Sentence Structure - how do you write yours?

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  1. #1
    Wɾʇ∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    Sentence Structure - how do you write yours?

    In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the beat. He doesn't go into too much technical detail about it but this is something I am conscious of; when I write, and read back, I find the writing has a beat, and if it doesn't, I want to put one in. I wonder if this is something lifted from poetry and songs, where accents and emphasis and rhythm all suggest something. I don't mean an overly repetitive rhythm, like:

    Bob heard a knock from the front of the house. He got up and put on his favourite slippers, but he could see nobody there, or anywhere nearby. He looked up and down the street, then stepped cautiously out into the afternoon sun.
    I mean something more akin to classical music where long passages, short ones, emphasis, climactic order, moments of silence, bursts of regular and/or irregular rhythms, repetition and so on all conspire to have a controlled effect; eg:

    Bob heard a knock. Not a pounding, but nor was it a genteel tappity-tap-tap either, just a straightforward rat-a-tat-tat, all business, seeming to come from the front of the house. He got up and slid on his slippers. Was he expecting a delivery? Bob didn't think he was. He pulled the handle.

    The door squeaked open.

    Nobody. Nothing there, not even some kids playing knock-down-ginger, squealing off into the afternoon sun. He stepped out. One had shielded his eyes from the sun.
    While these are just a pair of hastily-dashed-off noddy paragraphs, the second one seems to me to have more effect. Reading it, I get the idea that someone might cosh old Bob on the back of the head, and it seems to be something to do with the mixture of long and short sentences, line breaks (thanks luckyscars ), inner and outer narraation (eg; a sentence of Bob's thoughts, followed by a sentence of the outside world), bits of ... dun, dun, dunnnn ... appropriate body language. The first one to me reads quite flat and dull and beige and it's all a bit blah. Even though it's the same set of events, and the same senses are engaged, it's just information. There's no music, no feeling, no tone or anything to it. With the second one, I find that as I try to capture the exact rhythm I want, my sentence structure necessarily changes. Words get swapped about to try and maximise impact and that automagically makes the writing seem fresher and more engaging (to me anyway!)

    Does anyone else see that? Do you think about this stuff as you write & edit?




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    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
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  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by bdcharles View Post
    In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the beat. He doesn't go into too much technical detail about it but this is something I am conscious of; when I write, and read back, I find the writing has a beat, and if it doesn't, I want to put one in. I wonder if this is something lifted from poetry and songs, where accents and emphasis and rhythm all suggest something. I don't mean an overly repetitive sound, like:



    I mean something more akin to classical music where long passages, short ones, emphasis, climactic order, moments of silence and so on all conspire to have a controlled effect; eg:



    While these are just a pair of hastily-dashed-off noddy passages, the second one seems to me to have more effect. Reading it, I get the idea that someone might cosh old Bob on the back of the head, and it seems to be something to do with the mixture of long and short sentences, line breaks (thanks luckyscars ), inner and outer narraation (eg; a sentence of Bob's thoughts, followed by a sentence of the outside world), bits of ... dun, dun, dunnnn ... appropriate body language. The first one to me reads quite flat and dull and beige and it's all a bit blah. Even though it's the same set of events, and the same senses are engaged, it's just information. There's no music, no feeling, no tone or anything to it.

    Does anyone else see that? Do you think about this stuff as you write & edit?
    Yes, I find the second more effective. I do think about such thing while writing. However, I try to shelve them until editing because constant alterations put me off my stroke. One day, I may write the first draft like the second, but I need more practice before I achieve that.


  3. #3
    Wɾʇ∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil Istine View Post
    Yes, I find the second more effective. I do think about such thing while writing. However, I try to shelve them until editing because constant alterations put me off my stroke. One day, I may write the first draft like the second, but I need more practice before I achieve that.
    Oh gosh, yes, that's a good point. My internal editor is always there with me, never leaves my side, constantly points out the poor constructions etc. I'm trying the "just write" approach with my current WIP. Problem is, I like what that int.ed. has to say. It doesn't half put the brakes on a project, I tell you.




    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  4. #4
    I don't consciously think about this, no. But I think I naturally vary sentence length and sometimes write things because they just sound right in my head.

    (I was a bit worried about this lack of conscious attention so I went and read the passage in King and I am reassured. He says: "That beat is part of the genetic hardwiring (Kellerman writes a lot of frags because he hears a lot of frags), but it’s also the result of the thousands of hours that writer has spent composing, and the tens of thousands of hours he/she may have spent reading the compositions of others." And that's the way it works for me, too. It's ingrained, I think.)
    Last edited by Bayview; August 10th, 2018 at 06:18 PM.

  5. #5
    Seems, to me, like you're talking about giving the prose more vibrance by going deeper into the character's POV, letting their thoughts/feelings/personality influence the narration, instead of things feeling sterile and detached.

    If that's the point you're making, then I completely agree. I'm always trying to keep the narration quite close to the character's headspace. I'm also usually aware of triplets (and also aware of my tendency to overuse them). For example, in that first passage you quoted, there's the line:

    He looked up and down the street, then stepped cautiously out into the afternoon sun.

    To me, that line is begging for one more clause to be inserted into the middle of it, turning the sentence into a triplet. Like so:

    He looked up and down the street, balled his hands into fists, then stepped cautiously out into the afternoon sun.

    But I also try to break my triplets up for the same reason (as I naturally tend to use them a bit too much for comfort).

