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).