Saturday, 9 April 2011

Part 2 - How do you structure sentences?

Understanding how sentence structures work should help you build better sentences. But it’s not just about knowing the different types of sentences that can improve your writing – simple, complex and compound sentences -sometimes it is about how we ‘hear’ the sentences when we read them aloud, or when we read them at editing stage that we often find errors.

Often when we look at our sentences, some may not look right. When we read them we might trip up, or stall, or they just don’t make sense – so something isn’t right. This instinct is correct most of the time– it doesn’t look right because invariably it isn’t. That’s why some sentences work better than others.

As an example, let’s take a section of the above sentence and see which of the following sentences works better.  The first one is what I was originally going to write and the second one is the one I chose:

Most of the time, this instinct is correct.
This instinct is correct most of the time.

While both sentences are perfectly acceptable, one reads better than the other because it dispenses with the need to include a comma and therefore a clause. Sometimes the sound of punctuation makes a difference to a sentence. Good, overall sentence structure creates a sense of rhythm and balance within the narrative.

This instinct is correct most of the time is the better sentence.

Clever use of sentence construction also enables a writer to create a vast array of effects for the reader. These include sentence fragments to alter pace, clauses and commas for deliberate pauses, longer complex sentences to slow pace and to stress important points in the narrative, or the use of very complex sentences - used sparingly - which add style and flair. The use of punctuation, like a semi colon, help stress a sentence, as can the use of alliteration.

Take a look at this example:

It was easier to imprison herself rather than face them, and each time the police came they asked the same questions over and over again. But the anger of their accusations remained fresh in her veins, seemingly unsullied by their prejudices, unwilling to go away.

By deconstructing these sentences, we can examine how they could be better written for the entire paragraph.

It was easier to imprison herself rather than face them, and each time the police came they asked the same questions over and over again.

This sentence is a compound sentence – it contains a clause, which means that the sentences are also stand alone sentences separated by a conjunction (And):

It was easier to imprison herself rather than face them. (Stand alone sentence).
Each time the police came they asked the same questions over and over again. (Stand alone sentence).

By removing the conjunction, you create a tighter flow of words and create a sense of balance. You can also create a sense of tension because the sentences become sharper, they lean towards being staccato. Conjunctions are useful, but too many writers rely on the use of conjunctions in the wrong places. Sentence construction can be improved by removing some of them.

But the anger of their accusations remained fresh in her veins, seemingly unsullied by their prejudices, unwilling to go away.

The second half of the paragraph is okay, but could be further improved. Where in this sentence could you insert a conjunction? Have you spotted the ambiguous sentence? Could you make the sentence longer by adding to it?

But the anger of their accusations remained fresh in her veins. Did you spot the ambiguity? Is the anger coming from the police, or is it coming from the main character? Ambiguity can be a major problem with some sentences. They’re not always easy to spot, but they can give an entirely different meaning to sentences.

The anger raised by their accusations remained fresh in her veins. By adding the words ‘raised by’ we can clearly show who is feeling the anger. This gives clarity to the sentence and prevents any ambiguity.

Now we can add a conjunction to show the reader that the entire sentence is a continuation of information.

The anger raised by their accusations remained fresh in her veins, seemingly unsullied by their prejudices and unwilling to go away.

By inserting ‘and’ in place of the comma, the sentence now becomes uniform and continuous. It flows better and does away with too many clauses. Also, the reader will instinctively know from the structure that that the word ‘seemingly’ determines the flow of the latter part of the sentence. This works on a subconscious level; it’s not immediately apparent, but it read it again and you will see.

If you were to try and split the sentence again by adding a full stop after ‘prejudices’ and thus creating a separate sentence, you have to use the word ‘was’ to complete the sentence:

The anger raised by their accusations remained fresh in her veins, seemingly unsullied by their prejudices. It was unwilling to go away.

This sentence isn’t too bad, but the addition ‘it was’ interrupts the flow and rhythm of the original sentence. Not only that, but writers should avoid the use of ‘was’ wherever possible.

Here’s another example to illustrate sentence rhythm and pace:

Shadows poked from corners and filled her with unease, but she managed to control her breathing and her heartbeat, and allowed the sharp burst of fear of the unknown to diminish.

This example isn’t too bad. It’s descriptive, but can you spot where it could be improved?

There are too many conjunctions for a start. This slows the sentence rhythm, when in fact it needs to pick up pace to create tension. Removing all those ‘ands’ makes the sentence tighter:

Shadows poked from corners, filled her with unease. She managed to control her breathing, her heartbeat; allowed the sharp burst of fear of the unknown to diminish.

This shows how easy it is to tidy your sentences and correct the flow.

Which of the following sentences are better and why?

The sky darkened and his breathing quickened, and from somewhere he thought he heard a scratching noise...

The sky darkened. Breathing quickened. From somewhere he thought he heard a scratching noise...

The second sentence structure is better. The short, staccato sentences create immediacy and tension and quicken the pace. The importance of the moment is created because of this fragmented nature. You may find that some computer software, like Word, want you to correct fragmented sentences, but on the whole these are quite acceptable because they lend to the effect of your narrative.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with fragmented sentences, as long as they are part of a sentence structure, as above.

As you can see from the above examples, sometimes improving a sentence means nothing more than changing a word, removing it, adding a conjunction or stressing punctuation. Think about where you want clauses, commas and full stops. Think about how sentences would sound with or without some additional words.

Word order makes a difference. Know where to add conjunctions and where to remove them. Know the difference between using a comma compared to a semicolon to construct clauses. Well-structured sentences tell the reader the importance of different parts of the sentence. Stressed words can help achieve this.

Sentences can be as simple or as complex as we want. As writers, we take sentences for granted, but in essence they’re incredibly important and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

The best way is to improve your work is to read it aloud. ‘Hear’ the sentences. You as the writer will learn to understand which sentences work better and which ones could be improved.

Better sentences do several things -

• Tightens prose
• Makes a point
• Moves the story forward
• Creates rhythm
• Creates clarity
• Creates immediacy

Avoid the following:

• Ambiguity
• Monotony
• Repetition
• Too many conjunctions


Next week: Part 3 – Structuring dialogue sentences.

3 comments:

  1. very informative, thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Better sentences =better writing :)
    thanks for this very useful and knowledgable post, AJ.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's pretty helpful ... thank u :)

    ReplyDelete