Save the Sentences

…wherein I pay tribute–and give advice on how to brutally edit–the backbone, glue and worker bee of stories–the sentence.

Everybody loves a great opening line:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.”

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.”

“Mother died today.”

Great first lines are important, and any writer who nails one is already ten steps ahead of the pack. But what comes after a terrific first sentence are many, many other sentences. Not all sentences can be as memorable as those I’ve mentioned above, but every sentence has a job to do in a story. It can be descriptive or declarative; convey an emotion or present a tease; describe a setting or destroy a universe. Whatever its function, sentences are the vehicles that tell the story. Sometimes they are Hummers–big and ostentatious and almost unwieldy–and sometimes they are like my beloved, ancient Mazda–nothing fancy, but absolutely reliable when it comes to getting me where I need to go.

Is this news? No, of course not. If you are a writer and you aren’t aware that stories are composed of sentences then…wow. I don’t even know how to complete that sentence.

So why am I blogging about sentences? Because while sentences are a good thing, there is that old bugaboo known as too much of a good thing. Sometimes it’s called overwriting, sometimes rambling, sometimes shooting the breeze, but whatever it is, a lot of writers suffer from a condition I like to call, in honor of the “too many notes”scene in Amadeus, Too Many Sentences Syndrome, heretofore known as TMSS.

Today I’m going to address a particular type of TMSS. I’ve been reading a lot of action-oriented manuscripts lately, and I’m seeing a common problem.

Let’s say you have a character who enters a dark room. You want to convey that the room is dark, so you write,

“Annabelle entered the room. It was dark. Pitch black. She couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. Her eyes tried to adjust to the inky darkness, but she couldn’t see a thing, because the room was  as black as night.”

Don’t laugh. Those are not quotes, but they could be. Here’s another example:

“David ran, as fast as his legs could carry him, towards the sound of screaming. He pumped his arms and lifted his feet, pounding on the ground. Clouds of dust rose in his wake. He ran so fast, his heart hammered. He panted hard, sweat rolling down his back, as he got closer and closer and the woman’s screams got louder and louder….”

What do these two collections of sentences have in common, other than being examples of TMSS?

They are stalling.

In both cases, a character is about to enter an action scene that seems to involve danger. The woman enters the dark room, the man is running towards the screaming. But while both characters are moving, it is taking FOREVER to get to the action. In the first case,the author keeps throwing in descriptions of the dark, delaying what’s in the dark, or what’s going to be illuminated once the lights flip on. In the second case, the author describes the man and scene very physically as he runs towards the woman in apparent trouble. In each instance, the author stalls the action by throwing in too many sentences between the character and the action. The author adds sentence after sentence to delay what’s about to happen.

Why? Why do authors stall?

Because writing action is hard. Overly describing a scene or giving a character an inane task or overtelling anything just before the action kicks in lets the author ease into a difficult and intense bit of writing. I see this a lot in manuscripts that are, eventually, full of action, but by the time the character reaches the screaming woman or flips on the light switch and sees Norman Bates’ mother in the rocking chair, some of the tension is destroyed, never to be returned.

How do you know if you suffer from TMSS? Examine your sentences and consider these question:

Does this sentence do a particular job to move the story forward?

Does it have a function that is not performed by the sentence before it, or the one after it?

Does it say something new or different, or is it simply repeating something else, in a different arrangement of words?

When I edit a story, this is what I do: examine it sentence by sentence. If each one doesn’t meet the above criteria, I kill it. If I can remove a sentence and the paragraph still makes sense and sounds pleasing, it’s a goner. No lazy, layabout, blowhard, repetitive, stalling sentences allowed.

Killing off non-functioning sentences will remove the clutter in your writing, and will get your reader to the action faster.

So, try it. Read your WIP sentence by sentence by sentence. Now! No stalling!


4 thoughts on “Save the Sentences

  1. I’m guilty! I stall all the time! I try to whittle things down in the re-write phase, but sometimes I miss the obvious. I think you’re absolutely right.–Stalling happens when the author just doesn’t know what comes next. (Guilty again!)


  2. Great post, Ramona. I’ve been revising this evening, and I think I passed on a rewrite for an exact situation like this. I thought to myself, “Sure, that first sentence tells, and the next one shows, but it works.”

    Except it doesn’t.

    Where was that sentence…? Hmmn.


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