Saturday, 26 November 2011

Action/Reaction & Dialogue sentence order

Continuing the theme of strengthening sentences, one of the things that I see a lot of in MSS is the order in which the characters do and say things. This may not seem too important, and it’s one of those things we don’t necessarily pay much attention to, however when it comes to clarity, being able to put the action or reaction or dialogue in the right order makes for tighter, polished and better sentences.

And they make more sense, of course.

The aim is to write actions and their reactions in chronological order. Not only does it create clarity but it also keeps the flow of the sentence, without interruption, and it reduces ambiguity. It makes life so much easier for your reader, and by putting the action before the dialogue, it increases the effectiveness of the sentence.

Here’s a simple example:

He grabbed the phone, startled by it.

Essentially this sentence isn’t actually grammatically incorrect, but it does read as though he grabbed the phone first, then he was startled by it, so the order is a little misleading for the reader.

To give it clarity, and inform the reader, it’s better like this:

The phone rang, startled him. He grabbed it.

This version is punchy and to the point and supplies the reader with a chronological order, i.e. that the phone startled the character and is this is followed by his action of grabbing it.

Here’s another example:

He sipped his coffee as he sat down, watched the assembled faces.

Again, while the sentence is okay, it can be much tighter. This tells us he sat down while drinking his coffee and looked at the people around him. There’s almost a hint of nonchalance about him, but if we change the sentence order, it takes on a slightly different feel.

He sat down, watched the assembled faces as he sipped his coffee.

The character’s action of sitting down and then looking at those around him infers that perhaps he is nervous or he’s carefully gauging those around him.

Here’s a typical example of what many writers tend to slip into their narrative, a reaction to action sentence:

She saw the shock on his face when she opened the door.

Here, the writer has opted to show the reaction first (the shock on his face), followed by the action (opening the door). If we think about it logically, it makes more sense to do the action first, and then show the reaction.

She opened the door; saw the shock on his face.

It’s now clear and concise, and it gets rid of the ‘when’ which is of no use whatsoever. More importantly, it sets the correct order of action to reaction.


On the whole, action is better before dialogue. Why? Often the sentence doesn’t read correctly when the person says something and then does the action afterward, like an afterthought. Sentences are tighter and better with action, then dialogue. Not only that, but the placement of action/dialogue can affect how a reader interprets the events/speech.

This is also a way of informing the reader of your character’s actions or thoughts prior to the action. For instance:

‘Hello?’ he said, grabbing the phone.

This sentence isn’t incorrect, but it’s not great either. The character says hello while grabbing the phone, so this causes inadvertent ambiguity. How many of us say hello before we’ve put the phone to our ears? By rearranging the sentence order, the sentence becomes clearer:

He grabbed the phone. ‘Hello?’

This sentence is now unambiguous. The action of the phone ringing is immediately followed by the response. 

The idea is to always make your writing as clear as possible for your reader. Take a look at these sentences and decide which you think work better.

1. ‘So, what happened?’ he said, getting out of the car.

He got out of the car. ‘So, what happened?’

2. ‘I don’t care what he thinks,’ she said, taking a cigarette from the packet and lighting it.

She took a cigarette from the packet, lit it. ‘I don’t care what he thinks.’

3.’I don’t have time for this nonsense,’ he said and stomped around the office.

He stomped around the office. ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense.’

There are no hard rules about sentence order, but having clear sentences that follow a simple chronological order with actions and reactions or dialogue makes for better writing and helps writers improve their writing skills.

Of course, not every single sentence in your story will be like this, but following these simple guidelines will help to improve the standard of your writing. It makes it much easier for your reader, and ultimately, more enjoyable for them to read.

Next week: Avoiding narrative oppositions

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Strengthening sentences with some weeding

The great thing about the editing process is that it’s a chance for writers to weed out the superfluous, the structural errors and all those grammatically incorrect words and sentences. 

A writer should always aim for better constructed sentences. That means weeding out things like adverbs and adjectives, passive sentences, gerunds and making sure the tenses are correct etc.

There are other constructions that creep into our writing without us noticing and that is the use of phrasal verbs or prepositional words.

We write these kind of phrases and words without thinking too much about them, which is why they can end up becoming prevalent in our work.  For the most part, if you want tightly constructed, concise and well thought out sentences, you take need to weed them out.

How many times have your characters decided to do something, or they have begun to or started to do something, or they are going to do something? If you read back through your work, I’m willing to bet a few of these have crept into your writing.

Begin to, decide to and going to. Too many of these phrasal anomalies weaken the sentence structure, unless they are absolutely integral to the sentence or form part of your character’s dialogue.

Begin to

How many times do you have characters "begin to" do things? For example:

He began to make the coffee
She began to cry into her handkerchief

While these sentences are not grammatically incorrect, it is better that the characters take direct action, especially if you have a story in based in past tense, so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

He made the coffee
She cried into her handkerchief

This tidies up the sentences and makes them much tighter and the flow of action is much better.