    Sometimes I like it when fiction reads like poetry, with its own rhythm and cadence. Other times though, as a reader, I just want it to be a wild, beautiful mess—and I try to remind myself, as a writer, that a looser, less-controlled approach is also a completely acceptable way to write.

  6. #6
    I don't consciously worry about rhythm or beats. I do tend to use shorter words and sentences to convey urgency or someone in a hurry. And I use longer sentences when time is dragging for a chatacter. But even that is more natural and subconscious.

  7. #7
    The phonetic quality of words and sentences is vital. Not necessarily to meaning but to the enjoyment of the piece.

    This dovetails with the thread I started regarding intentional interruptions in paragraphs -- I am not sure if that was intended or not. The meter of a sentence matters. Pacing and the way flow alternates according to the way eyes move across the page/words feed into the brain/then spill out from the lips (sometimes) is often just as important as the actual language. Entirely through subtle changes in pacing alone one can make an orgy sound dull.

    I agree it does not need to be a conscious concern. As Bayview mentioned, this is not really a question of picking a style so much as it is picking what sounds right. On the other hand, one must only look at the absolute dross that is frequently churned out (particularly in self-publishing) and see that, actually, a good number of these would-be thriller/horror/fantasy/romance novelists clearly need a kick in the pants as far as how, not what, they write. I have certainly read a lot of writing that sounds like the first paragraph.

    I think with regular writing practice with plenty of trial and error and lots of reading most writers should be able to get to grips with this sort of without thinking and operate according to it as easily as a basketball player bounces a ball. The problem is, of course, most writers do not read or write nearly as often as they should.
    "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened."

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  8. #8
    The problems with the first paragraph bdcharles posted have far more to do with basic construction than phonetic quality, rhythm, rhyme or beats.

    As it stands, it's boring, overly stressing meaningless stuff, and doesn't flow well. Choosing 'better' words to say the same thing in the same order doesn't really fix the problem.

    What is trying to be accomplished? Suspense? It doesn't achieve that. Getting into Bob's head, feeling his confusion turning to wary concern would be better. (Starting with why Bob was laying down in the middle of the afternoon would also help.)

    It's the character's thoughts and feelings that drive the emotional aspect of any story. Without that, you have two dimensional figures moving about, like a very old Disney short featuring Mickey Mouse.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack of all trades View Post
    The problems with the first paragraph bdcharles posted have far more to do with basic construction than phonetic quality, rhythm, rhyme or beats.


    As it stands, it's boring, overly stressing meaningless stuff, and doesn't flow well. Choosing 'better' words to say the same thing in the same order doesn't really fix the problem.


    What is trying to be accomplished? Suspense? It doesn't achieve that. Getting into Bob's head, feeling his confusion turning to wary concern would be better. (Starting with why Bob was laying down in the middle of the afternoon would also help.)


    It's the character's thoughts and feelings that drive the emotional aspect of any story. Without that, you have two dimensional figures moving about, like a very old Disney short featuring Mickey Mouse.

    Hmm...I suggest in order to roundly dismiss that it is a phonetic/rhythmic (nobody mentioned rhyme and I think "beats" means the same as rhythm) issue you should explain and expand on your alternative view. "Basic construction" is not a codified term in literary criticism (not in my textbook anyway...) and therefore could mean anything, from spelling to grammar to meter to use of imagery and so on. It also includes phonetics. What do you mean by saying the "basic construction" of Paragraph 1 is poor but that it isn't to do with how the sentences feel to read? What else is there that could be wrong?


    Well, you gave something of an explanation, only unfortunately it does not entirely make sense. At least not to me, but perhaps I am a numpty. Way I see it, Paragraph One is objectively not any more meaningless than Paragraph Two: It means exactly what it says, which is about some guy getting out of bed to a knock. This is more or less the same meaning as the second. "it doesn't flow well" -- again, the only thing that could possibly mean is exactly what I said which is that it is rather monotone and flat, so essentially an issue of phonetics/rhythm (or "beats" if you like -- what is the difference between rhythm and beats by the way?) Don't know what "overly stressing" means in the context of writing.

    As for being boring...well, it is more boring in the context of fiction but who is to say this is fiction? If it was a fragment from a newspaper article nobody would have a problem. One important point that actually makes comparing these two paragraphs futile is that the second actually carries a lot more information than the first. This makes it impossible to form a completely fair comparison between the two in terms of style -- everybody prefers the version that says more.


    The wider point that sentence structure and rhythm is vital stands and I agree that the old cliche about "getting into heads" is generally true, however if we are going to critique the two excerpts posted (which I don't think was the point of the thread) one need not take it for granted that the way the second paragraph is written is better in all circumstances, nor that there is anything innately wrong with the first besides the fact it is phonetically dry. Certainly not in terms of "basic construction".
    "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened."

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  10. #10
    Forum Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    The process is a lot like an athlete's: once you've practiced enough and bettered your craft, you start falling into writing zones where the ideas just zip out of your mind like a basketball player draining shot after shot. From an outside perspective, it almost looks like some sort of trance.

    Then you go back and smooth out the rough spots that looked slick in your trance.

    I think this is very common with poets. Remember Wordsworth: poetry being the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. But also remember that Wordsworth was a master of craft, spending years sometimes reworking a poem. So there's a spark that is informed by practice and thought, and then the spark is cleaned up in revision.

    That's my philosophy, anyway.
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

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