Monday, June 27, 2005

Editing, Day 10--Sentence Rhythm

Happy Monday, BGs. This is the last post on sentence rhythm unless you all come up with numerous questions that need to be addressed.

We have some loose ends regarding SR to tie up before we move on to character motivation. First, there were some questions/comments from last Friday’s rewrite. Dineen wondered about this paragraph: “Too late, Christy.” He dragged her to her feet, shoved her against the stall door. The metal latch bit into her back. She moaned. “No more chances for you.”

Dineen said: “I keep hearing that I should give each character their own paragraph, so when I saw, "She moaned." on this line and then another quote from Vince, it threw me. What’s the rule of thumb?”

Dineen’s right that the rule of thumb is to start a new paragraph for a different character’s response. In this case, I don’t think it’s that necessary. Mainly because we’re already in the POV of Christy. We see her feel the metal latch at her back, and she moans as a result. I suppose you could separate the sentence out if you wanted to. Or maybe put the two lines together: The metal latch bit into her back and she moaned. Now if we were talking about a third character here, who said something in response to what Vince did to Christy, then, yes, that response would definitely need its own paragraph.

On our discussion board, Becky noted using sentence rhythm to improve an action scene in her wip, but bemoaned the fact that she ended up with a lot of subject/verb short sentences, and that became monotonous in a hurry. Agreed, that choppy subject/verb/direct object format can’t go on for very long. This is one aspect of sentence rhythm we still have to talk about. How do you keep up the swift-moving rhythm in a high action scene, yet change the sentences enough to keep it from getting monotonous?

Let’s look at these two paragraphs from our AS:

He grabbed Christy’s arm, whipped her around. Her shoulder rammed into Spirit. The horse jerked up his head and jumped away. The reins ripped from her hand.

Vince’s fist crunched into her cheekbone. Her head bounced sideways, pain exploding through her face. Christy stumbled.

We’ve got some fast action here, and the sentence rhythm pretty well conveys that. Yet the sentences don’t “beat out” all the same. As these paragraphs illustrate, here are some ways to vary your rhythm in an action scene.

1. Make a longer sentence by stringing together two verbs. He grabbed Christy’s arm, whipped her around. You can use “and” in the middle if you like, which gives you a compound sentence. Now before y’all start hollering, yes, I know I advocated staying away from compound sentences in action scenes. And in general you want to. But you’ve got to balance the choppy beat thing with variation. Everything in moderation. The key to occasionally using a compound sentence effectively in an action scene is to string together two short phrases. If they’re short and tightly written, the sentence won’t come across as long and languid. It’ll come across as swift-moving, without being quite so choppy, which will give your rhythm a little variation. This is why I like to drop to and—to keep both phrases as tight as possible. But even that can’t be done all the time.

2. Use a short description phrase at the end of a sentence. Her head bounced sideways, pain exploding through her face. Don’t put this phrase in the beginning, or you’ll make your reader wade through too much to get to that all-important subject/verb.

3. Throw in an extra short sentence. Christy stumbled.

4. Use a one-word phrase instead of a full sentence. Thud. The back side smacked Vince in the head. He gasped, staggered sideways, momentarily stunned. The rope slipped from his hands. Christy threw the shovel aside. Move! Here we have two one-word phrases. Note that one uses sound—a result of Christy swinging the shovel at Vince’s head (in previous paragraph). The other uses interior monologue—Christy telling herself to Move! Both flow well with what’s happening in the scene and give that bit of break in the rhythm.

Okay. I think we’ve covered sentence rhythm in action scenes pretty thoroughly. On the flip side, when you’re not in a high action scene, when you’re in a narrative paragraph, or interior monologue, or quiet moment in a character’s life, you can let your sentences flow longer, and make more use of compound and complex sentences. However, you still have to employ a certain amount of variation in sentence structure and length to keep those sentences from getting monotonous. But variation is not quite as much of an issue in long-sentenced passages as it is in short-sentenced ones. Those long sentences don’t tend to get as monotonous quite so quickly. But there are still some issues to watch.

Consider these paragraphs from my novel Color the Sidewalk for Me. (As darkness is falling, a fearful Celia is nearing her home town, which she fled after tragedy 17 years before.)

