On March 11, 2015, Tracey Dyck wrote, Does anyone have advice on varying sentence structure? I’ve discovered that I overuse a certain structure in my novel. (I forget what that type of sentence is called–bad me–but it looks like this: “Bob drove to the market, whistling along the way.” It’s the “ing” phrase that keeps cropping up.) It sounds like a basic problem, easily solved, but I’ve started highlighting every use of that structure in my manuscript…Chapters one and two have almost 50 uses each. Sometimes there are half a dozen in the space of a few paragraphs, and other times I go a whole page without one. Anyway, tips/thoughts would be helpful! 🙂
Kenzi Anne sympathized: I have this exact same problem–and it’s driving me crazy!!! I’ve been trying to switch up my sentence structure, but my brain always defaults back. I have no idea how to stop it, either 🙁
Elisa suggested: Well, this may sound cliche, but read an author whose writing structure is very different from your own. I would probably suggest reading Austen, because she has a very unique, very distinct writing structure. I find myself talking and thinking in Austenese (as I call it) after I read anything by her. Maybe try reading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Then start writing. This always helps me. Her writing is so vastly different from my own that when it takes over my mind it warps my writing structures and my writing comes out very different from what it normally is. Later I come back and edit through it to make it my own again, but the structure is different, and it helps me unstick from my repetitive tendencies.
I reread Pride and Prejudice (for the jillionth time) in the middle of writing Ella Enchanted, and, without realizing, fell into Austenese. My writing group was sure I’d gone nuts. I stopped and revised, but I still think Ella has the right sensibility for Austen! Elisa’s strategy worked for me.
We writers are often permeable, by which I mean that writing styles infiltrate us and come out through our fingers, so I love Elisa’s idea. Here’s a prompt: Read a chapter of a book you love. And another. Read something by Dickens, by Emily Bronte, by her sister Charlotte. Then write, and don’t analyze your sentences until your writing session is over. Then look back and see what happened.
We can also imitate directly. Here’s another prompt: Look at a paragraph in a book you admire and analyze it. In poetry school, I had to do this with a poem last semester and then write a new poem following the exact pattern of the old one, which took me way out of my usual writing style. If you’re writing narration, choose a long narrative paragraph. If you’re writing dialogue, a speech paragraph, or several, in the case of dialogue. Use the pattern you’ve discovered when you write the next paragraph in your WIP.
Below is the beginning of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie:
All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.
Let’s analyze. I’m not a grammarian, and I will probably mess up the technicalities in my description. Please forgive me.
Short first sentence, six words, two commas. Except restricts the word all that starts the sentence. Second sentence: two independent clauses joined by and. We can count the words if we want to. (If I were writing that sentence, I’d end with a colon, so that the second and third sentences would be joined.) Third sentence, same as the second. (Barrie seems not to have worried about variety!) Fourth sentence: independent clause followed by dependent clause that incorporates an exclamatory sentence of dialogue. (In my opinion, Barrie was a very supple writer.) Fifth sentence: two independent clauses joined by but. Sixth and seventh sentences: short and declarative without clauses. Notice that the sixth sentence ends with the same word that the seventh begins with, two. That repetition of two gives the paragraph ending punch. We can adopt the same strategy, not always, but occasionally.
Now look at a narrative paragraph of your own and recast it, following Barrie’s example. You may not succeed entirely, but I suspect you’ll substantially change up what you’ve been doing.
For expert help, we can do an online search on sentence structure to see what we have to work with. But we don’t want to get too academic. Sentence fragments, for example, are okay in fiction if they work. Exclamations are fine. The comma splice (independent clauses connected by only a comma) are a device that writers sometimes use, especially if each clause is short and meaning is clear. Almost anything goes in dialogue if the character speaking really would talk the way we’ve written–and if the meaning is clear.
Let’s take Michelle Dyck’s sample sentence and fool around with it. I understand that it’s meant just as an example and not deathless prose. Here it is:
Bob drove to the market, whistling along the way.
What are the possibilities?
Bob whistled as he drove to the market.
As he drove to the market, Bob whistled.
Bob drove to the market. He whistled the entire distance.
Bob drove to the market and whistled the entire distance.
Whistling “Clementine,” Bob drove to the market.
There may be more, and I’m not claiming that any of these are better than the original. The two-sentence solution is definitely worse. But they are alternatives.
We can incorporate the previous or the following sentence into our revision, the one that comes before or after the whistling. Suppose that, just before he drives off, Bob receives a kiss. We might then write: Molly planted a kiss on Bob’s astonished lips and sent him off in his car, where he whistled “All You Need Is Love” from her house to the market, where he bought a bouquet of long-stemmed roses.
Or we can use what’s going on in the scene, like this: Bob whistled the old repertory–“Home On the Range,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”–while his daughter stared stonily out the window. When they pulled into the market parking lot, he grinned. “You used to love those songs, sweetie.”
This strategy uses liveliness to introduce variety into our prose. Again recognizing that our sample sentence is just an example for discussion purposes, when we really write in our story, it’s usually (not always) better to name the song being whistled, which will tell us a little data point about our character. If Bob is whistling tunelessly, it’s good to know that, too. And in most cases, it’s good to name the store. In my part of the country, Whole Foods has a different ring from the A&P. Or it may be a purely local store, and then the name, whatever it is, will add local color. We can make up the name if we like, to give an indication of setting.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Use this in a story: Bob whistled as he drove, his favorite tune, of course, the anthem of his cult: “Rising Star Shining.” And the bug under his seat picked up every note.
∙ Pick a paragraph in a book you love that isn’t from this era, could be one of the authors mentioned above. Modernize the sentences.
∙ Pick a section of dialogue by one of these authors and transform it into modern speech. You may have to break up long paragraphs to do this.
∙ Try my Barrie example above. Use his paragraph as a template for a revision of one of yours.
Have fun, and save what you write!