Started to

This is very similar to begin to, in that you have your characters starting to do something when instead you can be direct and get them to just do the action.

He started to unravel to the rope
They started to run towards the trees

Again, by using direct action, you avoid slowing the narrative and the sentence structure becomes tighter.

He unravelled the rope.
They ran towards the trees.

Decide to

We can apply the same principle when we have characters ‘deciding to’ do something. Instead of the characters doing that, have them do the direct action.

He decided to look through the files
She decided to make lunch

Again, having them decide to do things creates an unintentional slowing of the sentence structure. Be direct.

He looked through the files.
She made lunch or she prepared lunch.

Instantly you have tighter sentences. The only time you would use decide to, is in dialogue between characters, where they would say these kinds of phrases.

‘I decided to go for it,’ he said.
‘He decided to look through the files,’ she said.

Going to be

‘Going to’ is future tense because it’s stating future events or actions that might take place, for instance, someone is going to be angry, sad, happy etc. Something is going to happen. These usually occur in dialogue. For example:

He is going to be angry
She is going to be unhappy with this
They are going to be so happy with our surprise
I think it is going to rain

Again, it’s about being direct within the narrative and what you want to express, and replacing ‘going to’ with ‘will’. 

He will be angry
She will be unhappy with this
They will be so happy with our surprise
I think it will rain.

Beginning to, starting to, deciding to and going to all create unnecessary pauses within the narrative and slow the pace, particularly so if you have a fast-paced action scene and your hero is right in the action, but then you have him deciding to do something, or starting to do something or going to do something, which creates a stumbling block.

Always remember to be direct wherever possible. Not all phrasal verbs are avoidable, but most are unnecessary and unconstructive within your narrative. Weeding them out will make for better writing and better sentences.

Next week: Creating better sentences: Action /reaction sentence order

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Creating Sibilance

Ever wondered how you can create poetic resonance within your narrative, or you’ve read what you have written and you’ve discovered it has strong characteristic sounds? The descriptive language somehow appeals to your senses to create an extra dimension to the narrative. This is known as sibilance.

Sibilance is a literary device which writers can use to create certain sounds within their narrative, usually a hissing sound with ‘s’ or ‘z’ or ‘sh’ and sometimes a soft ‘c,’ and it is most often found in poetry. These words resonate with the reader, it visualises sound and if done properly, it can bring the description to life.

Sibilance can either appear within narrative or you can use it in dialogue, but as with all writing, it’s about knowing how and it works and where the sibilance should be placed that counts. It’s an effective tool to create multi layers to what might be flat, uninspiring narrative. Besides, effective use of language is what writing is all about and writers should take advantage of all the tools in their writing toolbox.

Sibilance in narrative

Scenes of description can benefit from sibilance, it gives can help create atmosphere, it can draw tension, it can paint a more colourful picture for your reader. 

Of course, using sibilant words doesn’t mean littering a scene in such a way that it somehow weakens the narrative rather than strengthens it, for instance by using every word beginning with s, such as ‘he slowly sank in shifting shadows, senses starved...’

This is overkill and reads more like a shopping list. This is the wrong way to approach sibilance. Remember that sibilant words don’t have to begin with‘s’ to create sibilance.

Here’s an example of how it should be done within narrative.  I've highlighted the sibilant words:

Your deceitful sheen stretched tight across a burnished expression.

Nearly this entire sentence has sibilance. The soft ‘c’ in deceitful, the ‘sh’ sound in sheen and the ‘s’ in stretched is further bolstered by the ‘ss’ in across, ‘sh’ in burnished and finally ‘ss’ in expression.

Notice that not every word begins with‘s’, but that other words which express the softer ‘sh’ and ‘c’ sound and the harder ‘ss’ sound have been utilised.   

This is how effective sibilance works. It doesn’t have to be overt, most often it is subtle, and each word doesn’t have to begin with ‘s’, but the sentence is written in such a way that a reader will notice the sounds created within the sentence on a completely subconscious level.

Here are some more examples:

The sounds brushed against the ears like a soft soliloquy.

Here both the ‘s’ at the beginning and end of the word sounds, the ‘sh’ in brush, the ‘s’ in ears, the ‘s’ in soft and finally the ‘s’ in soliloquy are sibilant.

The light zapped across the sky, an intense forceful, flash.

Again, the ‘z’ in zapped, ‘ss’ in across, the‘s’ in sky, ‘s’ in intense, the soft ‘c’ in forceful and the ‘sh’ in flash all work together to create sibilance.

Sibilance in Dialogue

Sibilance in dialogue works slightly differently to narrative, because unlike narrative, dialogue isn’t describing anything except for the attributions, ‘she said, he said, she screamed, he scowled’ etc.

