Sentence Writing 101 – Introduction

writersNarrative is a different kind of prose. It’s not journalism, and it has to render rather than report. O Tempora, o Mores*,  what is accepted today as good narrative prose is different from books and novels of the past. Flowery prose, pedantic descriptions, passive voices that were part of the accepted narrative styles of even half a century ago, are today seen as the mark of the debutant.

One of the things I learned—and that resonates as a mantra—is to ‘cull all unnecessary words.’

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

In some cases, the prose is so rudimentary that just saying “you need to polish your sentence in this respect or that” doesn’t work. The aspiring writer will look at you unable to understand what you mean. In my youth—sigh—I played football. I was a Quarterback. The famous football coach Vince Lombardi said: The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand;” and “Football is like life – it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.” The same can be said on writing, where authority is all the great writers who came before us, their lessons, and narrative prose principles and guidances.

Most likely you’ve heard this story before. It has become legendary as is coach Vince Lombardi. The Green Bay Packers franchise had been losing for almost ten straight years. They were at the bottom of the standings, and morale was sagging. Enter Vince Lombardi as the new coach. He is charged with the challenge of turning this franchise around, and he’s all pumped up about it. He began leading practices, inspiring, training, motivating. But at one point in a practice, he just got so frustrated with what was going on with the players that he blew the whistle. “Everybody stop and gather around,” he said. Then he knelt down, picked up the pigskin, and said, “Let’s start at the beginning. This is a football. These are the yard markers. I’m the coach. You are the players.” He went on, in the most elementary of ways, to explain the basics of football.

So, lets get to the basics of how to write a sentence of narrative, thanks to Hal Duncan. His works have been listed in the New Weird genre but he denies that such genre was even known to him at the time of writing his first novel.

Even when the prose is perfectly acceptable as prose in and of itself, there can be so much that’s wrong in terms of how it works as narrative that the easiest thing to do is just pick one sentence in particular and show — Show, Don’t Tell — how to rewrite it, step-by-step, through the application of some basic principles.

This is a sentence of narrative from a last century work, well accepted by its contemporaries:

“A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarians hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade to the hilt into the soldiers vital organs.”

You cringe, yes? No? OK, then let’s see why you should. Let’s take a closer look at it and see if we can’t perform a little alchemy on it and transform it… if not into gold then at least into a serviceable steel.

Because, really, the principles involved in writing a decent sentence of narrative are not complex at all.

In this series — starting tomorrow 19th of May (as I write this) — we will look at:

  1. Decision
  2. Excision
  3. Precision
  4. Concision
  5. Incision
  6. and again Decision & Conclusions

Notice that all the above words have one common Latin root that stands for “cutting.”

* “O Tempora, O Mores” is a sentence by Cicero in the fourth book of his second oration against Verres (chapter 25) and First Oration against Caitlin.

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