On Wordsmithing: Backloading for Power

KalaynaKalayna
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There are many elements to a successful story. When we think about how one tells a good story, we tend to jump to topics like believable characters or plot arcs. These are, of course, essential. But there are smaller, less noticeable elements that can be employed to keep a reader engaged. One of these is word order.

Books are written word by word and readers digest them in the same fashion. We’ve all heard the advice to pick strong verbs and choose descriptive words. This is very important, but equally important is where in a sentence and/or paragraph we place those power words. The term “Backloading” refers to placing power words at the end of a sentence to increase impact.

Why would placing your power words at the end of sentences make them stronger? Because when our eyes hit a period, we pause. When we hit the end of a paragraph we pause longer. And the end of a chapter? Yeah, you get the point. The word right before that pause gets emphasis in our brain because it sticks with us during that pause. Think of it as a bell that resounds longer than other words. Knowing that, it is clear that giving your reader the strongest image/word to stick in their brain will ramp up your writing.

Consider this very simple example as an ending line of a chapter:

I ran because I had no choice.

vs

I had no choice. I ran.

Now both of these are  simple with verbs that that aren’t very exciting. That said, the word order in the first sentence puts the final emphasis on the word “choice” where as in the second lets the word “ran” resound. Which seems more immediate? Ending on the action verb “ran” right?

Let’s look at something a little more complicated.

She lashed out with jagged nails that sliced scythe-like through the air.

vs

She lashed out, her jagged nails slicing the air like a scythe.

Which sentence do you find more intense? Both say basically the same thing and both are perfectly good sentences, but most of you probably said that sentence two had a little more power. The word “scythe” is a very descriptive end note. It resounds. Nothing is wrong with the word “air” and that sentence appearing in a story would not be wrong–it just wouldn’t have quite as much power as it could.

Does this mean you need to try to backload every single sentence you write? No, of course not. Many times backloading would make the sentence cumbersome. It would be best to skip backloading if moving the power words to the end of the sentence would make it grammatically awkward.

So when is the best time to backload a sentence?

The ends of scenes/chapters are definitely a prime spots. Also, think about it whenever you want to put special emphasis on a word or idea. A good example of a place you might need extra emphasis would be when revealing a secret.

Backloading is also an idea you can use for whole sentences–not just words. If you have something important to say, it can sometimes get lost in the middle of a paragraph. Putting it at the end of the paragraph draws attention to the idea.

Example:

    The footsteps drew closer and I held my breath, crouching lower in my hiding spot. The door opened and light filled the room, leaving me blind. I blinked rapidly, anxious for my eyes to adjust. My vision returned slowly, revealing first the outline of a person, then the navy blue jacket and narrow shoulders of a woman with a mop of blonde hair. I gasped. Mary. It couldn’t be. She couldn’t be the spy. But then what was she doing here? Mary turned as if she’d heard my sound of dismay, and I tensed . . . /

vs

     The footsteps drew closer and I held my breath, crouching lower in my hiding spot. The door opened and light filled the room, leaving me blind. I blinked rapidly, anxious for my eyes to adjust. My vision returned slowly, revealing first the outline of a person, then the navy blue jacket and narrow shoulders of a woman with a mop of blonde hair. I gasped. Mary.
      It couldn’t be. She couldn’t be the spy. But then what was she doing here?
     Mary turned as if she’d heard my sound of dismay, and I tensed . . . /

Okay, so that’s a very quickly written example, but do you see how the reveal that Mary was the woman who’d entered the room got a little lost in the middle of the first paragraph? In the second, that reveal ends the paragraph and jumps out at the reader.

Backloading can be a very powerful tool in your wordsmithing arsenal. It isn’t something that should slow you down when you’re writing a first draft, but it can add some extra umph to your sentences so should be considered when you’re revising.

That’s it for me today. Have a happy Thursday everyone. I hope this post helps you ramp up your word power!

