Guest post by Daniel Noyes
Daniel Noyes writes books for children and is currently seeking representation for his work. He is a member of SCBWI and a winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 LDStorymakers Conference first chapter contests. He has an MBA from Idaho State University and works as a critical infrastructure cyber security analyst.
Everything we write involves three choices: what to write about, the words we use, and the order in which we place them.
Gertrude Stein once asked:
Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?
As writers, our tools are words and sentences, and with these two things we write mountains of books. From these two things are birthed a plethora of pleasing sentences, some you may have memorized.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .
Consider the following sentence.
He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.
Wow, right? What a power-packed sentence. It starts so simple and clear and then builds and builds all the way to the very last word. Would you have guessed it was forty-one words long? Forty-one words. Did you have any trouble comprehending it?
Did you know that the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes on for over a hundred words?
There will be many willing to teach you the “rules of writing.” One rule I see too often is to keep sentences short. Some even say not to exceed a certain number of words and that if you do, you need to start trimming. They say long sentences only confuse readers. They tell you that Hemingway used only short sentences, unaware of his 424-word monster in The Green Hills of Africa, among others.
In a course titled, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Brooks Landon, English Professor at the University of Iowa, says this:
An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long.
It’s time we shrug off our fear of long sentences. Fear is for things we don’t understand, things we can’t control, and as authors, we control our sentences.
There are many ways to write long sentences that are both crystal clear and replete with pleasure. One such way is through cumulative syntax.
In his course, Professor Landon goes on to say:
I think cumulative syntax is…the surest way for writers to immediately improve the effectiveness of their sentences.
Cumulative sentences are easy to write, a process of adding modifying phrases to the base clause of the sentence, each phrase adding to our understanding or sharpening our visualization of the preceding phrase or of the base clause.
Let’s refer back to that corpse-in-the-trunk sentence, one that Professor Landon uses as a poster child in his course.
It has one base clause: He drove the car carefully,
Followed by five free modifying phrases: his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.
They’re called free modifying phrases because they can be placed in any syntactic position relative to the base clause, unlike bound modifiers, which have a tendency to curtail comprehension in long sentences.
Go ahead and try it. Start with a simple base clause, add a comma to the end, and pile on some modifying phrases.
If your modifying phrases all refer back to the base clause, it’s called a coordinate pattern.
If you’d like, each modifying phrase can refer to the clause or phrase immediately preceding it to create a subordinate pattern.
Of course, we can mix and match coordinate and subordinate phrases as we desire. This is known as a mixed pattern.
Here’s an example I found in one of my manuscripts. My main character, Ricky, has just arrived at the Colosseum in Rome where he is to change into an animal and compete in an Olympic-style tournament. Given how we’re just coming away from the summer Olympics in real life, this seems particularly fitting. Here are Ricky’s thoughts as he studies the arena.
Ricky imagined a Roman chariot flashing by, dust whipping and swirling in the air behind it, the horses galloping with every mite of speed they could muster, each hoping to finish first, to earn their master a laurel crown, to finally retire and grow fat and sire the next generation of champions, the next generation of stars.
Fifty-seven words; not bad. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.
Our goal as writers shouldn’t be to follow a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather to become sentence Olympians, able to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic feats that give our readers ample pleasure.
(Cue epic music) No, we writers don’t win gold medals in live events with millions cheering us on. We don’t perform in vast arenas with tens of thousands screaming our names. Many of us will never earn enough to pay the bills with our writing. But our words, our sentences, our characters, our stories fill the minds of the world, expand the knowledgeverse, and live on, and on, and on.
Every book you read, every blockbuster you watch, every hit pouring through your speakers, all were spawned in the mind of a brave soul, a writer who slapped rejection in the face, saying, “You don’t own me; you don’t choose the words I share or decide when I give up, because I won’t give up; I will write, creating something where there was void, telling stories you said couldn’t be told, and if someday in a quiet corner of Earth, a beautiful bag of blood and bones reads my words and in them finds comfort or adventure, longing or courage, or whatever manner of happily they desire, then I’ve changed the world, made an individual difference, held an empty hand, dried a lonely tear, nourished a starving soul, and all by taking a single word and writing it down and adding to it another, and another, until I’ve reached the end and created something beautiful—a thing alive.”
Words are our nails, sentences, our lumber. From a blank space, we create characters who are as real to our readers as any pop star or gold medalist they’ve never met. Scientific discovery is engaged by our conceptions. Newborns are named after characters sparked from our minds. Our words, our sentences, are not accidents. They are decisions, choices we make every time we set off to write, choices we can be proud of, choices we can cherish.