The Writer’s Desk: Pay attention to your sentences

Recently I participated in a workshop on Writing Great Sentences conducted by Geraldine Woods, author of 25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way. I’d been trying to sign up for the workshop for two years and always ended up on a waiting list, but this time I made it in. Why would I, author of several books, former English teacher, and bearer of more degrees than a thermometer, need a class on sentences? Because I hate to admit this, but I don’t know everything.

According to Woods, “Sentences are the smallest unit of expression that distinguishes one writer from another.” Diction and syntax are like a fingerprint where readers easily distinguish the urgent, mad voice of Jack Kerouac in On the Road from the staid, elegant narration of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

In her workshop, Woods operates on two principles: notice and experiment. By noticing, the writer consciously (or subconsciously) places emphasis on words that are important, words she also wants the reader to notice.

For example, in the pocket style sentence, the word order (or group of sentences in a passage) is framed by beginning and ending the same way; the arrangement acts as a container for that’s really important within the structure. Woods uses an example from Virginia Wolff’s Mrs. Dalloway: “The War was over, except for someone like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night, eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favorite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven – over.”

The sentence itself tells a story and reveals essential details that Mrs. Dalloway wishes she could suppress because they inhibit her joy at the war’s end, yet she’s obligated to note them.

In class, Ms. Woods gave us several templates to form our own pocket sentence(s). I chose this one, (which also appears in her book on page 17.)

“Time to go,” said Arthur. __________________ “We have to leave now.”

Here’s my example:

“Time to go,” Arthur said, with an urgency I hadn’t heard him use before. I glanced around but everything seemed fine. What was his problem? I wasn’t done eating my lunch, and you don’t leave Beecher’s mac and cheese behind. Then I noticed the guy in the hoodie, holding something that may have been a gun. “We need to leave now,” Arthur repeated, this time his voice is almost a whisper.

The passage doesn’t include sensory detail, but the word choice is clear, and it provides context for two characters, a mood, and a third character who is about to wreak havoc. The syntax mirrors the urgency I was aiming for.

Woods also demonstrated how experimenting with words such as “verbing a noun,” using repetition, breaking the parallelism rule, and using onomatopoeia can create dynamic syntax. While an entire manuscript might grow muddy with too much experimentation, well-placed grammar experiments create lively storytelling and memorable scenes. If it sounds like anyone wrote it, the work lacks voice.

In a scene from Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, while conversing with a local, he could have said, “I consulted my language guide,” but he elevates it to “Me, dictionary-ing heavily.”

My favorite inventive sentence comes from Nora Zeale Hurston’s novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine. If she’d written, “He heard the train pull up and stop,” it would be grammatically correct, but the point-of-view character had never experienced a locomotive before, so Hurston ignites the reader’s senses with, “Suddenly he was conscious of a great rumbling at hand and the train shickalacked up to the station and stopped.” I don’t know about you, but I’ll never forget the invented verb shickalack.

I’d been dying to use the word fantoosh since I’d first heard it, and here was my opportunity in another class exercise to experiment with language:

Lady Gaga swooped across the stage, fantooshing her sequined cape behind her like a peacock.

The best sentences light up inside the reader’s brain and stimulate the senses. Don’t be afraid to be inventive and break the rules. And have fun drafting your sentences. If they fail, you can fix them later.

Geraldine Woods’ next workshop, Micromanage Your Writing, is being held online Sunday, May 16 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. If you can’t attend her workshop, do get your hands on her book. And keep a notebook of your own favorite sentences.

— By Laura Moe

Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. She is currently revising her myriad wretched sentences in her novel-in-progress.

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