Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The myth of sentence variety

I was talking to an author last week, one I regard as a terrific stylist, and of course I had to drag her into my pondering of sentences. I asked, "What do you do to vary sentences?"

She regarded me with some confusion. "What do you mean, vary?"

"You know, make them different lengths, so you don't have two short sentences in a row."

She said slowly, "But what if I need two short sentences in a row? I'm not going to make a long sentence just because the one before is shorter."

"But what if too many short sentences in a row sounds too juvenile?"

"It would only sound juvenile if I wanted to sound juvenile. If I wanted to sound terse, it would sound terse. It's not the length of the sentences that I care about, but what they convey, and if what I wanted to convey went best in a bunch of short sentences, that's what I'd use. If not, I'd use sentences that do what I want."

I didn't bother to ask her about intro participial phrases, because I figured I knew what she'd say. If she needed a sentence to start that way, she'd start it that way. Otherwise not.

What's the point here? It's the meaning that matters. It's the effect that matters. Sentences should be designed to convey some meaning, and whatever length or opening creates that meaning, that's what writers should start with. Now of course, if the sound is wrong, if the sound of the sentences together detracts from the meaning (which is greater, of course, than just the surface meaning of the words in sequence), the writer should explore why and how to fix that-- if one sentence needs another beat, or if starting with a placement preposition ("In France,") would set the stage more efficiently. But the hard part is writing sentences that mean what you want them to mean, and putting them together in an order that adds even further meaning, and adding the connectives and keywords that increase the coherence.

Sentence variety is a minor consideration, if that. If the paragraph or passage sounds wrong, sounds repetitive, if the information is redundant, those are all reasons to revise sentences. And the lack of variety might be a symptom of one of those. But it's just a symptom-- lack of variety in sentences is not, in itself, a problem.

In fact, if you follow a mental set of rules (don't begin two sentences with the same word... don't have the same opening construction more than twice in a paragraph), you will very likely be depriving yourself of some important tools to make your prose stronger-- musical and meaningful.

Just keep that in mind-- if you want more poetic prose, read poetry to discover the useful poetic devices. If you want more musical prose, listen to music to get a sense of the musical devices.

And you know one thing both poetry and music have in common-- repetition. Yep. Repetition of words, phrases, and constructions.

Here's an example (from the immortal Smokey):
I don't care what they think about me
I don't care what they say
I don't care what they think if you're leaving
I'm gonna beg you to stay

I don't care if they start to avoid me
I don't care what they do
I don't care about anything else
But being with you being with you.

Now that "I don't care" repetition isn't just musically appealing (though it is). The accumulation of "I don't care" makes each stanza sound defiant, and more than that, establishes the stakes here-- the singer is choosing his girl over everyone else. He's telling us with the "I don't cares" what he is being warned, what will happen if he makes this choice.

Now there's art to this-- you see in both stanzas three "I don't cares" and then a capping line (one that, btw, finishes the last "I don't care," which adds to both the forward propulsion and the coherence of the stanza). That is, the identical sentence structure of the two stanzas (which is very common in popular music) connects the two thoughts, and also then highlights the distinctive final lines.

One thing repetition does is focus the attention on the non-repetition. You pay more attention to the change because you're used to the repetition. So, in fact, a repetition of phrasing or structure BEFORE an important thought will subtly let the reader know that it's important. (So again, if you want to hide a clue, don't put it in the "important" position-- put it in the middle and make the structure and/or phrasing repetitive-- the reader might "elide" over it and not give it too much attention.)

Here's a poetic example. TS Eliot, a master craftsman (oh, yeah, good thinker and all that stuff too), often used repetition at the beginning of stanzas to unify the stanza or connect it with other similar stanzas:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

(This is the poem that ends with "This is the way
the world will end, not with a bang but a whimper."
It always reminds me of a friend's brother, whose
ex-girlfriend broke up with him to start dating
a more "suitable" young fella, one who worked
in a bank. The brother said ruefully, "And that's
the way the world will end, not with a whim
but a banker."
And I ask you-- which guy would you choose?
The one who works for the bank? Or the one
who can -- just like that-- make a twist on Eliot?)