In dialogue, try not to go for these obvious attributions when instead you can show the reader the emotions of your characters and create the sibilance in the sounds for the reader to hear.

Instead of, ‘I despise you,’ she hissed, try this instead:

Something simmered on her tongue. ‘I despise you...’

Here, ‘something’ and ‘simmered’ is coupled with ‘despise’. All have the‘s’ sound. The reader will hear the slight hiss without you having to mention the word ‘hiss’ because ‘something simmered’ is enough to allow the reader to hear the anger in the character’s voice.

Instead of ‘Get out,’ he scowled, try this:

His face creased, anger slithering up his throat. ‘Get out!’

In this example, ‘his face creased,’ creates sibilance, which is coupled with ‘slithering’ and ‘his’ to create a complete sibilant sentence. The reader will know he is upset from the way the character’s face creases and the anger rising in his throat, so there is no need to say ‘scowled’.

Instead of, ‘Help!’ she screamed, try this:

Shadows closed in, stifling her. Fear seeped into her voice. ‘Help...!’

The sentence does away with the attribution ‘she screamed’ and makes use of sibilance to create atmosphere and show the tension by using the ‘s’ in shadows, ‘c’ in closed and ‘s’ in stifling. This is coupled with the‘s’ in seeped and soft ‘c’ in voice.

This works much better. It creates sounds for the reader and helps them visualise the scene and it also brings tension and atmosphere.

Remember, sibilance isn’t about making every word begin with ‘s’ to create the ‘sss’ sound, it’s about using different words together that hint at the sound. It is such a useful device for writers to play around with. It’s there, so make use of it.

Next week: Strengthening sentences with a little weeding.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Part 3 - Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Continuing on from Part 1 and Part 2 - modifiers and intensifiers - in this last part we’ll look at Qualifiers.

Writers should familiarise themselves with the different types of modifiers so that when it comes to editing, the process is easier.

Qualifiers are a type of modifier; they modify words in a sentence or phrase in a certain way, they qualify adjectives and verbs and provide readers with specific details. In other words, they change how absolute or generalised a sentence can be.

For instance, ‘this sum is very large’ or ‘this sum is a great deal bigger than I expected’, where the words ‘very’ and ‘great deal’ are the qualifiers. Or ‘he came across it almost by accident’ or ‘he came across it pretty much by accident’, where ‘almost’ and ‘pretty much’ are the qualifiers. To varying degrees, each of these has modified the sentence.

Often, qualifiers provide unnecessary padding to your narrative. We use qualifiers in our speech all the time, but when it comes to fiction writing, they should only appear in dialogue, because, like intensifiers and types of modifiers, they weaken the quality of writing.

Many writers mistakenly believe that their narrative needs this sort of ‘padding’, or that if they use lots of ‘rather’, ‘quite’ and ‘somewhat’, the writing sounds better than it is. It doesn’t.

Take out the qualifiers from the above examples and you have much better sentences.

The most commonly (overused) qualifiers are: rather, very, quite, usually, generally, somewhat, more, less, least, so, just, enough, indeed, still, almost, most, fairly, really, pretty much, even, a bit, a little, a good deal, a great deal, kind of, sort of.

Now you can see why, wherever possible, you should avoid these types of words that modify your sentences.

Take this example:

The rain was somewhat heavy as he opened the door.

Apart from sounding vague, the ‘somewhat’ is completely unnecessary and serves only to pad the sentence with extra verbiage. Leave out the ‘somewhat’ and just have ‘the rain was heavy as he opened the door’ and you’ll see that the sentence has immediately strengthened.

How many of these have crept into your writing without you even noticing? Here are some examples that crop up in writing all the time:-

Jane almost collapsed with shock.   (Almost? Either she did or she didn’t.)
It sort of just happened.   (Sort of or not quite, or just stuck in between?)
The house was just around the corner.   (Does that mean right there, half way, further down from the corner?)
Indeed, it was his first lesson.   (Indeed is pointless in this sentence.)

As you can see from these examples, these are the types of qualifiers we use all the time when chatting to other people in everyday life, however when it comes to narrative, avoid littering the story with them because they inevitably weaken the structure and make it look amateurish. They also make the writer appear lazy.

Be succinct and don’t be let sentences become inadvertently vague by using qualifiers.

Of course, as is the case with creative fiction, there are some qualifiers that you do need when writing – all, always, none, never. These are known as absolute qualifiers (a modifier that does not have matters of degree). They are absolute.

It’s impossible not to use qualifiers in the right circumstances, however their use in the wrong circumstances can cause problems, so for the most part, it’s wise to avoid most of them and keep a strict eye on where they end up in your narrative.

As you can see from the various examples, weeding out some qualifiers can make your sentences better and tighter, and now that you can recognise them, it will be easier to edit your work and eliminate as many as possible.

Remember, your narrative should always be concise, tight and sharp.

Next week: Creating sibilance