Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sentence Sense

When you think of it, a novel is just one sentence after another until The End. So every sentence needs lots of attention. But there’s so much to sort through. You know the drill:

  • Be concise.
  • Be parallel.
  • Be rhythmic.
  • Be varied.
Yet these sometimes conflict. Add extra words for rhythm or parallelism—and you’re inefficient. Perhaps you wish that sentences functioned more like math. Aside from a few mysteries like infinity and negative numbers,  2 + 2 will always yield the same satisfying result. What to do if sentences are your tools?

Tip: Accept that rules relating to language usually have exceptions. Context is king.

Neighboring sentences exert tremendous impact. For example, a long sentence might be glorious on its own, but odious if it’s the fourth lengthy one in a row. Despite context and exceptions, some rules apply. Usually.

~ Too much grammar can hurt.
How many characters can credibly say “It is I?”

~ Too little grammar can hurt.
After completing the aerobics session, a tiny waist is assured. Eek.

~ Connect cleverly.
The word “and” suggests that everything is equal and that nothing ever causes anything else and that nothing depends on anything else. And that’s not true.

Reserve “and” for equal items or moments:”She loved her brother and her sister equally.”

When there’s disparity, use words that capture progression or inequality: “She checked her watch, then gulped her coffee.”  Or “Because he loved her beyond anything, he let her pilfer small change without confronting her.”

~ Beware doubling up.
Do you really need to say that “Ann glowered and made a fist”? Writers offer two gestures from habit plus a sneaking suspicion that neither gesture is quite right.

~ Emphasize.
A long sentence in a series of short ones will accomplish that. So will the reverse.

~ Train your ear.

Notice sentences you love—or don’t. What turns you on—or off? What better way to sensitize yourself to the sound of the sentences that compose your novel? Sentences are the engine that transports the plot. Give them the attention they deserve.

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