I crested a long grade, the hills on either side melting away, and slowed at the sight before me. Bradleyville spread demurely in the valley below, its lights a tiny silver bracelet against the flesh of the shadowed hills. Winding through a bordering forest were the glimmering waters of the river. The buildings and machinery of the lumber mill built by my great-grandfather jutted into the sky above the riverbank, boldly silent against a scrim of nascent stars.

The otherworldliness of the scene was too much to absorb. Something was missing, something important. The squall of the town seemed so removed from that that vista, the pulses of its rhythm fading long before they reached me. Yet for so many years the town’s effect on me had been so strong. Looking down on Bradleyville, I wondered at its seeming insignificance.

I want to point out some ways I chose to use sentence rhythm to convey Celia’s emotions, and also how I chose to vary these sentences a bit. Now again, you may not agree with everything I did, which is fine. But this was my thinking, anyway.

1. hills on either side melting away—this “ing” verb phrase gives the idea of the passage of time (however few moments or even seconds that may be). I thought it worked better than to use melted. This phrase, sandwiched in between two regular past tense verb phrases, gave it even more of a contrast.

2. Winding through a bordering forest . . . Here I used descriptive phrase up front for a little variation.

3. The buildings and machinery . . . This sentence also has a descriptive phrase, but this one’s at the end. This is why I wrote the previous sentence with its phrase up front. One rule of thumb for me: I try not to write two complex sentences beginning with a descriptive phrase in a row.

4. The otherworldliness of the scene . . . Compared with the previous sentences, this one is short. It should be. It’s a harder hitting thought of Celia, whereas before she was simply noticing the scenery. To give this sentence some oomph, I made it shorter.

5. Something was missing, something important. Same thing here. A shorter sentence for harder hitting effect. Yet with the intentional use of something twice, the sentences has a different rhythm from the one before it.

6. The squall of the town . . . Purposeful use of the “ing” verb fading to connote a passage of time. The phrase the pulses of its rhythm fading long before they reached me beats out like a fading rhythm. You’ve got pulses and rhythm with strong beats on the first syllable, then the “ing” verb, then long before they reached me. None of those last five words has a strong emphasis. Even the two-syllable word before doesn’t have a strong beat in its emphasized syllable. By stringing together numerous words with no strong beat among them, I got the effect I wanted—the sense of a fading rhythm.

7. Looking down on Bradleyville, I wondered at its seeming insignificance. The last phrase of these two paragraphs is an important point, and the one this passage should end on. Insignificance is the right word, and its beat again has no syllable that’s strongly emphasized.

Now, why do we bother? Does a reader read such paragraphs and go, “Wow, great sentence rhythm!?” Afraid not. As I said when we started discussing this subject, SR is subliminal. But subliminal can be very powerful. With effective SR, what the reader will see is the proper flow of sentences to match the beat of the scene. And the flow won’t become obtrusive by falling into monotony. The result is a scene in which the actions and emotions can pop out, unhindered by faulty sentences or a rhythm that works against the beat of the scene. With effective SR, your readers may not be able to point out why your passages work—they’ll just know they do.

All right, question/comment away as you like. We’ll move on to character motivation as we’re able.

Read Part 12


D. Gudger said...

Grammar is something that baffles me. Anyway, how are verb tenses supposed to be handeled? Is ir OK to mix tenses within a scene / paragraph? In your examples from COLOR, you did switch from past to present (-ing) to note the passing of time. Somewhere, someplace, someone told me I couldn't do that but when I write, I do mix tenses b/c of the rhythm. Whose right? What is the real rule? Arrgh! English!

Lynette Sowell said...

Thanks, this is really helping me in my WIP. My heroine finds herself in the path of a firestorm. The hero is on his way to her (he's a fire dude). Much of this happens in a short period of time, but I want to show the scenes happening as they're apart, what she does to help secure herself where she's stuck and can't outrun the fire, and him trying to get to her while he's injured. Then--wham! he reaches her and they're finally at the same place where the fire surrounds them. How do I play up the emotions--her fear--his urgency to reach her--as all these things start happening--bam-bam-bam in a short space of time?