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17 comments to On Wordsmithing: Backloading for Power

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this post Kalayna. This is definitely helpful stuff to think about, especially as I’m just about ready to gather myself for a big chunk of revisions. I’ve been wondering what to do in the cases where certain pieces of information need to be made clear to the reader from the beginning, and now I think I’ll look at using this technique when that stuff is giving me trouble. Again, thanks. :-D

  • Love this, Kalayna. Great advice, terrific examples. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s so important. Sentences with umph, as you put it, can make the difference between a manuscript that leaves an editor flat, and one that makes the sale.

  • Kalayna, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post on this here at MW. Excellent post and wonderful examples. I hope our readers will keep this one handy!

  • Cindy

    This is very helpful. Thanks. Something to use on a rewrite, not a first draft, but I will keep it handy.

  • This is great. I really like the examples. I’ll definitely keep this handy for when I’m ready to revise.

  • Thank you for giving this a name, Kalayna. I like this technique, and I have typically been doing this already, but there’s a difference between having nebulous general idea and actually knowing. Now I can be more conscious about it! :)

  • A. R. Gideon

    Something I’ve never thought about, but makes a lot of sense. I’ve been looking at some of the passages that I’ve written down that really stuck out to me, and every single one does this. I’m going to have to look back over my writing, some of the stuff that seems like it needs to be fixed might just need to be backloaded.

  • Megan B.

    While I was aware of this concept, I had not thought of using it to emphasize important information that was not getting across properly. There is certainly info in my WIP that beta readers seemed to be missing. This may be the answer. Thanks for the great post.

  • This is a great use of a known linguistic fact – which is that in English the end of a sentence often carries Informational Focus/New Information. Some people theorize that this is often used to help in language processing. You want to start with information that people already know or assume and end with the new things. If you start with something new, it can be confusing.

    This happens all over the place. Why do we say “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe” rather than “An old woman lived in a shoe.” or even “In a shoe lived an old woman.” Both the shoe and the old woman are new information, so you don’t want to start the sentence with either. But what’s the most surprising piece of info? The shoe. So the shoe ends up in the focus position to let the listener know that this is not going to be what they expected.

    Making use of this naturally focused position is a great strategy! And not using it is a missed opportunity.

  • This is great, Kalayna. Thanks. We could follow similar models for paragraphs, chapter etc. Always end strong. Nicely put.

  • quillet

    Wow, this is fantastic. I think I did this instinctively sometimes, sort of by accident, but seeing it explained so clearly is extremely helpful. I’ll look out for these moments when I’m revising, now. Thank you so much!

  • Vyton

    Kalayna, really great. I’m going to back through my WIP and see where I can give it some more umph. I think I may have some important parts buried in the middle of paragraphs.

  • Ken

    Great post! I try to do the same thing for chapters and scenes. I think, as with most things, that when you start to get down to the nitty-gritty details, it all depends on the sentence. I noticed in the weaker sentence types, there were places that I naturally “sort-of” paused while reading. It was in places where words like “Because” and “With” showed up.
    “She lashed out with…”
    The stronger version of that example took “With” right out. Those kinds of words almost act like literary speed bumps if they’re in the wrong place at the right time.

  • Razziecat

    This is something I learned from reading, but it’s good to be more aware of this technique, so I can make a conscious effort to use it.

    And Cara’s remarks brought this classic sentence to mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” :)

  • Oddly enough, one of the criticisms I’ve had was my use of commas and sentence order. Having read this great article I now realise I was backloading too many sentences without realising it. As a result a lot of my paragraphs were difficult to read.
    This is why I keep coming back to Magical Words. Thanks.

  • Vhaudikas

    This is great advice. I have done this unconsciously not knowing what I was doing. Now I know what to look for and to play around with it. Thank you.

  • TwilightHero

    Hehehe. Not sure how I first stumbled on this technique, but I’ve been doing it – intentionally – for years. Maybe it was noticing how single lines after larger blocks of text carry more impact, and the best chapter endings I read always seemed to be single lines… Great post. To paraphrase a line from the Wheel of Time, small changes can be just as important as large :)