Saturday, January 23, 2010

Don't be lame-- don't limp to the end of a sentence.

Another of those "marks of a pro" is taut sentences (not necessarily terse) which say exactly what you mean without extra words. These lame words are particularly noticeable at the end of a sentence. (Remember, ending a sentence and esp. a paragraph on a strong word makes them particularly meaningful.)

So as you're revising, look at your sentences-- read them aloud, and listen for the bump or the lag that tells you the sentence has lost its power. Challenge yourself to make every sentence snap.

One thing I've noticed in editing is that the old grammarians were right (for the wrong reason, of course)-- ending a sentence on a preposition is usually bad. It's usually bad not because some grammar book says so, but because the preposition is about the weakest type of word short of an article (and you'd never end a sentence on "the" or "a")-- it's actually just a way, usually, of telling the relationship between two things. So whenever you have a sentence that ends on a preposition, see if you can rewrite it to end instead on a power word (those are usually nouns or verbs). And no, I don't mean "up with which" or "from whence" formations. I mean:

He took her to the house he grew up in. (Weak)

He took her to his childhood home. (Strong-- "his" "childhood"-- those come before the power word "home", and they convey emotion (possession and childhood) too .

English sentences are remarkably flexible, first because we have a huge vocabulary (house/home, for example), because our language took words both from the Teutonic and the Romance languages AND we have so many words still extant from the Angles and Saxons, and often two or more of those terms for something still exist in the language. And second, so many words can moved around in a sentence for different meaning-- sentence order is as important as word choice.

So there's always another way to save everything! If a sentence feels awkward or sounds too long or limps to a conclusion or seems vague, you're not stuck with it. There are probably four other ways to say what you mean. So know what you mean, and try to end on a strong word (noun or verb especially), unless, of course, you want to end softly and indeterminately (which you might want to do-- but don't do that just because you didn't revise enough!).

An example-- above, I ended a sentence on "too". This isn't uncommon, but as I did that, I felt it "limp".
Those come before the power word "home", and they convey emotion too.
There's a common synonym for "too," and I'm sure you all know what I mean-- also. But "also" at the end of a sentence is even more lame than "too". "Also" is an adverb ("too" is more complicated-- you can't generally place it as an adverb), and its strongest placement is usually right near the verb. So let's try:
Those come before the power word "home", and they also convey emotion.

See how that "also" not only properly modifies the verb, but also (eek) makes it possible to end on the very strong word "emotion". No limping there!

I can't say it enough. Challenge yourself to write better sentences. Your voice will shine more brightly if your sentences say what you mean in vivid, concrete terms.
Alicia

27 comments:

Jordan said...

Oh, man, I've noticed some "lame" sentences in my WIP with that same problem. I'm trying to find an example, but it seems like it's prepositional phrases that are giving me trouble—I'd leave them off, but it makes the verb ambiguous.

I'm trying to find one, but not having much luck.

Oh, here we go, a nice double one:

He didn't have any evidence to support her innocence, but his gut rarely let him down with things like this.

Sigh. Hello, vague, amorphous limping. I wanted to be more specific than to just say "his gut rarely let him down," because that sounds so cocky and overdone (a stereotype in the vein of NCIS's SA Gibbs, a LEO with an uncanny sixth sense for truth, justice and the American way).

Of course "his gut rarely let him down" is stronger.

On the first clause "her innocence" is a strong ending, but the overall phrasing is awkward and gimpy ;) . I'm going to blame the prepositional phrase again. (Totally not my fault. It put itself there.) (Wait . . . is that a prep phrase or an adverbial with a infinitive? Both?)

Well. Pass the weights. Let's get beef this baby up.

MeganRebekah said...

I first learned this "rule" of strong writing last year on the Absolute Write forum and have found myself thinking of it often as I write. Not that I always nail it, but I'm definitely more aware.

Thanks for another great post.

Seth said...

I prefer to write for characters, rather than to write for rules. If a certain character is our POV character, then I would use a sharper version of that character's voice as my narrative style. If they would end a sentence in a preposition, it usually reads better to just let them.

If you have a more pulled back narrative, of course, that's a different style. But I think character voice is far more important than author voice.

Hayley Hunkin said...

Great points. I do agree it depends on the character if you are writing from their perspective. Thanks for the post.

Edittorrent said...

He didn't have any evidence to support her innocence, but his gut rarely let him down with things like this.

How about:
He didn't have any evidence to support her innocence, but his gut rarely let him down.

I mean, why water it down with "things like this?" That sounds like his gut generally lets him down, just not with "things like this." The sentence is lame because you're crippling the poor guy by making him gutless, or almost. :)

Alicia

Jordan said...

