Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Editing, Day 7--Sentence Rhythm

Before we return to editing our action scene, I want to say a few more things about sentence rhythm. In our editing, we are focusing on using rhythm for action. But as I mentioned yesterday, sentence rhythm is used to convey all kinds of “beats”—from high action to the quietest of scenes.

Even in high intensity scenes, there are some exceptions to the short sentence = high action guideline. The first exception involves scenes of action so intense that the action moves into chaos. In a fight scene, such as our AS, we can delineate each action. They’re sequential in nature. Vince grabs Christy. Christy rams into horse. Horse jumps. But in scenes of utter chaos, many things are happening at once. The characters are so bombarded by stimuli that they don’t have time to react to individual pieces of action.

For the beat of chaos, I suggest using the sentence rhythm of long, strung-together sentences to convey continuous, confusing action.

You can’t do this for very long. Like any other rhythm, this one will get tiring, too. But for a few sentences, or even a paragraph or two, it can really be effective. To create chaos, try using those complex sentences we’ve avoided in regular action. Use past participle verbs. Even write run-on sentences. Do whatever you must in order for your sentences to beat the rhythm of chaos and confusion. If you handle this right, your readers will feel the chaos.

In Getting Into Character I quote a paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities, in which the revolutionaries have cornered their old foe, Fallon. Long moments of tension follow as they confront and watch him. Then, suddenly, the crowd lunges to lynch him, and chaos erupts. Look at what happens to Dickens’ sentences at that moment:

Down and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees, now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her; the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth.

Whew! That’s one sentence. But you can really feel the chaos. This kind of rhythm is very effective when juxtaposed against the short, choppy rhythm of sequential action. As soon as the chaos stops, and you’re back to linear action, you can shorten the sentences again.

There’s another way you can use a long, flowing sentence rhythm in the midst of high action. That’s when, in the midst of the action, something so crucial happens that the POV character sees it almost in slow motion. It’s a moment of intense importance. A moment that seems to last forever. This kind of sentence rhythm doesn’t go as far as the chaos rhythm, but it does stretch everything out for those few seconds.

Here’s a scene from my novel Dread Champion, as I would edit it today. This is a dream, so the verbs are in present tense. (I always write dreams in present tense, because dreams happen in the now.) Kerra is dreaming of a real incident in her life that plagues her. My goal here was to use sentence rhythm to convey quick action surrounded by seemingly stretched out action—as Kerra remembers the terrifying moments.

Rain pounds the windshield of Dave’s car. Kerra senses the motion of driving, feels the familiar fabric of the seat beneath her.

From nowhere a high-sided truck leaps into view. Its brake lights reflect blood red through the rain. A back tire bursts, flaps in the wind. The truck swerves left into their lane.

“Dave!” The scream rips from Kerra’s throat.

Dave veers his Acura to the right.

Something jolts inside Kerra, and the picture transforms into cruel slow motion.

Her hands rising to her mouth, her hair floating around her face, sticking to her tongue. Dave’s head slowly turning, his eyes drifting too late behind him to check for traffic, his head turning back. The squeal of tires against wet pavement, sounding on and on like a stuck record as their car merges onto that record, revolving, revolving, the world spinning, the tree, its bark shiny with rain, disappearing, cycling closer, disappearing, cycling closer. Nausea rising in Kerra’s stomach . . .

A distant horn blares and weeps, ramming the scene into warp speed. The tree rushes at them. Dave yanks the wheel harder to the right. The tree jumps left. The smash deafens the world and everything in it. It splinters and grinds and tears and shatters. The left front of the car dissolves. A ragged branch explodes through the windshield. Crunches Dave’s shoulder. His head snaps back, his eyes glaze. The steering wheel crumples toward him, buries itself in his stomach. Dave’s jaw sags. Blood, dark and thick, bubbles over his bottom teeth.

Somebody screams. Kerra feels the gush of air through her own mouth.

Dave lifts dazed eyes to her.

The scene freezes, just for a moment. A moment hanging in the air, fuzzed at the edges, like a paused frame on a home video. Kerra’s eyes lock onto Dave’s, reading their pain, their utter disbelief, their hopelessness. Shock immobilizes her. She wants to reach for him but cannot. She gazes deeply into his eyes—and she knows. They remain fixed, and she sees life ebbing from them, as a wave would pull back from shore. The wave recedes . . . recedes . . . recedes . . . then is gone. The eyes settle, flatten, like sand once the water has passed. The lids slowly droop shut.

Kerra cries out. She reaches for him, the man who has become her world, who would be her husband. “Dave! Dave!” Her cries sear her throat, the world blurring. She grasps his head, her fingers sinking into his thick dark hair, her arms shaking him, shaking him. She lets go and his head sinks to his chest. She grabs it again, shaking it, sobbing his name, pleading to God to save him, save him, save him . . .

You can see how I tried to go in and out of sequential action. Short, choppy sentences with regular verbs, then long, drawn-out sentences with participle verbs. At the moment of impact, because I’d done enough of the drawn-out sentences, I stayed with regular verbs. But by stringing four together in one sentence with and in between (splinters and grinds and tears and shatters), I was able to create the sense of elongated sound as the car crunches and finally grinds to a halt.

We will return to editing our AS for action. But these different uses of sentence rhythm are important. I want to explain the whole concept, not just the kind of sentence rhythm we are focusing on at present. Basically, once you understand sentence rhythm, you can use it to create any kind of beat. You can place your reader deep in the POV character’s head, making that reader feel everything that the character feels. As the character is bombarded, the reader is bombarded.

You might want to practice the varying rhythm we've discussed today for one of your own scenes.

Read Part 9


Tina said...

I've never given much thought to sentence rhythm, apart from "I don't like the way this sentence sounds." Creating a beat within a scene is a concept I'd never heard of before Getting Into Character. It's a great tool. I have to look over my WIP and see if this is something I already do instinctively (at least to a degree), or if I'll need to practice it consciously until it becomes instinct.

How can it be that such hard work is so fun and consuming?

Evelyn said...

This is the first time someone has told me to put long, drawn out sentences into an action scene. Usually they tell you to use short choppy ones, but I really like what this does for the rhythm of the scene. I'm going to go see what I can do with this in my wip. Thanks.

Domino said...

Man, oh, man! I love sentence rhythm. It's like singing a story or listening to the score of a movie while you read.

Gee, this is fun!

Kelly Klepfer said...

Wow. I don't know what is more amazing.... that you take time to explain all of these tools in this amazing tool box or that you can make teaching those tools a must read.

Somebody needs to award you an honorary doctorate or two.

FYI, you have inspired me to join ACFW. The ink is probably dry on my app AND I booked my room in Nashville. Ill-prepared and terrified, I'm going to the conference.

We will have a BG mini-meeting right?

Jason said...

I concur. This is amazing to see it walked through so well. Someone sent me a short story to critique, and I was writing back, "Punch it up! Shorter sentences!" This hands on is invaluable. I can't imagine another author being so helpful. Thank you so much. said...

Great Blog!

Keep up the good work!


sally apokedak said...

That action scene is wonderful. Gripping. I couldn't even stop reading to pay attention to the sentence lengths. =0) Nice work!


Lynette Sowell said...

Thanks for picking this apart and giving us concrete examples. I think I'm getting it. Then of course I could open my WIP and go, HUH?

See you in Nashville, Kelly!~