Monday, August 29, 2011

MFA Monday: Sentence Structure as Plot Device

I admit that before going back to school, I never really thought about how I wrote. I worried about elements such as plots and characters and setting, all those good things you learn in middle school and high school, and I learned somewhere along the way that it's best to choose stronger verbs than relying on the lazy "was" verb to show action.

But when it came to stringing words together, I think I leaned heavily on instinct. Does it sound right? Does it flow? It's not that the pattern of writing was unconscious, but that I didn't know why I should choose one way of writing over another.

"Vary sentence length" I'd been taught. And so I did. Not for any reason but that I thought sentences needed to be different lengths.

I was partly oblivious to the importance of sentence structure. I knew not to start every sentence with a noun and verb, especially the pronouns "I" or "she" or "he," to vary the first words with gerunds and participles and phrases, but that was only because I thought it would bore the reader to have every sentence the same, not because I thought it had any real impact on the story.

About halfway through editing Some Kind of Normal, my editor wrote me an email saying, "I don't know why I didn't notice before, but you use a lot of simple compound sentences." I didn't notice it either, but when I went through the chapters I realized I'd done that because, to my ear, that's how my narrator sounded. It was her "cadence" of talking, and though I didn't do it on purpose, I secretly patted myself on the back for "hearing" Babs' voice. (Although I'm not sure a pat on the back is what my editor had in mind when she pointed this fact out!)

But one thing I've learned lately is that sentence structure IS important. Even if your reader will never notice you doing it, the way a sentence is laid out on a page, the way it is put together, the way multiple sentences are strung together, impact the telling of a story. They impact the mood, the tension, the pacing.

In the latest chapter I sent to a friend, he pointed out that when the tension should have been going through the roof, I'd slowed it down by writing in long sentences with lots of phrases and clauses. At the climax of the scene he wrote in the margins:

I’d still suggest trimming back on the length of the sentences as the action drives ahead—too much comma-comma-comma makes me lose the heart-pounding edge to the scene. What if each motion was its own sentence here? “She took a step. Billy didn’t notice. Chastity did; her eyes locked onto Katie at once. The young girl yelped. Billy turned.” You’d do a better job of it, but do you see what I mean?

Indeed I did see what he meant! In fact, one of the faculty had given a talk in the residency about that very thing, but without context for me to put it into, I hadn't personalized what she was saying. But now I see! 

Longer sentences slow down the exposition. They are for places when you want the reader to slow down. To keep them from getting to a place faster, to let them sit and linger, to draw out the tension.

Short, choppy sentences add to the tension. They quicken the pace of reading. The bring your reader into a sprint with you. They are like the rapid beating of a heart when the adreneline kicks in.

When a girl is facing her abusive father with a knife in her hand, drunk and high and hating him with everything she has in her, does it serve the narrative to write in long, lingering sentences? The answer was a resounding no.

I took my friend's advice and looked not just at that section but the entire chapter. When the main character is getting high and hanging around a bar parking lot with a guy she doesn't know, the sentences are now longer, wandering, like her thoughts.  When she is following her dad, unseen, there is a mix of short and long, the actions and her thoughts mixed. When she is facing her dad, when the tension is the highest, when the reader wants to know, is she going to use the knife, the sentences turn choppy, short, incomplete, breathless. 

It's amazing how much those little edits changed the pacing and tension of the entire chapter. I changed very few words. Without punctuation, the chapter would read almost identically. But with the newer punctuation, it morphed into something so much better. The sentence structure now mimics the plot.  

What about you? Do you think about how long or short your sentences are? Do you consider whether putting lots of phrases and clauses in- or cutting them out of - a sentence works for or against the plot? Or do you, like me, tend to work off instinct?


  1. "In the latest chapter I sent to a friend, he pointed out that when the tension should have been going through the roof, I'd slowed it down by writing in long sentences with lots of phrases and clauses. At the climax of the scene he wrote in the margins:"

    I don't catch this stuff in my writing, but I'm lucky that the members of my writing group do.

  2. I would have to say that I am like you...I work on instinct. I want the story to flow well, but I work mostly on instinct and then change things up during revision if I think it's necessary. :)

  3. Definitely instinct while trying haphazardly to apply "the rules." :) Anyway, I like it...Short sentences for tension building. Only I'm afraid to read your book. It scares me.

  4. Abby - I agree that instinct might be the best way to go to start. If I tried to do everything right in the first drafts I'd never get them written! :)

    Revision is good for all kinds of things, though, and maybe some books lend themselves to needing things that others don't. I don't know if I could sustain that level of detail to an entire novel.

  5. This is something I think about a lot with verse, where every word (the way it "sits" on the page) is important.

  6. Like you, I rely a lot on instinct, too. But I recently ran across a great series on writing sentences that made me rethink it all. Here's the link if you're interested:

    He is currently on part 9. :-)

  7. Congratulations! You've earned a blogger award! Swing by and pick it up. :)

  8. Great post Hiedi. I'm book-marking it to review after my first draft, where (like your 'Babs') my characters voice has taken over but I'm looking forward to when I get to have CONTROL again. Although before I begin revision I will need to review participles and gerunds again. :)

  9. Like you did, Heidi, I do tend to write "by instinct." And since my current WIP contains some action and mystery, I think I was subconsciously aware of my sentence lengths. But your post just really clarified it all for me. Thanks so much!!

    I love the analogy you made, having the writing pace/sentence structure match the rapid beating of a heart. Perfect!