I'm all for writing in a character's voice—I do it heavily myself. Yes, we should try to write things from our characters' POVs when we're in them, but that doesn't mean we can't try to make their voices shine and resonate.

(Would you want to sit through an opera with someone who can sing just fine? We might tolerate it, but if someone can really sing, it's a pleasure to listen to them for three hours—or 300 pages.)

Also note that the example here cuts 30% off the sentence and creates a more powerful image. This guideline here isn't about changing a character's thoughts, vocabulary or imagery, it's about phrasing them in a more vivid, concise way—a way that people will enjoy reading.

A character with a weak voice isn't an excuse for weak writing.

Jordan said...

@Alicia—I qualified it because personally, I'm tired of these 'human lie detector' characters that make for nice TV but are pretty much completely unrealistic (and boring, because they're perfect). I'd rather take it out entirely (replacing it with something else) than to give that impression.

Of course, part of the reason it's weak is because I'm not even 100% clear what "this" is, LOL. People judgments? Innocence judgments? I got lazy and decided to leave it up to the reader. Talk about weak writing ;) .

Come to think of it, this is much better:

He didn't have any evidence, but his gut said she was innocent.

Or maybe "He had no evidence." Hm.

See? Rephraseable, still in his voice, and yet a lot stronger.

Edittorrent said...

So what do you all do if your character has a pedestrian voice? I had one of those, and I did want to be "authentic", but he made the story sound dull. I guess I should have decided not to do it in tight POV.

But I thought it could be fun to replicate a vague voice. I think another writer (Dickens?) could have made it amusing, but not me.
Alicia

Jordan said...

I think it can be amusing when the story has enough power to move on its own—and the flat affect is a humorous counterpoint. (I'm thinking of this episode of CSI where this guy with awesomely deadpan delivery [other than gloating about the fact that they couldn't arrest him] had a serious series of unfortunate events befall him. He accidentally killed two people before breakfast. Very funny—but he didn't bemoan his ill fortune, he was just matter-of-fact, my-life-sucks-like-you-wouldn't-believe about it.)

But if the marker of the character's voice is the mushy phrasing, I don't know if it'll work (or work well enough to get published, anyway). You can write good sentences (without limping to a conclusion) that still have a flat affect.

Jordan said...

Back on the character voice thing: The more I think about it (and I do this, too—and I've already admitted to being lazy in my own example ;), the more I think "but that's how my character would say it" can be an excuse not to revise.

That might be how the character would say it, but if the character got another chance (or ten) to look at it over again and revise it (for publication), is that how s/he'd still say it? No, s/he wouldn't make it poetic and beautiful and use words and images s/he doesn't know, but that doesn't mean s/he'd leave a mushy sentence there and allow it to undercut his/her meaning.

Murphy said...

My .02, Jordan? I like: He had no evidence, but his gut said she was innocent. -or- There was no evidence, but his gut told him she innocent.

Murphy - up late and wondering what the heck is an 'authentic' pedestrian voice? Scratching head over that one... :D

Jordan said...

Hi Murph! I was hoping you'd be by :D . Thanks for the input; I've made a note to change that sentence and will be on the look out for others like it.

An authentic pedestrian voice is that of someone who really knows what it's like to walk everywhere.

I'm hilarious.

(Can you tell I'm using the comments here to avoid revisions?)

John Harper said...

Hi Alicia

A great post, and timely for me as I do my final revision of my story.

Jordan: wow, lots of comments. Looks like you have alot of answers to sort you out.

OR should i say: Looks like everyone has got you the answers.

John Harper said...

Well i've been looking through my latest story, and i'm actually not too bad. But not 100%.

Heres one I found:

"He should have been sailing there right now, to rescue her."


I guess I could change it to: "He should have been sailing there right now. She needed rescuing." But its not really making things more taut, is it?


Another place where I fall down here is when the POV character asks himself a question, such as:

"Scott bristled. Who did Lee think he was? "

How would you get around that? (without restructuring from a question to stating the answer)

green_knight said...

I think this is a very clear post since it gives a very clear idea which markers to look for, and what to do once you've identified problematic sentences.

(Ending a sentence weakly is a good tool to lead over into the next, which can speed up a passage and hide information in plain sight: If you want to slide something past the reader, don't make the sentence memorable.)

On another note, I'd like to point out the strong ablist language of this post; I'm certain you could have found a different metaphor.

green_knight said...

He didn't have any evidence to support her innocence, but his gut rarely let him down with things like this.

