ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): S for Sentence (With a Soul of It’s Own)

Posted by on Oct 4, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

RW4I obsess over sentences.

This obsession might seem like the most obvious preoccupation for a fiction writer: sentences are, after all, the building blocks of short stories and novels. But I’ve found, as I’ve grown as a writer, that workshop groups and reviewers seem to take well-formed sentences for granted; in graduate school, there was a baseline assumption that everyone’s prose was competent, and the bulk of critiques were directed at pacing and characterization and the use of exposition. If a sentence stood out as a particularly lovely example of the form, it might warrant a brief mention, but for the most part, the focus was elsewhere. (In fact, the last person to comment on my prose style for its own sake was my undergraduate thesis advisor. Her advice: “Not every sentence needs an em dash.”)

I’m an unabashed friend of the em dash, though—and of the colon, the semicolon, the footnote, and the parenthetical aside (my flash piece “The Language of Little Things,” which appeared in Spry earlier this year, was comprised of a single, run-on sentence). I’m also a friend of short, simple sentences. You need all types to create a narrative that works. In this way, sentences are much like people, and stories are much like the world. Each sentence has its own body—within a single piece, you might have a tall, elegant femme fatale of a sentence standing shoulder to shoulder with a sentence that’s built like a gangster’s hit man, short and stubby and utilitarian. You wouldn’t fully appreciate the stylishness of the first without the blunt workmanship of the second, and vice versa.

Don’t get me wrong: pacing and characterization and the thoughtful use of exposition are all important aspects of craft, and you ignore them at your story’s peril. But these are concerns I’m able to work through in the cool light of day. The question that keeps me up at night—that sends me scurrying to my pile of sticky notes or finds me banging my head against a printout of my manuscript—is not whether my plot has the right pacing or my characters have sufficient depth, but whether I’ve polished each sentence into its best self. Colm Toibin, who appears to obsess over sentences just as much as I do, said it best at the most recent AWP conference: there is “that funny business of a sentence having a soul as well as a body.” That’s the essence of it, really. Your sentences must come alive on the page. They must work together in harmony. You may have the most intricately plotted, well-characterized narrative on the planet, but if your sentences are soulless and work against each other, then your story loses a little of its luster.

So what gives a sentence its soul? What makes it come alive? As a general rule, active, unique verbs help, but the rest of it is up to you and your literary tastes. You may not be a friend of the colon, the semicolon, the footnote, and the parenthetical aside. You may declare yourself a lifelong enemy of the em dash. You may instead swear allegiance to the subject, the verb, and the period, end of story. Ultimately, though, sentences with soul aren’t about the basics of punctuation and grammar; I’ve never sat down and diagrammed a story’s sentences to make sure each one has all the necessary component parts. Rather, as you read and write, make note of the work that each sentence does, and make special note of the sentences that interact with you as if they were people: those that speak to you, seduce you, punch you in the gut, leave you breathless. Whatever these sentences may look like—the femme fatale or the hit man—they’re the ones you want to write down and save for later, the ones you want to emulate in your own work.

Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach For America corps. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. You can find her on Facebook, on Twitter, or on her website. She lives in L.A.

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