Have you ever gotten an “I infection”?
It can happen to the best of us.
I came home to a ringing telephone. I picked it up. I heard my uncle’s urgent voice on the other end of the line. I knew immediately that something was wrong.
Sometimes we get into a particular sentence pattern that can make our prose sound robotic. Of course it doesn’t always have to be the first person pronoun. Any sentence pattern, when used over and over again, can make for boring reading.
There are easy ways of preventing repetitive sentence structure. You can use compound sentences to combine similar thoughts. You can start some sentences with prepositional phrases. In a pinch, you could even use the dreaded passive voice!
But sometimes these tactics can still make prose feel too elementary. To show off sentence flexibility, you have to understand that every thought we want to write down can be expressed in hundreds of different ways. Instead of always starting a sentence with the character who’s being discussed or one of the common prepositional phrases, try starting the sentence with a word or phrase you wouldn’t normally think to use.
“Call me Ishmael,” from Moby Dick is an outstanding example. That’s a pretty unconventional sentence that’s amazing because it immediately gives us a sense of the narrator’s voice, and it’s a command to the reader, something we rarely see in prose. Melville could just as easily have started the story with, “There was a man named Ishmael,” but that makes for a much less colorful opening.
A Story From A to Z
Here’s an exercise that demonstrates how flexible sentence structure can be. Write a story using 26 sentences. Start each sentence with a different letter of the alphabet, using A for the first sentence, B for the second sentence, C for the third sentence, et cetera. Even though it might feel a little challenging at first, you’ll realize that you can still create a logical sequence of events, even with this strict rule in place. The language and sentence patterns you’ll end up using will have much more variety.
For a great example of how having sentence flexibility can make a story richer, take a look at the book The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. If you take the first letter of each chapter, you’ll find that it spells out a message. (The last letter of each chapter may also be illuminating!)