Two things set good writing apart from mediocre or just plain boring writing. One is the writer’s ability to sharply observe the world and render those observations in language that’s free of clichés. The other is the author’s knowledge, and mastery, of English grammar.
A few years ago I offered a novel workshop to my local writing group. One of the novels we studied was Michael Byers’ Percival’s Planet.
The book is historical fiction, and it’s set in Flagstaff at Lowell Observatory. The planet in question is Pluto. A fellow writer had recommended the book, and I immediately understood why he had been drawn to it. Byers writes beautiful sentences. For my class I photocopied samples of his writing. (If you’d like to take a look at these excerpts, you can download this pdf. Compare your sentences to his. See how yours stack up.)
In this post I’m going to be talking about grammar and sentences. I want to start by looking at simple sentences and sentences linked together with coordinating conjunctions. Then, using examples from Byers’ book, I’m going to show you some easy ways to give your sentences more emotional punch.
Why is this important? Can’t you just hire a proofreader to clean up your grammar? Certainly, you can. However, a proofreader is not going to move elements of your sentences around. A proofreader won’t add a word that might make a particular sentence sing. Most of all, a proofreader can’t add poetry to your prose; and, yet, that’s what brings pleasure to many of your potential fans.
Don’t freak out! For those of you with only a dim memory of grammar, I’m going to review the basics.
Compound sentences link two independent clauses. You could also call these clauses “simple sentences.” In a simple sentence, you won’t have any trouble identifying the subject and predicate.
“See Spot run.”
“The dog sleeps.”
“I went home.”
In a compound sentence, an additional word joins two simple sentences. The word that joins these simple sentences is called a coordinating conjunction.
To be grammatically correct, compound sentences need commas before every coordinating conjunction. However, here’s where I see a lot of writers trip up. Not every “and” in your writing is a coordinating conjunction.
How do you know if you have a coordinating conjunction? Look at the grammar and see if you have two independent clauses. Each clause must have a subject and verb. The sentence may also have an object and indirect object.
Hemingway often used compound sentences. The words Hemingway relied on to join independent clauses are as follows: “for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.”
When you use a coordinating conjunction to join clauses, you should technically put a comma before the conjunction. However, Hemingway, Tobias Woolf, and Tim O’Brien often leave out commas if the clauses they’re joining are short and the meaning clear. When do they do this and why? Because the rhythms of the sentences demand it and because they don’t want the reader to stop for even a partial breath. This is a purely subjective call on the writer’s part.
If you want more sentence variety than a compound sentence provides, you can have fun manipulating the building blocks of grammar to make your sentences more complex. A complex sentence has an independent clause—a sentence that can stand on its own–joined by one or more dependent clauses. A complex sentence always has a subordinating conjunction such as because, ‘til or until, as, now, as though, where, though, since, after, while, whenever, although, or when or a relative pronoun such as that, who, or which. You need to put a comma after a dependent clause that begins your sentence, but you don’t need a comma if the dependent clause falls in the middle of it.
I don’t want to get bogged down in diagramming sentences, but if you’re having trouble figuring out where to put your commas, you should try to underline the subject and verb of the sentence so that you can identify the main clause. If you can’t pin down a single word that’s a subject, identify a phrase that’s the subject.
Also, look for the verb. Below, the word “is” functions as a teeter-totter for the phrase that forms the subject of the sentence and for the predicate-adjective phrase that forms the sentence’s second half. Phrases, not just individual words, can function as the building blocks of sentences. It’s easy to get thrown off by the “or’s” and think that this is a compound sentence. It’s not.
Subject phrase “being” verb (to be) predicate phrase
What Clyde has trouble figuring is whether his father envies him for his impending escape, or considers his small ambition foolish, or feels some combination of the two.
In general, Byers uses complex sentences, not compound ones. But not all his sentences are complex. He’s listening for the rhythms as he writes, and sometimes, after a stretch of long sentences, he’ll land on one or two sentences that are short. In short sentences it’s easier to spot the underlying architecture.
Let’s look at one of Byers’ sentences that Hemingway might have written. The first sentence is a simple clause. No fireworks. The second sentence has two verbs. (He did x and y.) “Father” is the subject of the sentence and “puts” and “picks” are the verbs. This “double verb” is called a compound predicate. The sentence has one subject but two actions.
His parents are standing on the porch. His father puts on his hat and picks his way slowly across the yard. (page 79)
A compound predicate doesn’t require a comma before the “and.” That’s because both actions belong to the same subject. As I explained above, a compound sentence has two independent clauses. Each clause has its own subject and verb (or predicate). Don’t go sprinkling commas around willy-nilly. Use a comma before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences. Don’t use commas before the “ands” in compound predicates. If you’re going to write complex sentences, as Byers does, then make sure you understand how to handle the punctuation for subordinate clauses.
Byers has mastered the use of complex sentences, as you’ll see from samples of his writing. However, he doesn’t overdo it. He can write a simple sentence if he wants to. He’s confident about putting a fragment down on the page. He’s using grammar as a probe, an ice pick, and it’s almost as if he’s exhaling his discoveries about his characters onto the page. His discoveries flow into the empty vessel of his extraordinary sentences. Now, let’s look more closely at some of his tricks.
Feeding Information to the Reader
Fiction writers must keep feeding information to the reader. The only way to keep giving the reader information about the sights, smells, and feelings of a character is to plug phrases into the grammatical structure of a sentence. It’s like hanging hangers on the closet rod. If there’s only one hanger, our closet looks pretty bare. If there are too many hangers, the rod bows down. We don’t want “overloaded.” Nor do we want “empty.”
