This month, we've been looking at the importance of sentence structure. If you missed our refresher, check it out here. Hopefully, you had time last week to read some great first lines in YA literature. Perhaps you've even practiced some of your own writing. If you want to improve your skills, it's important to take time daily to study and exercise your writing muscles.
Today, I have a visual exercise for you. I will present three images, and you will tell the story. You can write as much or as little as you want. However, for this exercise to have meaning, you should try to focus on a beginning, middle and end. It can be flash fiction or an opening to a longer story; but it must tell the three parts.
To help you get started, consider what just happened before the picture was taken. Think about where the characters in the photos might go in a moment or what they might do next.
This is a great chance to explore sentence variation.
Choose one or more and write. You might want to combine two photos or even all three. How are they connected? Perhaps the pictures inspire a theme that you want to explore. There are no rules. (Except that you must write!)
Remember what we learned about simple and complex sentences. What emotions do the pictures convey? Would shorter simple sentences work, or is the story more complicated and requires longer and more detailed complex sentences?
Don't forget to include promises of more story to come.
Please share your efforts below.
We all make lists of our favorite books whether we write the lists down or hold them in our heads. However, can we pinpoint exactly what we liked about that book? For me, it's the story and voice. Yet as a writer, I know that the actual writing (the grammar, sentence structure, word choice) all play a part in making that story unique.
If you're reading this blog right now, chances are you are reading at least one book. Go get it. Open it up to the first page. Read the first few lines. What grabs you? Can you clearly hear the narrator's voice in your head? Can you picture the scene, smell, taste or feel anything described? If this is a book you are enjoying, you probably answered yes to at least one of those questions.
Now, read those lines again. No, take out a notebook and pencil, and copy down each sentence. Study them. What is their structure? If you want to write great literature, you must read great literature.
Study these amazing first lines from YA novels. What do you like about them? What makes them work? How can you harness their power in your own writing?
Pay particular attention to what each narrator promises the reader.
The promise of authority or confidence:
"I've confessed to everything, and I'd like to be hanged. Now, if you please." CHIME by Franny Billingsley
"It's a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
The promise of humor or sarcasm:
"Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day." THE LOST HERO by Rick Riordan
"There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." HOLES by Louis Sachar
The promise of something bad:
"Anything can happen in the blink of an eye." ABANDON by Meg Cabot
"The best time to cry is at night when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help." MONSTER by Walter Dean Meyers
The promise of something good:
"The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle." PAPER TOWNS by John Green
"There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart's Desire." STARDUST by Neil Gaiman
The promise of a past and future:
"I used to be someone." THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary E. Pearson
"My name is Francis Joseph Cassavant and I have just returned to Frenchtown in Monument and the war is over and I have no face." - HEROES by Robert Cormier
Now that you've read some well-constructed lines, it's time to write a few of your own. Share yours below!
Granted grammar isn't the sexiest blog topic, but it is the root of good writing. Anyone out there who has read through three pages of a third grader's report on Abe Lincoln can attest to the importance of a well-crafted sentence.
Last week I offered a sentence structure primer, introducing you to the four types of sentences often used in standard writing: simple, compound, complex, compound-complex. Hopefully, this all made sense to you, and you have been busy this week picking and pruning your own writing. Perhaps the first task you took to was to ensure that your sentences were not fragments. I know it's not the most delightful aspect of writing, but it is necessary.
Let's practice more this week.
Read the sentences below. Locate the fragments or run-ons. Bonus if you can give them structure.
1. I'm not afraid of climbing trees.
2. I once cherished a majestic maple that stood solidly on our front lawn, guarding the house like some armored knight.
3. The first tree I climbed.
4. It will forever be my favorite.
5. My first best friend.
A run-on is when you have accidentally tied too many clauses into one sentence. A fragment is when you haven't completed your sentence (it's missing a verb or a noun or object). In literature, we do have some rights to ignore these rules in variation. However, I wouldn't suggest making a habit of it. In any case, the sentence structure you choose for your writing should match the tone and voice of your story.
Above, the fragments are sentences 3 and 5. The others are simple sentences.
Let's try another exercise. Each sentence below is either a fragment or a run-on. Decide which is which, and see if you can help them out.
1. When you're in love.
2. Only my father.
3. I climbed higher, up to the very top, and my mother watched the birds even though their nesting season was over and they were preparing to journey far off to the south where they can bathe in the sun's warmth.
4. As if you are dancing longer than anyone else.
5. You can't swim even in the summer because the waves crash and the deep ocean current is so strong.
These may be obvious (fragments are sentences 1, 2, 4; run-ons are 3, 5). However, how do you correct them? There are many choices. Yet the most important piece is missing here. The story. These sentences, dropped carefully within your story, may work just fine. Fragments, run-ons, warts and all.
