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If you really want to make your prose sing, take the time to work on your sentence structure. No matter how clever or original the sentiment you are expressing, if it’s hidden in a vague, meandering, or just plain clunky sentence, its effect is diminished or lost altogether. Find a part of your manuscript where things are clunky. You’ll be applying your lessons this week to that section.
In this fortnight’s lesson you’ll learn the key to improving sentence structure so that your prose sings! Through a series of audios, lessons and exercises you will learn how to vary your sentences, create pleasing rhythms and captivate your readers with the easy reading of your prose.
TOPIC ONE: Sentence Structure – An Audio From Kim
Listen or download the audio for this section here!
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TOPIC TWO: Improving Sentence Structure
There are several key ways to improve your sentence structure as listed below:
Try to balance your sentences by expressing similar ideas in similar structures. For example, the sentence:
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we are going to die.”
Is much more pleasing and persuasive when balanced in this way:
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Don’t start your sentences with ‘ing’ clauses. For example:
“Closing the door behind him with an ominous thud, he inched down the dark hallway to the candlelit back room.”
First, he can’t close the door and inch all the way down the hall to the back room at the same time unless he has Mr Tickle arms. Second, because we’re trained to skim through subordinate ‘ing’ clauses to get to the meat of the sentence, any atmosphere the ominous thud might create is diminished. Third, it just sounds clunky. The below is just fine:
“He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud, and inched down the hallway…”
Pay attention to the way your chosen words create rhythms. Do you have any long sentences where all the words are one syllable? This can sound quite unpleasant:
“He bit back, and he knew it was wrong as she loved so much to fight; and had since she was a kid.”
All of words above have one syllable and this creates a pt-pt-pt rhythm that is unpleasant and distracting. All you need to do is add an extra syllable or two to moderate the rhythm. For example, ‘argue’ instead of ‘fight’, or ‘realised’ instead of ‘knew’.
Experiment with sentence inversion. Poets have done this for centuries. For example:
“The six hundred rode into the valley of death.”
Is fine, but:
“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”
Is a thrilling sentence. If you feel as though all of your sentences start with a subject, then try starting somewhere else in the sentence (with the caveat that you’re not going to change anything into passive voice). You might want to do that at key moments, e.g. in a grand speech or when you want a bit of rhetorical flourish.
Create a bit of variety in paragraphs. If you feel every sentence has started with, “She did this,” or, “She said that,” then break those sentences up with beats of description that can build atmosphere and flesh out the settings.
“She did this. A breeze ran through the trees, bringing out gooseflesh on her skin. She said that….”
Broken up with description the, “She did this,” and, “She did that,” adds to the overall atmosphere of your scene.
Sentences with too much information are awkward and distended. Writers are told they shouldn’t spend too much time outlining background and introspection, but the answer isn’t to shove all the information into one sentence and hope to get it over with quicker. Avoid the below example at all costs:
“She had often wondered—in the six years since she and her husband had decided to separate after one argument too many about his flirtations with other, younger women—if there was something wrong with her for enjoying spending so much time in isolated pursuits such as knitting, reading, or crying over sad movies.”
If it’s not important right now, cut it. If it is important, give it its own space, in its own sentence. Because if you get your sentences right your words have the chance to breathe and come alive on the page.
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If you want to make your prose sing, take the time to work on your sentence structure. No matter how clever or original the sentiment you are expressing, if it’s hidden in a vague, or clunky sentence, its effect is diminished or lost altogether.
This exercise will:
- Increase your analytical skills and,
- Improve and vary your sentence structure.
WHAT TO DO:
Rework these sentences and paragraphs by revising the sentence structure. Post your efforts in the Sentence Structure Forum.
- He finally decided to get clean, look for a job, and that he would take care of his family properly.
- Kicking her trousers off, she stepped into the bath for a long soak.
- If he had but held his tongue and not decided to berate me for my part in the sorry affair, I might have found it easier to find forgiveness in my heart instead of bearing this burden of rage that keeps me from my sleep on cold and restless nights.
- I crept along the passageway, my candle trembling in my hand. I stopped and listened at the door. I couldn’t hear anything. I turned the handle carefully and waited. Then I went inside.
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