Monday, May 4, 2009

How Flexible Are Your Sentences?

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!)


  1. You read my mind. I am working on this now as I edit my manuscript.
    Thank you for your suggestions.☺

  2. Oh! That sounds fun :) I'll have to try it.

  3. Unfortunatley (sp) there have many many I infection's i my novel's lol. I love the thought of spelling something out in your novel through the use of first letter of each chapter. Wish I thought of it!

  4. Interesting. I have encountered this problem in the past. But now I'm too cool for school, and <>something to make this a compound sentence<>.

  5. That alphabet exercise sounds fun. I'm going to have to give it a try. I do consciously think of changing up the sentence structures, but it so easy to fall into a comfortable pattern. I have a thing for gerunds. Tsk, tsk! and actions plus dialog. e.g. "He turned to the receptionist and said..." As long as I know and switch it up, I'm good. I think. It usually takes several passes through to make it right though.

  6. Of course, even a paragraph pattern can become redundant. I might be guilty of such. Boohoo!

  7. Great exercise. I'll give it a try.

  8. Great post. This is where reading out loud seems to help. But I am fascinated with the A-Z story exercise, and I wonder if on a smaller scale such an exercise (or a variation) could help an existing piece.

    Davin, totally off point, but further to my f word dilemma, sometime would you consider a post on that? (Swearing, particularly not in dialogue) Everyone who commented seems to be saying oh, be bad, almost as though for the sake of doing so. But I think when you use such a word when you are in close POV, particularly this word (which, however prude it makes me sound, I do think is "worse" than say, "damn") it changes the voice of the entire piece. I think my real issue is just that: is that the voice I am shooting for, am I being shocking just to be shocking, etc. I think different kinds of stories and voices would call for different approaches--even if what the character wants to say is fu&^. In some stories it should appear, and in some stories it should be referenced. If that make sense.

    Again, sorry for the digression!

    BTW, I love what you guys are doing with the blog so far. This has become my new favorite site in terms of helpfulness.

  9. Cool post. That sounds like a fun exercise and something to help give ideas for changing up sentence structure in my own novel. Thanks!

  10. What a great and nitpicky post (I don't mean you sound nitpicky--I'm just happy to read that you guys are focusing the little things) on careful editing! I really love the A-Z story idea, and I may try it soon. Certainly I'll file it away for writing practice.
    I also added The Gargoyle to my library reading list. It sounds wonderful.
    With my sentences, the most overused word is "was." I think I have a problem with tenses.

  11. Journalizer, Glad this post came at a good time for you!

    Jenn, it was a fun exercise. I did it a few years ago, and I found it really helpful. At the time I didn't know why my writing teacher told me to do it, but then I noticed the change in my writing.

    T. Anne, well, Andrew Davidson wasn't the first person to do something like this, so if it's an idea you like, you should definitely feel free to steal it. I like it too!

    Justus, stay in school. Or at least listen to those old School House Rock commercials.

    Lotusgirl, I'm with you. This is more of a later revision for me too. I guess it all goes back to Michelle's strategy of editing in layers.

    Rebecca, hope you like it! It's an exercise that you only have to do once to learn from it. But I also think it can be a cool style to try on a bunch of different pieces.

    Jennifer, no problem on the digression at all! That's a great idea you brought up. I'll take your question to the lab and we'll come up with a post on it really soon! Thanks!

    Cindy, sometimes I think just doing ANYTHING different in your writing gives you a new perspective on it. It keeps us from getting lazy, doesn't it?

  12. Annie, do you use was along with another verb or as the main verb? If it's along with another verb, then it's probably just a tense thing, as you say, which is a totally easy thing to fix. If you're using it as the main verb a lot, it takes a little more creativity to find words with a little more excitement.

  13. I have to pay particular attention to this annoying habit! Do you think that writing has gotten tighter in this regards? I remember when gerunds were the thing. Everyone was starting sentences with them. I wonder if prepositional phrases will be the next thing banned from sentence beginnings! Thanks for some great tips to try to add variety!

  14. Great exercise! I am having trouble with "I" right now especially--this is my first novel in first person POV, and I keep slipping into I, I, I,....

  15. Unfortunately, your post hit the nail on the head. : ) I noticed during my recent edit session tht I have multiple "he did this", "he did that", "he, he, he". I've slowly begun to create the compound sentences necessary to get rid of the multiple "he's, she's, etc. or, as you so aptly suggested, used different words to get across the same point.

    Also, in response to Jennifer's 'f' word dilemma . . . if the story is in first person, and the 'f' word is in the thoughts of that person . . . then go for it. Trust me, I've thought the 'f' word more than once! Now, if it's in third person narrative, well, I'm just not so sure how that would neatly fit into the story. In dialogue, go for it as well. If I'm writing mainstream and/or commercial fiction, or fiction that takes place 'now', I try to keep the dialogue as real as possible. I have friends that cuss and I have friends that don't; therefore, I have characters that cuss and characters that don't. As long as the use of the word is natural, i.e., some idiot driver pulled out in front of a character, that character has a young child in the car, then I would think multiple, silent 'f' words thought by the character are appropriate. Just my thoughts.


  16. Definitely something I have to watch. Thanks for the post.

    Lynnette Labelle

  17. Indeed I will, Malasarn! Is it pronounced Mal-uh-zarn, Mal-uh-sarn, or some other way?

  18. I do occasionally get I infections as well, but thankfully have found that it's quite fun to play around with alternatives to repetitive opening words (he/she is another of my downfalls!)

