4 Methods to Invigorate Your Prose With Surprising Sentences

4 Methods to Invigorate Your Prose With Surprising Sentences

Good storytelling is all about the big pieces: structure, character, theme. But good writing? That’s much more intricate, much more intimate. Good writing is about creating purposeful and interesting prose.

Creating prose of that caliber starts with the mechanics of grammar and spelling. But any middle-schooler is supposed to be able to do that. The art of good prose is about taking sentences beyond functionality and turning them into something surprising.

In short, good writing is all about using the same old words and same old structures to create something new–something readers will never see coming. To a large extent, what this means is reinventing the form–and not just in a once-in-a-lifetime-if-you-get-lucky kind of way. Nope. This is about reinventing yourself and your writing with every word choice.

Not sure you can do that? Consider four ways you can invigorate your prose into something special by injecting the element of surprise into every single sentence.

1. Anticipate Reader Expectations–and Avoid Them

Cliches are rampant–and to some extent, unavoidable. Humans think in cliches. In part, this is because most of us experience similar reactions to the similar things we encounter in our daily lives. In part, it is because the very prevalence of cliches has conditioned us to experience things similarly. And, in another part, it is because our brains are just plain lazy.

Inevitably, we write sentences and include descriptions that tap into these shared experiences and over-trod familiarities. Cliches come into our own minds so easily that it’s instinctive to also put them on the page. Half the time, we may not even realize we’re using cliches.

The problem is that our readers’ own familiarity with these phrases and ideas means they will anticipate our language every single time. The lack of surprise, even on a subconscious level, will suck the life out of our prose.

all the light we cannot see anthony doerrIn a October 2014 interview with The Writer magazine, novelist Anthony Doerr suggested that we, instead:

…think about language by its degree of strangeness…. [I] don’t want the sentences to feel entirely familiar, either. If I find myself describing a character’s eyes, for example, I’m probably going to try to avoid verbs like “glint,” or “sparkle” because those are verbs a reader has seen paired beside “eyes” many times before–maybe so many times that they have lost some of their original power.

2. Discover the Possibilities of the Unexplored in Your Prose

Never settle for the first descriptive word or phrase to come to mind as you’re typing a scene. Dig deeper. There exists a wide vista of unexplored possibilities within every word choice. Sometimes changing a single word is all it takes to invigorate your prose from something common and forgettable to something that sparks your readers’ imaginations–and even changes their way of looking at the world.

Your readers’ brains will subconsciously fill in blanks as they read your story. By the time they’ve read only half of a sentence, their brains will already be anticipating the second half. When the second half ends up surprising them–when it ends up avoiding the cliche–they automatically experience a pleasant jolt. A blank opens up within your story, and their brains race to catch up with it.

Maps of the Imagination Peter TuchiIn that same interview, Doerr quoted Heather McHugh from Peter Truchi’s Maps of the Imagination:

Given a blank we can’t help trying to fill it in along lines of customary seeing or saying. But the best poetic lines undermine those habits, break the pre- off the -dictable, unsettle the suburbs of your routine sentiments, and rattle the tracks of your trains of thoughts.

This is the birthplace of powerful subtext. By shaking up reader expectations, by making their brains work a little harder, by thrilling them with new possibilities–we open up the world of our stories far beyond the words actually found on the page.

3. Seek Out Surprising Images

Imagery is a vital part of good storytelling. But just like our word choices themselves, our imagery is also likely to start out bland and easily foreseeable. In order to write truly surprising sentences, we must start out with surprising subject matter. This extends to the entirety of our plots, but also to the smaller integers of the actual objects and sensations we are are evoking.

Instead of describing a rosy sunrise, why not concentrate on a more unusual aspect of your setting? Why not focus on the flowers turning their faces to the sun and opening their petals? Instead of describing a bum passed out on the curb with an empty bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, why not focus on the remaining half of a McNugget clenched in his fist?

Ambassadors Henry JamesIn his classic novel The Ambassadors, Henry James used the following surprising and deliciously evocative metaphor to describe a lovely young girl:

She was fairly beautiful to him—a faint pastel in an oval frame: he thought of her already as of some lurking image in a long gallery, the portrait of a small old-time princess of whom nothing was known but that she had died young.

