You've Been Writing Sentences Wrong All Your Life! Find Out Why

You’ve Been Writing Sentences Wrong All Your Life! Find Out Why

The sentence. It’s the building block of all books. Without it, we may have a poem, a song, a movie, a painting, an interpretative dance. But we sure as scuttlebutt don’t have a book. Most of us learn how to write (and diagram!) sentences in grade school. Out of the many potential pitfalls of writing a story, surely the simple sentence isn’t likely to be one of them. But what if I said you’ve been writing sentences wrong all your life?

And I’m not talking grammar here, folks. You can have a perfectly parsed, perfectly punctuated sentence that would have that grade school teacher of yours blushing for pride—and it can still be wrong as wrong for your novel. (I’m also not talking motivation-reaction units, or MRUs, which I’ve addressed elsewhere.)

Why We’re All Writing Sentence Wrong

So what’s with this pandemic of poor sentences? Why are even the best diagrammers amongst us at risk?

Basically, it all comes down to this: we totally take the sentence for granted. The very fact that we’ve all been writing more-or-less grammatically correct sentences for most of our lives means we don’t even think about what we’re doing. Subject? Check. Predicate? Check. Period at the end? Check. Done.

That may be good enough for your latest email to the bank. But it’s not good enough for an author. Sentences are the colors on your palette. If you’re not looking past sheer utilitarianism and exploring your sentences’ full potential for hooking, guiding, and fulfilling readers, then you’ve got a whole new world to explore!

Where’s Your Sentence’s Emphasis?

Story by Robert McKeeForget modifiers, direct objects, and interrobangs. The most important thing you need to know about any sentence is where it’s pointing readers. Where does the emphasis lie in each of your sentences?

More often than not, you’re going to want that emphasis at the end of the sentence. Why? Because if you put it at the beginning, why do readers even need to bother reading the rest of the sentence? The first half of your sentence should be the hook, pulling readers in. The second half should be the payoff. In his perennially amazing guide Story, Robert McKee explains:

Excellent [writing] tends to shape itself into the periodic sentence: “If you didn’t want me to do it, why’d you give me that…” Look? Gun? Kiss? The periodic sentence is the “suspense sentence.” Its meaning is delayed until the very last word, forcing both [character] and audience to listen to the end of the line.”

How to Use the Periodic Sentence in Your Stories

Example time. Take a look at how the ordering of the phrases in the following sentences changes the emphasis—and the point.

Mary put her hands on her hips. “If you’re wanting a divorce, this is hardly the time.”

Mary put her hands on her hips. “This is hardly the time if you’re wanting a divorce.”

The difference is subtle. Same words. Same information. But the first example emphasizes the time (why isn’t this time for a divorce?), and the second example emphasizes the divorce (why does the other person want a divorce right now?).

The technique becomes exquisitely useful when you’re dealing with longer sentences. Remember, you want to hook the reader into reading the whole thing—which means you don’t want to completely reveal the point of the sentence until the very end. Here are some classic examples from master authors, contrasted with re-written versions that shift the emphasis:

Original: “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.” (Dune by Frank Herbert)

Rewrite: An old crone visited Paul’s mother the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy.

screen shot from dune episode two frank herbert

Original: “Halfway between West Egg and New York City sprawls a desolate plain, a gray valley where New York’s ashes are dumped.” (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Rewrite: New York’s ashes are dumped in a desolate, gray valley halfway between West Egg and New York City.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald Leonardo DiCaprio Baz Luhrmann

The suspense sentence won’t be appropriate for every sentence you write, but its power can do more than just transform your narrative style: it can reach into your readers’ subconscious and pull them irrevocably under your story’s spell. (<– suspense sentence, FTW!)

Tell me your opinion: What are past ways you’ve learned you were writing sentences wrong–and how do you approach them differently now?

You've Been Writing Sentences Wrong All Your Life

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Wow! I love techniques like this: simple but super-effective. I’m chomping at the bit for today’s writing session . . . I probably would never have thought of this on my own, so thanks so much for posting about it!

  2. I love the concept of the “suspense sentence,” but even sentences that aren’t intended to be suspense sentences can benefit from milking the Point of Stress for all it’s worth. That’s why we’re wasting a great opportunity when we end sentences with prepositions (sorry, Sir Winston, I think it’s better not to end a sentence with a preposition) or pronouns or speech attributions like ‘he said”, etc.

    Ends of things (sentences, paragraphs and scenes) are all Points of Stress.

    Are there exceptions? Of course, there always are, particularly when, say, the last sentence of a scene contains something surprising or an indelible thought or concept, or if the sentence demands that it be written in the character’s voice, but the general guideline to milk our Points of Stress will help to strengthen our writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point about prepositions. I have no technical problem breaking this “rule,” but we always need to thinking about *why* we’re breaking it and whether or not it’s strengthening our sentence’s intent.

