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

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Great advice! Thanks for sharing!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Why your writing could be backing up. K. M. Weiland wrote an excellent blog that addresses writing sentences correctly but also incorrectly. Mainly, this discusses where you […]

  2. […] Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors said that most storytellers have been writing sentences wrong all their lives. When you take a sentence for granted, you miss out on the opportunity to hook, […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.