Monday, August 6, 2012

Writing Great Sentences

Once again, I'm delving into teachings from Priscilla Long's excellent book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, to pull specific information on writer's craft that is key to all of us. This is the third Monday in a row I've referred to this book so, as you might guess, it's one that is chock full of superb information to help us write our stories. Today's topic: sentences.

The basic building block of stories, sentences are so important that no writer can afford to ignore the importance of knowing basic sentence structures and how to use them well. As Long says, "All really good writers use fragments. They repeat words and phrases as a saxophonist repeats notes and phrases. They use parallel structures to express parallel thoughts. They write very short sentences and they write very long sentences. They write list sentences, that is, sentences that contain a list."

Here are a few of the types of sentences Long talks about, with examples:

List: "They haven't seen our gardens full of lemongrass, mint, cilantro, and basil." (Le Thi Diem Thuy, "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," 197)

Making a sentence perform its own meaning/do what it says: "Each of the stone steps up to the heavy wooden doorway is worn in the middle into a smooth hollow. All those years of weight in the same place, like a promise kept and kept and kept." (Helen Humphreys, The Lost Garden, 15)

When a sentence expresses physical action, making it move the same way the action does: "The gong rings. No fooling this time. The dwarfs set to. They clinch. The referee parts them. One swings a cruel upper-cut and knocks the other down. A huge head hits the floor. Pop! . . . ." (Jean Toomer, Cane, 67)

Making a sentence accumulate, as in accumulating a disaster at a farmhouse: "The sifter's handle was bent, the clocks didn't work, the wooden blocks were covered with scribbling, the Magic Markers were dried up, the sofa was filthy, the wing chair was ripped, the stereo was missing half the knobs, the books had been gnawed on, by children, or mice." (Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World, 252)

Other sentence types covered: fragments, the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex (and compound-complex) sentence.

Long provides explanations, examples, and exercises for learning to write great sentences. Her primary recommendation: before you start practicing different sentence structures, make sure you know two things cold:

  • the prepositional phrase (and the critical importance of never separating a preposition from its complement*)
  • and distinguishing between a clause (which has a subject and a verb) from a phrase.  
She explains these concepts in detail and why they are so important. 


If this sounds like something you could grow from, you will never regret getting a copy of The Writer's Portable Mentor.

*examples of prepositions and their complements: at (preposition) the store (complement); during (preposition) the summer (complement); despite (preposition) the cold (complement).


13 comments:

  1. Ah, this is my kind of post. The annoying thing about using so many fragments is that the grammar checker hates them! Love the examples from Long. I must get the book. :D

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    1. Well, Denise, I say Fie on grammar checkers! :) Priscilla Long is terrific.

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  2. Love your examples. And glad to hear fragments are okay because I like to use them for thoughts and dialogue. They make the thoughts and dialogue sound more realistic.

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    1. I love using fragments, too, Natalie. It makes the flow so much more natural.

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  3. This is fascinating Linda. I just added her book to my list on Amazon. So... on those prepositional phrases, with the compliment. Do you have an example of how someone would screw this up and not write it correctly? Hopefully I haven't done just that in this comment. :)

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    1. Yeah, it's kind of mind-twisting to think about, Karlene, although we use prepositional phrases constantly. Here's an example of misuse: "Ginny did a lot of the work, WITHOUT any of the others who were others who were working on the project, day and night, giving her any ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. (Also, prepositional phrases can have more than one word as the preposition and one word as the complement. I'm thinking it's an interesting basic thing to study.)

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    2. It is very interesting, thanks. And my book will be here in two to three days. :)

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  4. This book just sounds better and better each week! I love the detail to sentence structure. As I learn more about sentence structure I feel it is strengthening my writing and helping the tone of my books so much. Thank you for introducing us to this book!

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    1. This kind of attention to important structural detail really does do that, Heather. You'll love this book!

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  5. Really interesting. I've recently trained myself to avoid stock phrases such as "he was feeling", "he felt". I'd guess "despite feeling the cold" would qualify under this! Not "cutting up" such phrases, I suppose, takes this one step further...

    Although it's much less easy to ferret out where prepositional phrases have been mangled than searching for stock phrases in a WIP! :(

    Em

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    1. I find the ferreting out very challenging, Em. My mother said a run-on sentence the other day that was an absolute beauty of separating the preposition from its complement (with a clause that was way longer than the rest of the sentence), but can I remember it? Nooo.

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  6. Love this blog and want to get this book. However, I can't find it as an eBook. Is it not available for Kindle?

    I'm so glad to hear fragments are okay because sometimes, they're my best friend.

    Thank you for sharing Linda.

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    1. So glad it's useful, Reneeann. As for the book, I didn't realize it wasn't available on Kindle. Darn! I got mine the old school way at a bookstore (in paper, too--maybe that's the only way it's available.

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