  3. Great point about intent, K.M., but so hard to do for every single sentence!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true. It’s worthwhile to do a sentence-by-sentence edit, looking at each sentence for this specific purpose.

      • Hi Katie – thanks for the reminder about the level of craft all the way down to sentence level!

        In fact, I think, though hard, it is worthwhile to look at every sentence when editing, if only to educate our unconscious by osmosis. That way, future drafts are more likely to spill out with skillfully ended sentences.

        It may well make the difference between a Michelangelo and a street-corner artist, and turn a good story into an exceptional one.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree. We have to sweat the small stuff if we want the big picture to turn out the way it should.

        • robert easterbrook says

          I’m a researcher, and learning does not happen osmotically; you have to be conscious, active and focused, or nothing happens. So please don’t tell people that learning is an osmotic process; it isn’t.

      • I agree, it sounds like a difficult concept to remember when writing, especially in the heat of the moment. But also a very intriguing concept to consider when editing! Thanks for the great ideas (and examples).

  4. thomas h cullen says

    Knowing the story. The short and simple but vitally candid answer.

    Such is the format of The Representative, to read its sentences aloud without recognition of their emotional context is to at least fifty percent of the time make them sound stupid.

    The sentences of The Representative are correct, though only from the knowledge of their subjective emotional context.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Context is always vital. A beautiful sentence that *doesn’t* work in context is one that should always be ruthlessly deleted, no matter its objective brilliance.

  5. Steve Mathisen says

    These actually fail to work for me as the original sentences make more sense to me than the reconstructed ones. It feels like the cart is suddenly pulling the horses. This may take some rethinking to understand…for me, at least.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The original sentences in the Dune and Gatsby examples are the “correct” ones. They’re examples of the periodic sentence. My restructured examples are showing how much power the sentences lose when their emphasis is in the wrong place.

  6. Lorna G. Poston says

    Things I never really thought about. Thanks for the examples.

  7. Steve, maybe it will help to think about letting the reader experience the scene, and each sentence, as it goes along.

    We, as writers, know what’s going to happen, at least during the editing phases, so we often put the cart before the horse.

    There really is nothing grammatically wrong with the first versions of the sentences, but when we think about the sentences’ impact on the reader, it’s often better to put the “punchline” i.e., stress at the end.

  8. Katie–
    You teach a useful lesson here–finding what might be called the punch in the sentence, and delivering it at the end. I would only add that this technique can be really effective when writing comedy. Good comedians know this lesson well: hold off delivering the key word or phrase until the very end of the joke–keep them dangling!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! All writing is about punch. But there’s a reason “punchline” is the kicker specifically in comedy.

  9. Wow! Love! I must say, I have definitely gained experience in the art of suspense sentences from posting on Twitter!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Twitter is great at teaching a lot of important prose principles – especially (and most obviously) brevity.

  10. Yup. Punchline at the end is usually the best approach. The Fitzgerald sentence is a thing of beauty for more than this, however. The re-write strips it of life and rhythm.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Few beautiful and effective sentences are defined by just one technique. Like stories themselves, they’re the result of multiple important factors.

  11. Great eye opener KM.

  12. robert easterbrook says

    HI Interesting.

  13. This is a brilliant tidbit. I love it. <3

  14. Have’t thought about it. But the examples show, these tiny matter make worlds of difference in making the story more alive. Thanks for this post, I wouldn’t have thought about it on my own. 😀

  15. Don’t you think that a lot of this is just the difference between being a writer, and NOT being a writer though? I don’t think people have been writing sentences wrong their whole lives, I think that occasionally people write a duff one. Everybody does, no matter how experienced (as Frank Herbert demonstrates)! I see this all the time in amateur fiction. Stuff like:

    “From through the hills, as the sun’s dying rays kissed the heather, a horse carried it’s rider into the valley.”

    I totally agree that people write sentences wring, but to me, it’s more about an inherent understanding of object/subject, passive/active voice, etc. With this, you just read a sentence and know it “feels wrong”. With the best will in the world you’re going to make these mistakes, so I look at this as more of an editing task, rather than a fundamental issue that requires writers to mindfully construct every single sentence they write. They shouldn’t have to if they’ve learned their craft! I think if that were really the case writing any novel would be such a horrible drudge that I can’t imagine anyone would ever do it! What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, definitely. The title of the post is total hyperbole. A sentence can be correct grammatically and still not be the most effective choice for fiction–and vice versa.

  16. Excellent point about sentences. This principle can also be applied to paragraphs.

    I remember the first time I had a book published and my editor sent me the long list of words to cut as much as possible from my sentences. Prior to that, I’d thought I’d done a good job of tightening, but that list opened my eyes to a whole new world of unnecessary phrases and words.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely holds true for paragraphs – and for chapters and entire books for that matter. Save the most important stuff for last.