    (An aside: Davin, hope you don't mind, on my blog today, I referred & linked to your "dark matter" post)

  19. Ann:, I think I speak for all three of us when I say, "link away!" The more advertising and traffic we can get over here, the better!

    Davin:, this was a great post. I think this is one of the reasons I have redundancy in my writing. The exercise sounds like a great idea. I also want to read that book even though it was written by a guy with my brother's full name. That's just weird to me. It's a common name, I suppose.

    Jennifer:It looks like we might have something in the works. Thank you for such a great question! Perhaps we should open a question post sometime... to get ideas and all that jazz. Our intent IS to be helpful.

    Annie:Nitpicky is my middle name. Now... if only I could be so nit picky and observant in my own writing! That's what beta readers and editors are for, I suppose.

    Jody:I can see what you're saying about "fads". They can be good and bad. Hindering and helpful. I think as long as we remain true to what we want to do and aren't following the crowd we'll be okay taking what is helpful and works.

    Scott:Thank you for your thoughts on Jennifer's question!

  20. Davin,

    Another great post. I have encountered the I infection problem several times in my writing. It’s nice to know there are different ways to get rid of it. Your creative exercises always work so well. Thank you for another excellent idea.

  21. Justus,
    So, I pronounce all of the a's like ah's, if that makes sense. The actual Thai way of saying it involves inflections that can't be typed out, and that I don't use either!

    My first name's also a problem. People usually use a short a when they say it, but it's actually a long a, just like in David.

    I'll answer to just about anything as long as I think you're talking to me.

  22. I am sure I don't ever have a problem with what I write because I always pay attention to the word I. Ok, that was lame humor.

    You are so right with this post -- sometimes we get caught in the flow and rush of our story and overlook those naggy crutch words. Good reminder :)

  23. Yeah. I love Michelle's layers way. She's very good.

  24. Thanks, Lois. I was going to say to Davin that I think this is a great thing to remember, but at the same time, I simply cannot focus on this kind of detail when I'm just writing the story out for the first time. It's a layer that comes much, much later.

    As I learn how work my sentences better, however, I hope to eliminate that layer altogether, as I'll make my sentences flexible without a second thought.

  25. So...Day-vin Mall-ah-sahrn? Ha ha. Not sure I got that right. But you're correct: the pronunciation of your name is not intuitive for English speakers. Either that or I'm too Southern for my own good! Impossible, I know.

  26. Yes, I've had the "I infection before" and I've seen it in the writing of others. But, it gets worse. Whatever the pronoun is, it can get overused. The rhythmic effect is a heavy thunk, thunk, thunk with the start of every sentence. When reading, it's like all the reader can hear is I, I, I or she, she, she.

    I am believing more and more that our awareness of such issues is paramount when we are doing the first write. Why? Well, that's when we lay out the rhythm of a piece. It's easy to revise for pronoun overuse, but what does that do to the rhythm of the whole section?

  27. Dave! You brought up a really really great point! I think this is something I've been sensing myself, but it never emerged as an actual full-fledged thought. I feel epiphanized! Thank you very much!

  28. Dave, I see your point, but since I tend to write in a more lyrical style, I usually avoid the obvious thunk, thunk, thunks in the early stages. There are still soft ones there, though, and I agree with you in the sense that I should pay more attention to them in the early stages so they don't mess up the rhythm of the piece as a whole.

  29. I sometimes get the "I" infection, even in my blog posts. So try to figure out different ways to say things so they don't sound to "me me me" I don't write any of my stories in first pov but can see how it would present a problem.

    I do try to use a variety of words so the same words or patterns don't show up in the sentence for line after line.

    I tried your A to Z exercise - fun. I posted it on my blog
    hereThanks for the great post!

  30. Eww! Passive voice! *shivers*

    I definitely have fun mixing up sentence structures, and now I'm excited to try the first letter of the sentence thing. Great tip!

  31. First time here. Great post. A-Z exercise sounds cool. I once had an assignment to rewrite a fairy tale using only three word sentences. Challenging, but really fun!

  32. Krisz, I'm really glad you like the exercises!

    Robin, That's a great piece over at your blog. I hope you found that the exercise revealed some unusual sentences you could use.

    Mariah, Let us know if you decide to try it. I love these stories. I should dig up mine and reread it.

    Corey, welcome! The exercise you mentioned sounds fantastic!

  33. Davin: This is a great post. I think too many people fall into this trap. I've noticed in my own prose that I tend to have paragraphs of right-branching sentences (The NOUN VERBed the DIRECT OBJECT. The NOUN VERBed the DIRECT OBJECT with the INDIRECT OBJECT on the PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE. Etc.) when I'm writing what Lois referred to as "spandrels," or connecting passages. There was also a big chunk of this in a scene I didn't like. My solution wasn't to restructure the sentences so much as rewrite the scene.

  34. Davin, I have a terrible obsession with I. In one of my chapters, in one paragraph, there were 16 of the bad boys. There were I's sprinkled everywhere!

    And I love Moby Dick! Thanks for the A to Z tip. I believe, I will use it, when I stop writing for the day! :)

  35. I get so frustrated with my first drafts because of this! Hello? Am I writing at Kindergarten level? Dick saw Jane. Spot likes Dot. UGGH!!

    Great tip. I'll check out the book. Thanks!


    I detect a stork scene.

  37. Justus, LOL!!!!!

    Jill, nah, it's normal to overlook these kinds of things when we're focused on character and plot.


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