Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summing up participles? Other thoughts?

So, because I'm teaching a class on pacing and have gotten to the "prose" part, I think this might be a good opportunity to summarize what we all discussed about PPPs and such.

Jami mentioned that she thought maybe eliminating most of the PPPs could lead to the kind of "fresh, crisp" voice the editors keep asking for. Hmm. Good thought. There is nothing as "crisp" as the declarative SVO sentence, as it succinctly and immediately identifies the causer of the action, the action, and the recipient. Too many unadorned SVO sentences can feel choppy, but this should be the default, as it's so efficient in conveying information.

With that SVO (or just SV, for sentences that describe a condition with non-transitive -- no object-- verbs, like "I wept") as the main clause, you can build other types of sentences. But what's really important, really meaningful, is in a main clause, an independent clause, which can if need be be spun off as its own sentence-- for emphasis, for clarity.

But you can also build on that simple clear statement, adding whatever is needed to deepen the emotion, focus the description, hint at some complication. The kernel of meaning will still be there, however, and the reader will find it if you don't gild up the sentence too much.

I suspect that the more we put in front of the subject, the more arcane the sentence becomes and the more prone to errors. Readers are more likely to be confused at the start of the sentence because they don't have the accumulation of meaning yet. Later in the sentence, an extra phrase or qualifier won't confuse, because the reader knows the main point of the sentence and can put that all into context.

So what should go in front of the main clause? Well, someone-- who was that?-- was mentioning that "inflection" might go first-- that's what tells the reader how to read something. This is really important with dialogue-- we might read the line of speech differently if we know Joan shouted it rather than Pete whispering it.

Something else that might go well at the start of the sentence is some connective referring back, a transition like "Of course" or even a dependent clause like "Although he knew the truth--" That will help provide continuity between sentences (and it's really helpful in smoothing a paragraph break).

A setting or time marker, especially if it's short, can be essential to understanding not just this sentence but how it connects to the rest of the scene: "Across town..." or "The next day..."

And let's say you want to vary the openings of sentences-- do it in a meaningful way, with an element that adds to the reader's understanding and doesn't confuse.

So what else can we say about sentences? What have you found that works? I keep wanting to make a point about sentences and paragraphs-- that if you paragraph well, you'll resist the impulse for the long complicated sentences because you won't think you need to put everything in before the period. So often with these intro PPPs, I kept wondering-- why not do two sentences? When I read these 26-word sentences, with action, reaction, setting, and thought, I wonder, why not make a whole paragraph of this?

How we speak is not a reliable guide to how we should write, but that's something to consider. The reader will naturally consider sentence patterns that replicate the rhythms of conversation (even if the diction is more formal and all the "uhhs" are deleted :) more "authentic" and "real". That's not where you necessarily want to end up, but that might be where you want to start. Does this sound natural? The more conversational our voice is, the deeper our POV, the closer to character voice the narrative is-- the more we want to sound sort of like speech.

What do you all think? What suggestions do you have for revising sentences, especially the start of the sentence?

Alicia

12 comments:

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I think you answered your own question. :) The more conversational our prose, the more that sentence openings will tend to vary naturally. I'm looking at the first words of all your sentences in this post and there's variety in those clean sentences. :)

If we write with a natural cadence, we'll automatically include all those transition-type phrases to mix things up. As Jordan mentioned, sometimes we're just trying too hard to be "writerly".

I hope to eventually get to the point that all those grammar rules come so intuitively that if I just write in a streaming sort of way, the sentences will still follow the rules. But as writers, we're told to make every word count and be perfect. Sometimes that zoomed-in focus makes it hard for us to maintain the natural flow - can't see the forest for the trees and all that.

Jami G.

Missy Lyons said...

I almost need a dictionary for the abbreviatios. What's PPP, and SVO stand for?

I agree in varying the sentence lengths you can make your point sometimes more effectvely in fiction.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I am a bit of the odd one out in this, I think, since I do like long sentences. (In fact, I posted a couple of paragraphs on my blog that I am sure would make you cringe, but that I just loved when I came across them in a thriller I was reading -- http://www.womenofmystery.net/2009/08/genre-writing.html )

The thing is, I like long sentences when I want them to convey motion, like in a paragraph describing, say, a waltz. They can also be used as mood setters. On the other hand, I am a huge fan of the short, declarative sentence, especially following a long one. I almost never use two long sentences in a row.

I think putting the subject up front is important not only to keep yourself straight, so you don't have danglers, but also to keep your readers on track. Especially when scenes involve several people, putting the subject up front allows readers to feel secure about where they are and what they are looking at, if that makes sense. (It's late and I am tired.)

I don't object to PPPs, but I have discovered after your posts that I don't use nearly as many as I thought and that they are almost always trailing rather than up front.

Next up, appositives. I need to clean some of those out of my WIP!

Laura K. Curtis said...

Missy -

Present Participial Phrases (like "winking at her...") and Subject-Verb-Object.

:)
Laura

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Laura!

And it was JWhit who mentioned that inflections often should come before the main clause.

Alicia

Wes said...

Great post!

One addition might be that dialogue does not need to be in complete sentences with SV. Often people speak in incomplete sentences.

Edittorrent said...

Laura, long sentences can be evocative when used for effect-- not overused, however. I keep pounding this point-- there is no effect when we use a device in most circumstances. Long sentences throughout the manuscript will actually detract from long sentences used for effect in certain passages.

Please don't think I'm "against" long sentences. I am against sentences that are too long to make easy sense, and sentences that bury the meaning in a lot of verbiage, and yes, long sentences as the rule-- precisely because it deprives the writer of the ability to use long sentences when they add to the narrative.

I am especially against sentences that are long because the writer has a fear of paragraphs. (g) But I'm sure none of that is a problem for you!

Alicia

Laura K. Curtis said...

LOL! No, I am not afraid of paragraphs. In fact, I find myself more frequently wondering--when reading some of the genre fiction I read--"when did one or two sentences become the standard paragraph length?"

Has anyone else noticed this trend? James Patterson made the teeny tiny chapter standard, and now it seems like half the books I read have these teeny tiny paragraphs!

Edittorrent said...

"Fear of paragraphing!" A new phobia.

Alicia

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I have a fear of doing something "amateur" without even knowing it. Any other "Avoid These Amateur Mistakes" tips? :)

Thanks!
Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jami-- let me think on that and make a list. :)
Alicia

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I look forward to it even though I know it will bring more homework assignments. :)

Jami G.