So every stanza (this is, btw, near the end)
starts with a "Between (this) and (that)"
and ends with "falls the shadow".
Is the repetition a problem? No, of course
not-- it's the point.
By repeating that formulation, the poet focuses
on the connection and separation of the pairs,
and the reader has to think, "What is
the shadow between the idea and reality?"

And the precision of the repetition of the stanzas
contrasts with the sudden insertion of those comments
("For Thine is the Kingdom").

Yeah, yeah, that's poetry. But prose can sing too,
and you can use that "music" to draw attention
to a conclusion, a striking metaphor, or a theme.

I'm not trying to get you to be repetitive. Rather
I'm trying to refocus your thoughts onto what sentences are:
1) Units of meaning, and
2) Parts of bigger units of meaning (paragraphs and passages).

What creates meaning, what creates the effect you want,
in sequence and in combination-- That is a good sentence.
Paying too much attention to non-meaning factors (like making
the opening sound different) can actually detract from
your ability to give the reader the experience
you mean them to have.

Get the meaning right first. Know what that is. Know it
inside you before you write and before you revise.
(It might help to free-write here before you start.)
Then let your desire to communicate this to the reader
guide you to the best preliminary construction. Then check
on the big things-- is this in the right point in the
passage? Do you need some kind of transition to connect
it to what comes before? Is the sentence clear so the
reader can get your meaning (or however much of it you
want to convey right now)? Is there some poetic or
thematic thing you want to echo in here?
(And of course, if you're writing in character voice,
are there any words or formulations that don't sound
like that character?)

Get that stuff right, and then I don't think the
construction will worry you, because the sentence will
be meaningful and interesting and go well with the
rest of the paragraph.


Adrian said...

Asking a "prose stylist" about sentence variety may not be very indicative of what work-a-day writers face. By the time the stylist is done styling his/her prose, I suspect the only repetition remaining is intentional.

Repetition is powerful. It demands attention, so it has to be used with intention--as it is in your Smokey Robinson and TS Eliot examples.

If you write sentence by sentence, it's easy to create repetitive sentences accidentally. That's bad. Readers may find it annoying, distracting, or confusing. Those must be detected and fixed.

For another point of view, consider these comments by science-fiction novelist Robert J. Sawyer:

Most writers notice during proofreading if they've started two consecutive sentences the same way. But it's also bad form to start two consecutive paragraphs the same way, and that's harder to spot.

And from my favorite handbook, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:

[One] problem ... is one we see regularly in the writing of both novices and professionals: unintentional repetition. Most writers already know to edit out places where they have literally repeated a word or phrase. ... [R]epetition can rob your writing of its power.
[Browne & King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 2nd ed., Harper Collins, 2004, pp. 175-176]

I think your point is that writers shouldn't choose a sentence structure at random as they begin each sentence. I think a secondary point is to not be afraid of intentional repetition if it suits the work. I agree with those points. Nevertheless, you will still, from time to time, end up with unintentional repetition that should be corrected.

In previous posts, you've even suggested some ways to do that (for example, by inserting transitional words or short phrases--but not PPPs!). I find that a string of simple sentences, all with the same subject, can be fixed up by combining some of them into compound sentences or by introducing a dependent clause. In other words, I vary the sentence structure.

It's a solution to a real problem, not an arbitrary rule that limits the prose.

Leona said...

This is helpful, especially the beginning part. Sometimes, I get too stuck on the rules and loose the point.

As I'm editing my WIP's, paying special attention to recently learned lessons in PPP's and commas, I'm finding myself getting too picky and losing the voice of my characters. Sentences too long, etc. "Oh no, these are too long. Fix it." Or I do the opposit.

I'm learning to quite doing that to my characters and their story. It's a rule of thumb, not one of the ten commandments written in stone.

Write your story, listen to the voice. Don't over correct.

Leona said...

Okay, correction here. I need to loosen up not loose the point. LOL

Try lose the point. :)

Lack of sleep is causing the rules to all blur in my mind anyway. If any of y'all lived in San Antonio, I'd be all about getting a drink :D

PS. Murphy, when you get a chance, I hope things are going well on your edits.

Edittorrent said...

I would totally pick the guy who can riff off of Eliot.


