Bridge to Story

Fixing a Clunky Sentence

Novice writers begin with a picture in their minds. They can see and hear and feel what they imagine their characters are experiencing. But, it’s the construction of those lines on the page that we can’t seem to avoid mucking up.

The problem is a shift between our right brain work (picturing the scene) and our left brain work (using words to capture a visual). We’ve already talked about that in the showing vs. telling lesson, so in this lesson we’ll look at those clunky sentences and see what it takes to fix this disconnect and that resulting clunkiness.

Let’s say that in the interior of your mind you are sure you are the type of writer who can string together lines of prose like a riveting, entertaining, grand storyteller. Your lovely thoughts might form as pre-word ideas, like images that you can see in your mind’s eye:

Are you writing like this?

'Before I was sane words fell from my fingers, like a double strand of pearls, cut loose and clattering.'

Nicely poetic, a thought full of imagery there. You can see that happening. You can hear the pitter-patter of those gems falling and bouncing wildly. Out of control. Good.

Now, let’s say —just a what if— that when you try to translate that thought-image you had, (words as pearls, falling in a spilling motion, etc ) into words on the page, it doesn’t come out very well at all - yet:

I sat every night and watched as my words fell out of my mind like a string of pearls.

You can see that it rarely sounds (in words) as poetic as it did in your mind (in pictures). The left brain has, sadly, disappointed the right brain.

Example Toggle

Example:

What is the big difference between an image of pearls in a novice's mind coming out like:

I sat every night and watched as my words fell out of my mind like a string of pearls.

and that image being written as:

' Before I was sane words fell from my fingers, like a double strand of pearls, cut loose and clattering.'

What is it about some word choices?

 Pedestrian (adj. Of writing: prosaic, dull; uninspired, undistinguished) – that which walks, both feet on the ground, that which does not Soar (to fly...upwards; to ascend to a towering height)

Sad but true we may want our words to fly, we may think of them and see that they can ascend, up and up and up into the beauty of the day or exquisiteness of night— in our minds at least, but  putting things down on the page thwarts us every time.

Of course we can strive for the showing, minimizing the telling, give the reader the visual, but what if you thought that ‘She sat every night and watched as her words fell out of her mind like a string of pearls’ was giving the reader a visual? Then perhaps the problem moves from left brain letting down right brain, and moves into the actual construction of the sentence.

Repetition & verb choices

Here are examples of clumsiness in sentences and the ‘why’ of that clumsiness:

Example:

    I hear birds chirp and can feel the warmth of that unusual warm fall day.

First, type out this line and then circle the verbs and the repetitions you find with colored pens or underline and double underline them— verbs get two underlines to remind you to do something to them.

I hear birds chirp and can feel the warmth of that unusual warm fall day long ago.

I hear and I can feel are weaker choices for other verbs you can come up with if you are showing the reader what your character is experiencing.

Let's move on to the exercise to see what we can do with your own work now.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Revision, for repetition problems:

As it did that unusual warm fall day long ago, once more, the chirping of birds returns to my ears and I feel that sun warming me.

1st revision – We can try rearranging the thought: that long ago day, from the past, is come again, that is what we are trying to say with the bird sounds and the sense of warmth. With these changes in the 1st revision, the day from the past is now a bit more active; this memory is now the subject of the sentence – the doer. It’s now doing something to the remembering person – (the object of the sentence), it’s making her feel and hear the past. And we’ve used returns to have the hearing be something that is coming back to the characters ears.

The chirping verb is doing something to her ears, it’s returning.

The ‘I feel’ verb is also doing something to something — the feeling of the sun, it’s now warming the character.

2nd revision – Next we can try cleaning up that repetition – but which will we remove warm or warmth? And what will we replace it with when we choose which one to cut? Let’s go for editing the second one. So we remove warm sun— what can we do to show the type of sun that was? Balmy? Let’s show the warmth of the balmy sun, less repetition that way. Let’s fall back on showing vs. telling. Let’s make some specific sensory image for that action of ‘I feel’ that describes:

As it did that unusual warm fall day long ago, once more, the chirping of birds returns to my ears and I feel that balmy sun on my skin.

What do you think?

Go for the three-step process:

  1. Can you try Rearranging for a more active Subject? The inactive subjects might be at the end of the sentence, see if it belongs up front, followed by some action/reaction.
  2. Removing repetitions? Suns are mostly warm, so go for showing us the effect of that warmth, rather than telling is that the sun is warm. Using is, am, are, was, had, has, were, verbs tells us about a state of being, but rarely shows us that state.
  3. Making ‘I verbs’ do something to something?  I feel warmth is edited into I feel that balmy sun on my skin. One is telling us, one is showing us.

Before: I hear birds chirp and can feel the warmth of that unusual warm fall day.

After: As it did that unusual warm fall day long ago, the chirping of birds returns to my ears and I feel that balmy sun on my skin.

Now, can you pick any sentence of your own that you feel isn’t doing that you envisioned it would? Try revising the ones you think are clumsy.

It’s the Re-Visioning that brings a clunky line to a more elegant one. Write it any way you can first – to get it on the page. Then come back and work the line to make it shine, with this three-step process.