Are you digging this deep into your own character descriptions?

4. Create Paraprosdokians–Surprising Sentences at Their Best

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter half of a sentence or idea is completely unexpected (although still sensible), in a way that changes the reader’s understanding of the first half.

Wordplayer Louis Wilberger delighted me by sending me a list of of these clever little word tricks. Some of my favorites included:

  • Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
  • The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on my list.
  • Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
  • If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
  • Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Or how about Winston Churchill’s famous quip?

It has often been said that Britain and America are two nations divided only by a common language.

Paraprosdokians are frequently employed humorously or sarcastically, but their uses go far beyond simple wordplay. We can use the principle in all aspects of our stories by taking common ideas and turning them into something fresh and original.

Great prose will always be original prose. Frankly, that’s something we see so seldom that its very presence is often the most surprising thing about it. So what do you say? Want to take your prose to the next level? Start by using these four methods to surprise and delight your readers on every page!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you concentrate on when trying to invigorate your prose into something surprising and original? Tell me in the comments!

4 Methods to Invigorate Your Prose With Surprising Sentences

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. When I’m deciding on what book to buy, I look for freshness in the writing, i.e., voice. If I don’t see it on page one, I’m gone.

    I think writers also have to think about flow and rhythm; if we try to hard to INJECT voice into our writing, we end up sounding as though we’re impressed with our own words, another no-no.

    I think where cliche rears its ugly head most is in character descriptions. I am so sick of list descriptions: lips, eyes, hair, whatever, or books where the characters are always described by what they’re wearing. That said, even that type of description can be made to feel fresh. As a reader, I don’t need to know that she has green eyes or that he has black hair; I want to FEEL the character.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • That’s an astute observation S.J. One that helps me to remember that when I finish my current work in progress, will people want to continue after the first page? Will I have given them something g unique enough to hang around for? Terrific thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. The sound of the prose has become my #1 consideration in deciding whether a book is worth my reading time. If the prose is weak, then I’m not going to enjoy the journey no matter how great the story is.

    • I agree with SJ about the whole character description thing. I don’t like it when a writer imposes their vision of a character’s appearance or build or even tics, because my imagination has almost always added those details before the author ever gets a chance to describe the character.

      I like to use my imagination when I read. It’s the only interactive thing I get to do.

      So, “In this one tiny thing, please, let me participate!”

  2. I admit that prose is one of the things I struggle most in writing. In my first draft, I rarely think of how to improve my sentences, and just go with the first word that comes to my mind. This creates some very awkward and clichéd sentences, which, when time for editing comes, seem like an insurmountable obstacle; no idea where to start.

    These tips you share with us today are INVALUABLE! Thank you so much for helping me advance my prose to its true potential. Especially, tip #2 was an epiphany for me.

    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The longer I write, the more aware I become of cliches *as* write them. It allows me to immediately replace it with a potentially stronger phrase. Then, when editing, I can evaluate it and perhaps strengthen it again.

  3. Catherine H. says:

    Number 1 is something I always have to be consciously aware of. And I knew what number 4 was, I just didn’t know it had a name. Paraprosdokian – that may be my new favorite word.

    And I love that saying about light traveling faster than sound. ?

  4. YoungAuthor says:

    Right now, I’m in the middle of a tough 2nd draft. I’ve started using these tips in my prose, and I’m liking my descriptions better already. Thank you yet again!

  5. Like Natasha, I’ve realized that as I’ve become a better writer, one of the biggest areas I lack in is how to write a non-clichéd, trite, obvious sentence. While spending so much time learning the mechanics behind the engines that drive fascinating stories, I spend little time trying to understand how to ‘write well.’
    Maybe this problem is similar for many? Maybe because the lot of us who have chosen to write, have excelled in English (I always got A’s in spelling, etc.) and therefore think, “I can write better than the worst, then writing in itself isn’t the issue…” But the more I learn, the more I read, the more surprised I am by originalality in writing, the more I realize the great chasm that stands between writing to just convey an idea, and writing to knock-the-socks off the reader.
    One thing’s for certain: learning how to construct thought-provoking prose takes just as much time (for me anyways) learning as I’ve spent learning about how to thrill with my plots…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent prose is an art unto itself, apart from excellent storytelling. This is why we definitely see books that are less than great stories, less then well structured–but they’re still mind-blowing because the prose is so amazing. When the two come together–great prose and great storytelling–that’s when the magic really happens.