The sentences we all learned to write in freshman composition will not serve us well in fiction. Sentences that writers use for magazine stories and press releases also are not “limber” enough to satisfy the reader’s hungry mind’s-eye. It’s easy to think that our only job as writers is to “get the story right” in terms of plot and of the emotional truth behind our characters’ inner lives. But that’s not our only job.
Simultaneously, while developing character and moving the plot forward, we must make our writing rich and evocative, or sassy and funny, or whatever combination of words will make our story or novel stand out from the majority of work submitted to editors. The most common complaint I hear from editors is that the work submitted to them is flat. It’s not that the story isn’t good or the plot promising. It’s that the words on the page simply do not delight.
Simple Sentence, Plus One Word
Byers will often use a single word, offset by a comma. Strip away those words, and what do we have? A simple sentence we all could write. But Byers pushes a simple sentence farther. And, this isn’t just words on the page for the sake of creating a praline effect—lacy and tooth-killingly sweet. Byers’ interest in emotion puts him right in the Henry James camp. He’s not just telling a story about WHAT happened. He’s telling a story about how what happened AFFECTED the character. Look at these three sentences.
His college money, destroyed. (p .79)
Desolate, he turns back to the house. (p. 79)
Spooked, he returns to bed. (p. 99)
In the first example, if we left off the last word, we’d lose the “hammer” that the word “destroyed” provides. In the second instance, if Byers had omitted that “desolate,” we’d lose the direct statement of Clyde’s feeling. Byers doesn’t want to leave us in doubt about how a hailstorm on his father’s farm affects Clyde. He is spooked when he goes back to the house.
Now, we come to a group of sentences that are interrupted by a single word or phrase. The word or phrase acts like a teeter-totter. The author is fine-tuning the first part of the sentence, making the feeling more precise. Besides that, the interrupting-word adds an extra beat.
Not so much a fall, then, as a slump. (p. 85)
They are alive, together, on the shore. (p. 98)
The pen, a hefty Pearl, lies balanced across his fat index finger. (p. 110)
Nothingness, but with a definite outline. An absence defined. (p. 148)
Sentences With A Mind-Body Connection
Next, I want to look at some sentences where Byers is trying to get at the mind-body connection. It’s so hard to write about bodily sensations without using the clichés of “stomach turning” or “prickles on the back of the neck.” As a writer, it’s hard to sit in your body and try to duplicate how, exactly, you feel when you’re vicariously inhabiting your character’s physical being. Byers tries to make this information fresh, and sometimes, it’s not just the information but changing the sentence structure around that allows us to feel this is NOT a cliché. Note how he crafts the sentence to land on the word that leaves a lasting impression or that creates the right sound for the feeling.
Blood goes thudding up his throat. (p.88) –blood, thud
A prickly, uncanny feeling enters Felix’s bones. (p. 99)
The hair rises on the back of his neck. (p. 107) (How does this vary from the more clichéd version of the same sensation?)
The sun bakes his back. (p. 107)
She tips the tusk and tastes the hay dust and an ancient hint of machine oil, and the rider sways above her. (p. 113) (Look at all the “t” sounds.)
There is a feeling of newness and rawness, a scab pulled away just too soon, a sensation of a barely contained lymphatic oozing. (p.114) (The words at end of the sentence create a climax for that sentence.)
…Edward’s benevolent possessive gaze sits on her like a wet shawl. (p. 117)
…a headache of such cavernous throbbing… (p.117)
He feels a sick twinge deep in his groin. ( p. 121)
He feels a shiver of homesickness and then another shiver of capability. (p. 133)
He has the strange feeling of being boxed in, suddenly, even as for the next half hour he follows Carreau slowly around the shop. (p. 134)
In the previous examples, I want to call attention to Byers’ ability to use writing techniques that are typical of poets. His writing incorporates many poetic techniques:
- alliteration (repetition of consonants at the beginning of words)
- anapests (two unaccented syllables followed by one with an accent)
- assonance (repetition of similar vowel sounds), caesura (a strong pause that interrupts a line)
- dactyls (two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed one-billowing)
- diction (a characteristic tone used for each character or for the work as a whole)
- enjambment (a run on line in poetry that carries over into the next line; Byers does the same thing in the second sentence on the page of examples)
- figurative language (synonyms and metaphors)
- imagery, onomatopoeia (words like thud and blood);
- and, syntax shifts that allow him to emphasize one part of a sentence of the other.
How Can Prose Be Like Poetry?
Consider the following example. In the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, a story is getting underway, a hero setting out on an adventure. The underlying rhythms affect us the way music affects us. The rhythms penetrate our souls. The rhythms of language are what great literature is all about. Who can fail to be stirred by these opening lines?
Arms and the man I sing, who first made way,
predestined exile, from the Trojan shore
to Italy, the blest Lavinian strand.
Smitten of storms he was on land and sea
by violence of Heaven, to satisfy
stern Juno’s sleepless wrath; and much in war
he suffered, seeking at the last to found
the city, and bring o’er his fathers’ gods
to safe abode in Latium; whence arose
the Latin race, old Alba’s reverend lords,
and from her hills wide-walled, imperial Rome.
The poet knows that the telling of the tale is as important as the tale itself and that the MOST important part of that tale has to do with human emotion, either rendering it on the page or evoking feelings in the reader through the structure and lyricism of the language.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.