Dave Shaw said...

Adrian, what I get from Alicia's post isn't a contradiction of what she previously said (or even a contradiction of what you're saying), but rather that we need to look at what we're saying and say it well, rather than slavishly follow specific rules in all instances. Certainly we need to find those unintended repetitions - but when we find them, we should consider whether to remove them, or (probably only on rare occasions, of course, except for the really brilliant people that most of us envy) reinforce them to take advantage of the effect.

In other words, I think she's urging us to think, which in my odd little brain sounds very much like A Good Thing. 8-)

Dave Shaw said...

P.S. I'd like to think I'd pick a girl who'd riff off Eliot, but that's such a simplified example, who can tell? I mean, the banker might be able to riff off George Thorogood or Susannah Hoffs. Hehe.

Edittorrent said...

Dave, do bankers riff off Alan Greenspan and Paul Volker? "Hey, I'm going to ask the DJ to play the Fed's Greatest Hits!" I think it would be intriguing to play against type... a banker who never got over his/her Nirvana fixation, maybe?

Anyway, I agree-- I guess mainly I figure most of our blogreaders aren't beginning or "workaday" writers, or if they are, they can get beginning advice from many other sources. What I hope we're working at here is helping already experienced writers push their prose and plotting to a new level, and of course, I'm a lot more interested personally in how we can write Really Well and not just Pretty Adequately. I've seen enough samples of commenters' work here to know that we're not dealing with elementary writers! :)

Adrian, yes, I think a great way to vary the start of a sentence is with a meaningful short phrase that sets context (time or place, emotion, something important), like "In the spring," or "With resignation." I tend to like prepositional phrases more than participial, but I find that very short participles (like "Despairing, he...") can also work in many instances.

And combining a couple short sentences can help too-- but I do have to say this (because for me, meaning is primary), that putting two short sentences -- related-- together also provides the opportunity to show how the two ideas connect (through order, conjunction, transition). That adds to the meaning of the whole passage, and as a side effect, varies the sentence length in the paragraph. Good all around. :) And the lack of variety, as I said, might well be the signal that the thoughts behind the sentences can be deepened and/or connected.

Besides, in our blog, I like to write about things that interest me, and Eliot and Smokey do. :)


Edittorrent said...

Forgot to say, thanks, Adrian, for those links and refs to those who have gone far more than I want to in how writers can vary sentences, etc. Those look like good sources! I've had the Self-editing book for years, and like its approach, and I think you're right, it can be a great help to many writers.

Other links to helpful sites that might go into things we don't go into? What are great sites you have used? Here's one that has a lot of good links to articles on many different topics:

Dave Shaw said...

Um, Alicia? Volcker and Greenspan are economists who were appointed to the Fed by politicians. Most bankers have a limited grasp of the kind of 'big picture' economics that Fed appointees need - and Fed economists don't know the nuts and bolts of banking from the inside, they mostly get it from their economics studies. If a banker is being true to type, he or she should riff off a banker's banker like J.P. Morgan, not some silly economist. (Removing tongue from cheek now...)

Of course, there once was a woman at the local branch of the bank I use who rode her Harley to work. Have you ever noticed that frequently stereotyped people often make a point of going against the stereotype? I think that's a part of building a character, too - in what ways would she rebel, or would she only fantasize about it?

In Johnny's case, there are many kinds of status. Why does he value the kind of status that a doctor has, as opposed to the kind of status that a successful politician has, or the kind a leader of the Hell's Angels has, or the kind that a struggling writer has?

Dave, former economist, former engineer, former auto racer, current computer programmer and struggling writer (grin)

Edittorrent said...

Well, engineering and auto-racing sound pretty compatible. Sort of.

I've noticed that people who want to play against stereotype kind of tend to go too far, to get a bit extreme. I knew a mild-mannered college professor, very cerebral, who always talked about how he was going to give up tenure (yeah, right) and go to truck-driving school, because truck driving was the REAL THING. And he drove one of those half-ton pickups. He had, of course, nothing to haul, but he was sort of a truck driver.

But what can I say? I always wanted to work in a big mailroom. I have this idea that I'll get a legal chance to read people's mail then. :)