Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Editing Day 6--Sentence Rhythm/Tight Writing

Welcome back to our editing, BGs. Glad to see y’all starting to use the discussion board. And a number of you wrote comments about the question we ended with yesterday—all good thoughts.

I’m going to talk about sentence rhythm today. If you master this concept, a lot of what you need for tight writing will naturally fall into place. For those of you who’ve read Getting Into Character, some of this will be a repeat of information from Secret #6. You may want to go back and re-read that chapter, and take the time to re-read the example scenes from classic and contemporary literature exemplifying effective use of sentence rhythm (which we’ll call SR). At the same time, readers of GIC, don’t think there will be nothing new for you here. Trying to please all, dontcha know.

For those of you who haven’t read Getting Into Character—an explanatory note. My book takes seven techniques from the art of Method acting and adapts them for the novelist’s use. That’s why the concepts you see in the book aren’t covered in the typical how-to-write-fiction book. Sentence rhythm in particular is one thing I use a lot in my writing. I think it’s a very important technique, and frankly, I hadn’t heard it talked about elsewhere. This isn’t that difficult of a concept to explain. Learning how to use it effectively is another matter.

SR is a subliminal thing to the reader. If you use it effectively, you won’t hear readers say, “Man, you have great sentence rhythm.” What they’ll say is, “I felt the scene. I was there.” That’s about the best compliment an author can hear.

Concept Premise: All sentences have an underlying rhythm that comes from the way the sentence is written, not from the content of the sentence. It’s like saying a song has a certain beat, regardless of the lyrics. When you fail to employ SR correctly, you’re likely to write sentences that give off a beat which is exactly opposite from the “feel” you want to create in the scene. You end up fighting yourself.

The rhythm of your sentences should match the beat of action in your scene.

Long sentences tend to have a lulling rhythm. (When I say long, I’m referring to both compound and complex sentences.) Long sentences don’t beat out “action.” They have more of an introspective, thoughtful kind of beat. Again, remember, this has nothing to do with what the sentence is saying. It’s the underlying beat of how the sentence is written. Short sentences, on the other hand, have a more choppy, action-oriented beat. Phrases can be even more choppy, even jarring.

This phenomenon works for two reasons. One is the time it takes to read a sentence. Time to read sentences in a story mimics the passage of time for the character in that scene. For example, all of you have written a piece of dialogue at some point that required one character to pause. Instead of writing, “He paused,” you may have written a sentence or two of something the character’s thinking. In the time it takes for the reader to read those sentences, the idea of the passage of time has occurred. The reader understands that the character paused. So—long sentences, taking more time to read, tend to give the idea of the passage of time. Short sentences, quickly read, give the idea of quick action.

Second reason for this phenomenon is that short sentences get to the verb much more quickly. And in action, the verb is the most important word. Action is all about—what happens, then what happens, then what happens. In other words, the verb. When you write long sentences, particularly complex sentences, which start with a descriptive phrase, the reader has to read through that phrase to even get to the subject, much less the verb. This takes too much time and won’t connote quick action.

Therefore--when you’re writing action, your sentences should shorten. When you want to write really heavy action, you can even go to mere phrases.

Ironically, even when we know this principle, it's so easy to overwrite. We figure adding in phrases and description will make the reader feel the scene more, when the opposite is true. Extra description only adds length and a "weighty" feeling to the sentences. We want to get to the pure action.

As for the verbs themselves, in action sequences, use regular past tense verbs as opposed to past participles. (She ran vs. she was running.) Those “ing” verbs tend to connote action over a space of time.

So there you have it. Quick recap: All sentences have rhythm. Long sentences tend to have a languid rhythm, while short ones have a more choppy, action-oriented rhythm. So use short sentences when you’re writing action.

Easy enough, right? The challenges arise when you have a fairly lengthy action scene. To use short sentence after short sentence of subject, verb; subject, verb is going to get monotonous in a hurry. And when a beat gets monotonous, it loses its oomph. So even in high action scenes, the rhythm has to be varied to a degree.

Or take the opposite kind of scene. An introspective, character-sitting-on-the-bed-ruminating scene. This requires longer sentences to match the beat of the character. But one long sentence after another after another is going to get tiring. Again, the rhythm must be varied.

In light of everything we’ve just covered, let’s look at the first paragraph of our AS:

In an instant, he spun her whole body around, and her shoulder pummeled into Spirit. The horse panicked and jumped away, ripping the reins out of her hand.

