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.

  1. If you’ve ever read Steven King you know what she says about sentences is true. You Dirty Bird. Ha

  2. A good drag queen fantooshes onto the stage, while her heels shickalack to announce her arrival. These are amazing words!

      1. I forgot to note she’ll be sure to zhuzh first, because zhuzhing maximizes your fantoosh.

    1. Oh gee Carl, sure they do. Shoot me a writer? I personally hate acronyms. So sick of them I could scream. News is alive with them. Written, spoken you name it. Is it a strategy? I wonder sometimes.
      I know one here somewhere today. SOS. Or someone needs help…they are SOL. .

  3. Let’s celebrate great sentences; two from Gibbon; enjoy:

    Pope’s translation of Homer: “A portrait endowed with every merit excepting that of likeness to the original”.

    The second a model of balance:

    Of the son of Gordianus: “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes attested to the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were for use rather than ostentation.”

    And a masterful parody of 18th century prose and politics, by TH White (Mistress Masham’s Repose):

    He searched the Colonade, where the great Pope himself had walked with William Broome, on the night when he was persuading the latter to persuade Tonson to publish a letter from Lintot, signed however by Cleland, and purporting to have been written by Bolingbroke, in which Lady Mary Wortley Montague was accused of having suspected a Mr.Green of persuading Broome to refuse permission to Tonson to publish a letter by Cleland, purporting to have been signed by Lintot, without the knowledge of Bolingbroke, about the personal habits of Dr. Arbuthnot, under the pseudonym of Swift. (On the other hand, a person named Worsdale, a mere tool, calling himself R. Smythe, was to tell Curll that a certain “P. T.,” a secret enemy of Temple, possessed a copy of the correspondence between Lord Hervey and Colley Cibber: with obvious results.)

  4. Great choices. Sometimes it’s always fun to fun to read ‘wretched sentences’ like the Bulwer-Lytton competition that parodies “It was a dark and stormy night…”.

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