  17. Feedback from my first book stated that I had the rules pounded into my head too much and I think the story suffered on account of that. I felt much more relaxed when I let go of the rules a little for my second book.

  18. Thank you for this wonderful post! I hadn’t given this any thought before, but your examples really do show the difference between a punch-at-the-end sentence and the same information with the punch misplaced at the front. The rewritten sentences from Gatsby and Dune lack all the sparkle of the originals, and looking between them, I can now see why!

    This is such very helpful information! Thank you again! 😀

  19. I actively work toward the goal of proper sentence emphasis. Doing so revealed one of my bad habits. On the end of sentences, I tend to stick phrases that sound like afterthoughts.

    For example.

    First draft:
    I expect Veloquichi will become a popular baby name after my books are published.

    Rewrite:
    After my books are published, I expect Veloquichi will become a popular baby name.

  20. I’m definitely adding this to my list of things to edit on the second or third go-round! Brilliant way to make sentences into must-read things. By focusing on it in editing, perhaps I can learn to do it this way the first time. Did anybody else who made comments on this look at each sentence they wrote wondering if the emphasis was at the end?

  21. This is basically rhetoric! I learned it in Latin, teach it in Shakespeare, and use it in writing. (That was tricolon, right there). It’s all about knowing what effect you’re going for and how to get it.

  22. THank you for the post. There is so much to think about while writing, I hope I can remember it all!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It takes time. The more we refresh our memories about everything we need to remember, the easier it gets to put it all into practice.

  23. Wow! This is such GOOD advice. Seriously. SUCH good advice. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, since I study Latin and one of the structural quirks of Latin sentences is that the verb is held until the end to build suspense. To our classically-educated forbears, doing the same thing in English must have been completely logical.

    It’s also tightened up my sentence-crafting to an amazing extent, helping me to spot and solve the problem of anticlimactic sentences. Usually they’re caused by weak floppy little prepositional phrases sticking out where they shouldn’t. I tuck them away into the middle or beginning of the sentence, and the thing suddenly becomes sleek and beautiful. Mirabilis!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! I’m in the process of learning French, and it’s absolutely fascinating how the grammar rules differ (often nonsensically) from language to language.

  24. Great advice! Thanks for sharing!

  25. I’ve spent many years teaching and training people to Do things including teaching people how to conduct training.
    Just as in a novel, it is important how you pitch your voice. An exercise I gave my classes was to repeat the following sentence, each time with the emphasis on a different word each time.
    I DID NOT SAY YOU WERE UGLY.
    How to do this in a novel? Use italics?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Italics and other punctuation tricks can definitely be employed. But, first, it’s important to realize that inflection will *never* be conveyed in written text the same way it is when spoken. That said, when we set up the order of the sentence and the *context* around it, we do have an impressive amount of control over how readers perceive what’s being said.

      • robert easterbrook says

        HI Katie. Do you mean stress and intonation when you saying ‘inflection’ can’t be conveyed in writing? 🙂 Or do you mean suffixation? I think you mean stress and intonation. The thing that separates spoken and written language. Of course, you could add umlauts and accents to indicate stress but it would be a poor substitute because it would distract from the fun of reading as you would need to educate your reader before they got baffled by the marks. The closest we got to it is using CAPITALIZATION, italics, and exclamation marks, otherwise you might add an adverb after ‘said’, as in ‘she said adamantly’. What are some of your tricks for showing stress and intonation, Katie? 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Actually, it’s kind of a shame we don’t make better use of accents in our punctuation.

          The techniques discuss in this post–regarding word and phrase order–are big. Context and indication of character tone is important too. And italics are the blunt instrument of the trade, when all else fails.

  26. I don’t think that using italics (or CAPS) for emphasis in a sentence is a strong technique.

    As this post recommends, finding the punchline or point of stress, and putting it at the end of the sentence is very effective and a very strong technique.

    When that technique is not possible, and you’re tempted to use italics, read the sentence aloud, placing the emphasis on a different word each time. You’ll often find that the meaning either doesn’t change or that the changed meaning still works in the context of your scene. If that’s so, don’t use italics because you don’t need them.

    If the meaning of the sentence changes in a way that doesn’t work for your context, change the wording of the sentence.

    There are a million ways to skin a cat, i.e., change a sentence. We’re writers; we should work hard to create effective sentences without resorting to italics (or CAPS) for emphasis. We might get away with them in books for younger readers, we might even get away with them with publishers (particularly if we’re Stephen King) or if our poorly written story happens to become a bestseller, but if we want to become a strong writers, I think we should forget that italics for emphasis and CAPS ever existed.

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