  6. I love this, especially the quote from Anthony Doerr. And that book really was filled with the most beautiful sentences. The only think I’m hesitant about is this sentence: “Never settle for the first descriptive word or phrase to come to mind as you’re typing a scene.” Sometimes the first word that comes to mind really *is* the best one, and I think that, especially as we’re drafting, we shouldn’t always stop and check the thesaurus. But definitely when you’re second drafting/editing, you should always be asking yourself if this word really is the best one. Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right. As I was checking the podcast for the final time, I had a second thought about the absolute negative there. As always (absolute positive!), with writing, every rule is made to be broken. If we’re on a roll, in tune with our gut feelings, and the words are just pouring out–chances are the first choice *may* just be the right one.

  7. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Yes! I’m excited about them.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Well, this is something I have never considered when it comes to writing. You’ve presented a new perspective, a new way of bringing life into writing, and I hope that I will be able to employ these techniques when it comes to my own writing. To be honest, though, it also overwhelms me. There are endless writing tips, tricks, insights, and I worry that I’ll never be able to write an engaging, original narrative at all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s more like this: you’ll end up writing an engaging, original narrative *in spite of* not knowing all the tips, tricks, and insights. We’re all still learning, no matter where we are in our writing journey. And we’ll always be learning. And that’s awesome! As Ernest Hemingway say, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.”

  9. Stephanie says:

    Well that’s a relief. 🙂 Thanks for putting it all into perspective. You are an inspiration!

  10. The last thing I want to do is hurt you… but it´s still on my list. I just can hear Jared Leto saying that! It´s so Joker!
    That aside, thank you for the tips 🙂
    Too bad is not as easy as it sounds, since like you said we are used to certain structures. But then, thinking outside the box is an hability we develop.

  11. Great post! Yes there is a difference between storytelling and writing. One can glean much about storytelling by watching movies, deconstructing them and figuring out how they work and then go on and create your own stories–the road to hell for aspiring authors is paved with great but unwritten stories, for writing a good story is a completely different beast than creating a great story. Learning to write well is an acquired skill. Just like learning to play the piano or learning to play golf, to become good at it you must practice, practice, practice . . . and you must fail along the way until you succeed. So keep writing everyone, and when it gets tough remember: it’s supposed to be hard.

  12. Thanks, K.M.

    On this topic, Cormac McCarthy, The Road, is recommended: a young boy and his ailing father travel along a road to reach the ocean in a post-apocalyptic age. McCarthy’s archaic use of language mirrors the desolate environment, and his penchant for dropping apostrophes in many contractions (dont) and concatenating words (scumland, barndoor, bogfolk) gives the prose an immediate presence and an eerie style that seems similar to the main character. Here are a couple of examples–

    “Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”

    “Fine Morris paper on the walls, waterstained and sagging. The plaster ceiling was bellied in great swags and the yellowed dentil molding was bowed and sprung from the upper walls.”

    McCarthy has a distinct style, but here that style enhances the characters and the world in which the story is told, and I’d push my chips on red that it’s a major reason why the book won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. McCarthy isn’t necessarily someone any writer wants to mimic–since he’s so distinctive. But he’s a tremendous example of not just brilliant storytelling, but amazing writing. The Road was one of my top five reads the year I read it.

  13. Jim Arnold says:

    Ms. Weiland, you’ve done it again. Sparked imagination beyond my imagination. As I was reading this, I could see myself going over my latest project looking for the common words that sound boring even to me.
    Taking a little time and using a dash of patience, something will boil up inside me and explode the story line of this book so great it’d make the Fourth of July jealous.

    Thank you for all you do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cool beans! And speaking of surprising sentences that “Fourth of July” is a nice one. 😉

  14. Sean M. Price says:

    Want your writing to whisk away the reader by the wrist? Inject some poetic devices.
    Make up a new word with a known root. Nabokov was a master at this. I laugh to myself whenever I think of Taxiovich.

  15. I love the advice! I never knew about paraprosdokians before, but I love the examples. This is the kind of post that makes me want to get back into poetry, thank you!

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