We have a problem here. Very fast action. Yet two long sentences. In the time it takes you to read those two sentences, do you feel the beat of fast action? I feel removed from it. I feel like I’m reading a narrative voice rather than being in the head of the POV character, who’s having these things done to her. Her beat is bam, bam, bam—before she can hardly blink an eye. In fact, the first sentence even tells us this all happens “in an instant.” But I don’t get that “instant” feeling from these sentences.

We want shorter sentences here. Especially because this is the beginning of a true knock-down, drag-out fight. The rhythm of the scene suddenly changes. The reader should feel that jarring change--because the POV character feels it.

To shorten the sentences for better rhythm, we could just break them up:
In an instant, he spun her whole body around. Her shoulder pummeled into Spirit. The horse panicked and jumped away. The reins ripped out of her hand.

Now that’s better already. Shorter sentences, with more of a jarring feeling. And the last verb ripping changes to the quicker feeling ripped. But the sentences can be even shorter without losing a single detail. We have words that simply don’t need to be there. And any extra word will weight the sentence down, giving it a heavier, longer feel—opposite from the beat we want to create.

In an instant: we don’t need this phrase. If we write the sentences correctly, they’ll feel instantaneous, and we won’t need to “tell” this.

He spun: spun has the connotation of a continuous whirl. I’d use a faster feeling verb like whipped. But I also think we need the action right before that, which would have to be his grabbing her arm to whip her around. Because the first thing the POV character is going to feel is that grab.

Whole body: don’t need this either. If he spins her around, we can assume her whole body goes with her.

Pummel: a good, strong verb on the surface. But pummel means to beat—that is, hit something more than once. It connotes repeated action, and therefore the passage of time. I’d change this word to ram.

The horse panicked: don’t need this. Let’s show a little more of what the horse does, and we’ll understand he panicked.

Ripped out of: that’s okay, but it can be shortened to ripped from.

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

Notice what the dropping of and does. (Instead of . . . grabbed Christy’s arms and whipped . . .) Dropping and throws two intense verbs and actions close to one another in a jarring sort of way.

Overall, for this paragraph, we now have four short, choppy sentences and one phrase. We want a particularly jarring feeling to launch us into the fight sequence. I think this paragraph works. Even with the choppiness, we've varied the rhythm a bit. But we’ll need to change the rhythm further in the next paragraph so it doesn’t get monotonous.

Important note: I repeat what I said last Friday. These edits are my interpretation of using these concepts. You might use the concept a little differently. (For example, you might not like my dropping of the word and.) My edit is not the right way to do it. And my edit will end up in my voice. I don’t want to take your voice away from you. This is why a real editor doesn’t rewrite; he/she only points out weaknesses. I’m rewriting to give you concrete examples of how I’d use the concept. But when I do this, please look at the rewrites in light of the concept we’re discussing, then see how you might rewrite them.

More SR rewriting tomorrow.


Read Part 8


Wayne said...

I learn so much here Monday through Friday. When the weekend comes, I'm actually a little disappointed because I won't get my morning writing instruction.

Cara Putman said...

This is one element I love about your books. THe action flows so well and as a reader I feel sucked into it. Now if I could only learn how to apply this technique to my writing.

How did you first apply this to your writing? Do you write a section and then in the rewrite focus on sentence rhythm?

Stuart said...

Good stuff!

Maybe this is something we could all practice over on the discussion board.

Thanks for explaining it point by point like that. Now to go read Ch 6 in Gic and then supercharge my action!


Becky said...

Your explanations are excellent, Brandilyn. Thanks for covering the sentence variation issue.

I also really appreciate your emphasis on the fact that this now has your voice and is not to be looked at as "THE right way." I think that is a point all of us in critique groups must learn.

Rich said...

Using real-life examples like this is tremendously helpful. Just like your Bustin the Backstory workshop. All the PowerPoints in the world don't make up for one practical work-trough like this. Thanks much!

Domino said...

Absolutely wonderful! I've read GIC, but could always use a refresher.

I agree that this will help critique group members work on weaknesses instead of changing the voice.

Camy Tang said...

Thanks, Brandilyn. I feel like I now understand SR better. GIC explains it well, but seeing it here--kinda like I'm at a workshop you're teaching--reinforces the concept.