Jordan,
I think the problem is less the sentence than what you're trying to say with it. Have we seen him follow his gut? Does he want to believe her innocence because he's attracted to her? Will he ignore evidence because his gut proclaims her innocence?

From your sentence, I can't tell; and I'd need more context before I could rewrite it:

His gut proclaimed her innocence, and his gut was never wrong.

A warm-hearted woman like her could not be guilty.

She was innocent; his gut said so. So who was the murderer?

Murphy said...

Hi Jordan!

...Others like it? ;D

Yeah, I kind of guessed you were on a roll...that would be rolling away from you revisions at hand - you naughty girl! ;)

You say: A character with a weak voice isn't an excuse for weak writing.

Great point, but if we're talking 'authentic' here - how can a character with a weak voice - not translate through how we write them? Crap, I probably didn't say that right. I guess what I mean is, just because we have the chance, as writers, to edit how a 'weak' character reasons on a page - does that mean we should polish their interior process and make it as strong as possible? Isn't that watering down their authenticity as a weak character?

Hi John!

My .02 on your sentence?

He should be sailing there to rescue her.

My reasons for this are twofold. I’m not a big fan of have been when be states clearly the intent. And, the word rescue in itself, is powerful enough to carry the end of the sentence. I mean, the word alone conjures a need, so to my mind, adding needed rescuing is kind of redundant, right? If a rescue is involved - it's assumed someone's in need of it. :)

And, your second example:

...when the POV character asks himself a question, such as:

"Scott bristled. Who did Lee think he was? "


Are you in Scott's POV here? If so, you'd be best not to say Scott bristled as he wouldn't think himself as Scott, right? I'd probably use an action to get his bristling across to the reader while the reader follows the most important part of this - his thought that follows. Like:

His jaw tghtened. Who did Lee think he was? - or even - His eyes widened. Who the hell did Lee think he was?

Murphy

green_knight said...

John & Murphy:
"He should have been sailing there right now, to rescue her."

The second part is pretty easy, because there's a stronger way of waying 'to rescue her' (And UGH, why do men always think women need rescueing?)

The first part isn't weak gramatically, it's weak in content.

'sailing there' tells us exactly nothing. Either add a concrete location 'sailing to x' or find a way to _show_ the act of sailing.

He should be aboard the Millenium_Treasure, sailing to Janie's rescue.

Murphy said...

Hi green_knight!

You could qualify it that way, but I was thinking this wasn't a stand alone statement. That what came before would detail the information to the reader. I mean, if his character has already mentioned the Millenium Tressure and Janie's name - and where she is - enough for the reader to know what's what - to do so again would be aggravating.

Murphy

Theresa Milstein said...

Great post! I've heard that it's important things in a row that a writer should put them in order of importance from least to most, to increase impact. I haven't thought about endings of sentences (other than to avoid prepositions), but now I will try to end with a bang.

See, I did it here too. No, not "too". My above sentence endings were mind-blowing in their awesomeness.

Edittorrent said...

Seth, see next post--

Leona said...

Jordan, I'm going to have to put my IWM stamp here. She's got you pegged, I think :D

I am bad at prepostional endings, and I don't mean the whol preposition, just the word.

I have a question? Are we, as writers, all paranoid? I swear, I would think most of these posts (except the football ones as I'm an avid, die hard, Seahawks Fan) were written directly at me. It's great to get so much help :D

John Harper said...

Is it actually wrong to end on a pronoun? (Or whatever they are called: He, Her, I). a pronoun is still a noun, right?

And what about something like 'here'. I mean I could say 'here in the Orinz Solar system' which is a noun, but it sounds dumb so i say 'here' is that bad?

I guess I should warn you that I don't understand any of the grammar terms you use: When you say prepositions, I see jumbo jets overhead

John Harper said...

Hmmm, another question for you:

"The radio loop continued, but no one answered it."

Could change to "The radio loop continued unanswered." but this doesn't give me the feeling that the first does: I want the 'no one answered it' as it feels a bit more eerie and gives more weight to this whole ghost in the night thing I am trying to do.

My next fix was:

"The radio loop continued, but no one answered its call"

Bang, we have a good ending, but i've made the sentence longer. Have I robbed peter to pay paul here? I'm all doubting myself now!

Edittorrent said...

Leona, you are a Seahawks fan??? Well, you don't actually need any more trouble, so we'll all be nice to you. :)
A

green_knight said...

John,

you could simply chop off the it' - 'no-one answered' is perfectly fine.

The easy way of making sentences stronger often lies in finding a noun: 'continued without answer.' If there is no-one _doing_ the answering, then you don't need to introduce a pronoun at all.

John Harper said...

Thanks GK, gives me something to think about :)