In fact, the first five sentences at the top are taken directly from page one of my novel, "This Girl Climbs Trees". Fragments can define a character's voice and add tension to the plot. Run-ons serve an equal purpose. The trick is knowing where to place them (and not abuse them).
We can take the second set of five sentences and craft them into a lovely piece of writing as well:
Life is beautiful. When you're in love. Not everyone believes this. Only my father. My mother doesn't understand. Yesterday, she made that clear. We argued. I ran out of the house and straight to my favorite tree. I climbed higher, up to the very top, and my mother simply watched the birds even though their nesting season has ended, and they are preparing to journey far away, to the south, to where the sun's warm rays can hold them close. I want to go with them. I want to fly away and dance in the sky. My mother can watch me. I will float higher. I want to dance. Dance as if I am dancing longer than anyone else. She can stay here on earth. She can sit by the shore and wait for me, for all I care. Silly woman. You can't even swim in the summer because the waves crash so hard along the shore, and the deep ocean current's strength might pull you out to sea. Maybe it will pull her out. She doesn't understand love.
Life is beautiful when you're in love.
Now, it's your turn. Go to your own work in progress. Find the rhythm of your story and pick at each sentence. Are they fragments in need of clauses or subjects? Are they run-ons in need of commas, conjunctions or a divorce?
Give yourself some writing exercises this week. Take one paragraph or section of your story, and write each sentence separately on a sheet of paper (numbered, not in a paragraph). Read each one. Does each sentence stand on its own? Does it have purpose? Does it move your plot forward or reveal character? Don't be afraid to take out those pruning shears and trim away unnecessary verbiage.
Have fun writing, and come back next week for more practice on sentences.
I love to read. Reading began my passion for writing. I figured, hey, if it's something I love, it'll be easy.
Turns out, that's not entirely true.
It hasn't been so easy, but I have learned and taught myself much along the way. One thing I do know: there is always more to learn.
So I've decided to plan twelve writing tasks for us this year. I will feature a different writing exercise the first Monday of each month. During that month, I'll return each Monday sharing more about our topic.
This month, we are tackling sentence structure. I'll do my best to make it painless and interesting.
For the purposes of simplification here, there are four basic types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, compound-complex. Writers, of course, have some poetic license; for the most part, however, we want to establish ourselves as an authority. We want our readers to lose themselves in our story and not trip over sloppy or clumsy writing. In short: keep your long sentences properly punctuated; use fragments sparingly and with purpose.
SIMPLE SENTENCE - an independent clause (I) consisting of a noun and verb; you can have one or more subjects and/or one or more verbs
He ran. Lila and Tony sat. They loved.
The old man fell. The copper church bell clanged. My sleepy dog and cat farted.
The child ate and drank quickly. The firetruck did not stop. Mrs. Thomas yelled loudly.
noun phrase/verb phrase:
The old man tripped and fell slowly. The copper church bell clanged repeatedly.
As you can see, the more detail, the more story revealed.
COMPOUND SENTENCE - two simple sentences combined using a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) or a semi-colon (;) (I,c I or I;I)
He ran, but she sat. The old man fell, yet the firetruck did not stop. Mrs. Thomas yelled loudly, for the copper church bell clanged repeatedly. The child ate quickly; the sleepy dog farted.
Note that a comma follows the first independent clause, but it precedes the coordinating conjunction. Use compound sentences when you want to emphasize the relationship between the two clauses.
COMPLEX SENTENCE - an independent clause (I) combined with a dependent clause (D - a simple sentence that starts with a subordinating conjunction; use a comma when your sentence begins with the dependent clause (ID and D,I)
ID - The old man fell when the firetruck raced around the corner.
D,I - Because the copper church bell clanged, Mrs. Thomas raised her voice ever more loudly.
Find the complex sentences in this book blurb.
COMPOUND COMPLEX SENTENCE - the varietal combination of a compound sentence with a complex one
I,c ID - The old man fell, and the church bell clanged after the firetruck raced down the street.
I; ID - The church bell clanged; the old man tripped when the firetruck raced around the corner.
ID; I - The church bell clanged as the firetruck raced down the street; the old man tripped.
ID, c I - The church bell clanged as the firetruck raced down the street, and the old man tripped.
D, I; I - When the firetruck raced down the street, the old man tripped; the church bell clanged repeatedly.
D, I, c I - When the firetruck raced down the street, the old man tripped, but the church bell did not ring.
If your head is about to explode, I understand. However, if you take some time to review and learn these structures, you will have much more fun writing, and your readers will travel effortlessly through your story.
Try some of these out. Take whatever you are working on, and practice a variety of sentence structures. You will discover that a properly placed comma or well-intentioned conjunction can make a world of difference in the mood, tone, and foreshadowing of your story.
Share your journey here! Come back next week for some fun practice with sentence structure! Whoowee!
Next month: making use of descriptive detail in your setting