter, choppier sentence structure.

I gunned my Harley, its signature rumble reverberating through the narrow street, along the  close, brick buildings. Bending over the handlebar, my grip slipped in the heated rain. The bike stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement. I compensated, racing around Jackson Square. Both my bike Bitsa and I were soaked in the August storm, my old Lucchese boots ruined. I was late for a meeting with the vampire Master of the City of New Orleans, and the news I brought Leo Pellissier was gonna ruin his night. And maybe mine. I’d been bitten by those massive fangs once. I’d stake him before that happened again.

Notice the difference in the way the setting is presented. The writer offers mostly negatives about the setting and the negative results—grip slipping, loss of control of the motorcycle, tire spinning. There’s more emphasis on the speed and less on the rain itself. The sentences are shorter and choppier. There are fewer compound sentences (two sentences that are compounded into one, most often using the word *and*). Same info, but a totally different tone, based on the sentence structure and the particular info I concentrated upon.

Let’s look at the first few sentences of each example and then try different ways to structure that information (and the sentences) to achieve different ends. Each results in a slightly different emotional tone.

Original: I gunned Bitsa between cars and around Jackson Square, the bike puttering, muttering, in the distinctive Harley rumble I loved. August rain splashed up from the steamy pavement washing debris, environmental pollutants, and the human stink of the town into the storm drain system. Pooled rain pelted my riding clothes and old Lucchese boots, soaking the leather.

Version 2. I gunned my Harley, its signature rumble reverberating through the narrow street, along the  close, brick buildings. Bending over the handlebar, my grip slipped in the heated rain. The bike stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement.

New Variation 1: Gunning Bitsa, I bent over the handlebar, my grip slipping in the heated rain. The signature Harley rumble reverberated through the narrow street and close, brick buildings. The bike stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement. (This one takes the opening off the character and onto the bike and the setting. It’s less personal, and yet shows conflict.)

New Variation 2: The Harley stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement. I compensated and gunned Bitsa. Bending over the handlebar, my grip slipped in the heated rain. (This one is even less personal, and because of the tighter and shorter sentence structure, the sense of urgency and tension might be a bit higher. The information order might even suggest a sense of fear. Why? The question arises, why is she riding recklessly in the rain?)

New Variation 3. I bent over the handlebar, my grip slipping in the heated rain. The bike stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement. I gunned my Harley. (Here I went too far, cut too much info. However, I could leave it if I brought up the danger to/from Leo at the end.)

New Variation 4. My grip slipping in the heated rain, I bent over the handlebar, gunning Bitsa. The bike stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement. The signature Harley rumble reverberated through the narrow street and close, brick buildings. (I don’t like this one, but it could be personal preference. I like the next one best of them all, as it seems to suggest that urgency I was aiming for.)

New Variation 5. My grip slipped in the heated rain. The bike stuttered, the back tire spinning and squealing on wet pavement. Bent over the handlebar, I compensated. Gunned Bitsa. The signature Harley rumble reverberated through the narrow street and close, brick buildings.

There are myriad ways to structure words into sentences and each way results in some kind of emotional reaction from the reader, even if it’s just boredom—the one emotion we don’t want! But especially in the opening sentences, the writer’s goal is to bait and hook the reader, pulling into the story as fast as possible.

Oh – BLACK WATER, a compilation of 2 Jane Yellowrock short stories came out on Sept 16. BROKEN SOUL will be out on Oct 7.

Faith

Website:   http://faithhunter.net
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@hunterfaith
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5 comments to Sentence Structure — the Musical Soundtrack to our Writing

  • Faith this is awesome! I love the way you lay out, side by side, the changes that you made so that we can see how each one reads differently. The first one reads like a plot summary, not an actual moving novel. The others have the kind variations in tone and style that make a passage successful but that are so hard to explain. It’s easy to grasp that writing something slightly differently (word order, choice of verb forms, whatever) can make a passage so much better, but it is so hard to actually picture what the means in real words on the page. This illustrates it exactly, and I’ll bookmark it and come back when I’m writing and revising!

  • Thanks, Emily. When I was teaching myself to write, I did exercises like this quite often — Take a basic list of info to be shared with the reader, then lay it out in different ways, with a different emotional outcome. Sometimes I could redo the info in dozens of ways. 🙂

  • […] So when should you start planning your Nanowrimo novel? […]

  • Razziecat

    Love the way the tension increases with each revision. Very useful comparison. Thanks, Faith!