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The sentence. Its the building block of all books.

Without it, we may have a

poem, a song, a movie, a painting, an interpretative dance. But we sure as
scuttlebutt dont have a book. Most of us learn how to write (and diagram!)
sentences in grade school. Out of the many potential pitfalls of writing a story,
surely the simple sentence isnt likely to be one of them. But what if I said
youve been writing sentences wrong all your life?
And Im not talking grammar here, folks. You can have a perfectly parsed,
perfectly punctuated sentence that would have that grade school teacher of
yours blushing for prideand it can still be wrong as wrong for your novel. (I'm
also not talking motivation-reaction units, or MRUs, which I've addressed
Why Were All Writing Sentence Wrong
So whats with this pandemic of poor sentences? Why are even the best
diagrammers amongst us at risk?
Basically, it all comes down to this: we totally take the sentence for granted.
The very fact that weve all been writing more-or-less grammatically correct
sentences for most of our lives means we dont even think about what were
doing. Subject? Check. Predicate? Check. Period at the end? Check. Done.
That may be good enough for your latest email to the bank. But its not good
enough for an author. Sentences are the colors on your palette. If youre not
looking past sheer utilitarianism and exploring your sentences' full potential for
hooking, guiding, and fulfilling readers, then youve got a whole new world to
Wheres the Your Sentence's Emphasis?
Forget modifiers, direct objects, and interrobangs. The most important thing you
need to know about any sentence is where its pointing readers. Where does the
emphasis lie in each of your sentences?
Youve Been Writing Sentences Wrong All Your Life!
Find Out Why
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More often than not, youre going to want that emphasis at the end of the
sentence. Why? Because if you put it at the beginning, why do readers even
need to bother reading the rest of the sentence? The first half of your sentence
should be the hook, pulling readers in. The second half should be the payoff. In
his perennially amazing guide Story, Robert McKee explains:
Excellent [writing] tends to shape itself into the periodic sentence:
If you didnt want me to do it, whyd you give me that Look? Gun?
Kiss? The periodic sentence is the suspense sentence. Its meaning
is delayed until the very last word, forcing both [character] and
audience to listen to the end of the line.
How to Use the Periodic Sentence in Your Stories
Example time. Take a look at how the ordering of the phrases in the following
sentences changes the emphasisand the point.
Mary put her hands on her hips. If youre wanting a divorce, this is
hardly the time.
Mary put her hands on her hips. This is hardly the time if youre
wanting a divorce.
The difference is subtle. Same words. Same information. But the first example
emphasizes the time (why isnt this time for a divorce?), and the second
example emphasizes the divorce (why does the other person want a divorce
right now?).
The technique becomes exquisitely useful when youre dealing with longer
sentences. Remember, you want to hook the reader into reading the whole
thingwhich means you dont want to completely reveal the point of the
sentence until the very end.
Here are some classic examples from master authors, contrasted with re-written
versions that shift the emphasis:
Original: "In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the
final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old
crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul." (Dune by Frank
Rewrite: An old crone visited Pauls mother the week before their
departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a
nearly unbearable frenzy.
Original: "Halfway between West Egg and New York City sprawls a
desolate plain, a gray valley where New York's ashes are dumped."
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Rewrite: New Yorks ashes are dumped in a desolate, gray valley
halfway between West Egg and New York City.
The suspense sentence wont be appropriate for every sentence you write, but
its power can do more than just transform your narrative style: it can reach into
your readers subconscious and pull them irrevocably under your storys spell.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author
of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining
Your Novel and Structuring Your
Novel, as well as the western A Man
Called Outlaw, the medieval epic
Behold the Dawn, and the epic fan-
tasy Dreamlander. When shes not
making things up, shes busy
mentoring other authors. She makes
her home in western Nebraska.