Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing a Better Sentence

by Kelley Lindberg


When it comes right down to it, writing only involves two things: a good story, and the ability to tell it well.

Well, that’s simple enough.

Okay, maybe not.

Obviously, the most fundamental building block of being able to “tell it well” is the sentence. A benign-looking little thing, really. A subject (noun), a predicate (verb), and perhaps a bit of descriptive stuff (adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc.). Hang them all together and voila: a sentence!

But clearly it’s in the way you hang them all together that the magic happens. So how do you elevate a basic sentence into an extraordinary one? It goes beyond simple word choice. You must consider meaning, flavor, intention, accuracy, tautness, personality, and rhythm, just for starters. Even experienced writers (or maybe especially experienced writers) spend hours crafting, shaping, and molding sentences to not just accurately express the emotions and images they are trying to convey, but to maximize their impact.

In a guest blog post called “How to Write a Sentence” (on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website), Scottish writer Hal Duncan has written one of the best descriptions of sentence-building I’ve ever read. In it, he takes a dreadful sentence from a 1970 novel and proceeds to deconstruct it, then reconstruct it, in an effort to “…see if we can’t perform a little alchemy, transform it… well, if not into gold then at least into a serviceable steel.”

Here is the original, painful sentence:

“A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarians hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade to the hilt into the soldiers vital organs.”

Duncan’s article isn’t Sentence-Building 101. It’s definitely an advanced take on a deceptively simple idea. His breakdown of the sentence is truly enlightening, so for a crash course in sentence-rehab, be sure to read “How to Write a Sentence.” (Tender sensibilities warning: Duncan is quite fond of—and proficient in—salty language. Don’t let that stop you from reading it, though.)

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