by Kelley Lindberg
Email question of the week: “How can I better improve the flow of paragraphs and sentences? The rhythm, that is.”
Great question. As you know already, there won’t be any easy answers because this is where it all becomes incredibly personal to you and that mysterious, amorphous quality called “your voice.” (In other words, “Here there be dragons.” But dragons are fun!)
I’ve been mulling this over a bit, and I asked my writing group if they had any good ideas, and the best they could come up with was to read a variety of things to see how other authors do it. Yeah, I know, not really the specific help you were looking for. So here are some of my thoughts. They may not be helpful for your particular situation, but I’ll try anyway.
At the sentence and paragraph level, there are some really simple technical techniques to watch for in your writing. These aren’t new; you probably learned them in high school (or earlier). But it’s easy to forget about them, so it’s good to revisit them. The really important thing about these techniques is to practice them over and over. It’s like guitar. You can’t become a great guitar player by reading about playing guitar. You can only become good by practicing the same things over and over, then moving to new exercises when you master those.
1. Vary your sentence structure. Many writers fall into the very common problem of using the same sentence structure: “He did this. She did that. He walked here. She said ___. He went there. The cat did this.” In other words: Noun verb. Noun verb. Noun verb. Read a couple of your paragraphs out loud to see if you’re falling into the simple subject-predicate structure with every sentence. If so, then go through the paragraph and mix it up. For example, instead of “he walked into the room,” change it to “shaking with anger, he walked into the room,” or “walking into the room, he felt the ripple of interrupted conversation spread out from him,” or “the door slamming open got everyone’s undivided attention before he even stepped inside the room,” or “Walking…moving one foot, moving the other foot…and again…. Who knew it could be so bloody hard to walk into a room?” But be careful you don’t change all the sentences in the same way. And watch for dangling participles.
2. Change the length of your sentences. Mix up long with short. Shorter sentences often have greater impact – think punch lines. Longer sentences can gracefully build a feeling, or they can convey a crazy, rambling train of thought. Play with your sentence length. A writing group I used to be in had this exercise once: Write a long sentence (a full paragraph long!), followed by a short one. The long one can compare or contrast, expand, explore, ramble, drive, whatever. Then the short one should have incredible impact. Try doing this exercise and see what you come up with.
3. Remember that the end of a sentence or a paragraph usually has the most impact. So examine your sentences and identify the piece of information you want to emphasize the most.
- Low impact: “Carrie knew the unicorn wouldn’t come to her because her heart wasn’t pure anymore, but she still reached out to it.”
- Higher impact: “Carrie reached out to the unicorn, despite knowing it wouldn’t come to her because her heart was no longer pure.”
4. Eliminate most adverbs and adjectives. They’ve fallen out of favor in modern writing, and most editors can’t stand them – especially adverbs. Rail against this all you want, but it’s just the way modern writing is. Get over it. Sure, 19th-century writing is down-right thick with adverbs. But this isn’t the 19th century, and today’s readers have different expectations. Adverbs are now seen as the lazy way to describe something. Instead of using adverbs or adjectives to modify an idea, explore more specific or interesting verbs, body language, or action.
5. Choose “lively” verbs – especially avoid “to be” variants, like was, were, is, am, and are. Don’t say “It was a beautiful morning in the valley” when you can say “the morning spilled beauty across the valley.”
6. Better yet, pair your lively verbs with concrete details, carefully selected to convey an emotion or atmosphere. In other words, instead using the vague and near-meaningless word “beauty” and writing “the morning spilled beauty across the valley” (which sounds awfully lame, doesn’t it?) describe something that makes the morning beautiful: “Peach-shimmered clouds stretched in the first promise of sunlight as the scent of lilacs faded with the last of the stars.” (Okay, that sentence is pretty flowery and over the top, but you get the idea – and you get a more vivid mental picture of the morning’s beautiful qualities than you did in the original vague sentence.) Look again at #1 above to see how the boring sentence “he walked into the room” can be made more interesting by highlighting details of the scene’s actions or the character’s reflections.
So those are some of the technical things to watch for. The art form comes in using and varying these techniques a lot, exploring how they affect the rhythm of your language, and being aware of where the impact beats are occurring and how your word choice is coloring your scene. It may feel clunky and awkward at first to go through a paragraph reworking the sentences to vary them, but take a big paragraph or a page from something you’ve written, and try each of these techniques one at a time. First, look for noun-verb structures, and if they’re all using the same structure, change some of them. Next, look at sentence length and vary them. Third, eliminate all the adverbs. And so on. When you’ve gone through all six steps, compare your new paragraph to your old one. It might be better; it might not. But you’ll get a feel for the process, and most of the time, the new version will bring up some bit of rhythm or feel that was missing in the first version, and you’ll begin to see where you can make it even better.
Note: These techniques are just as effective in nonfiction as they are in fiction and are wonderfully helpful for preventing your nonfiction from becoming insomnia aids.
Of course, it turns out that the “wide reading” advice really is probably the best advice there is for learning about rhythm. Read authors you love, and authors you don’t love. Read in and out of your genre. Read poetry. Read plays and study their dialogue. Read both literature and genre fiction. As you read, stop at random paragraphs and study what the author is doing. How do the sentence lengths reflect the narrator’s current emotional state? If the language is taut, brief, staccato-like, is the character under stress? When he feels a sense of contentment, do his sentences lengthen and his observations become more descriptive? What kind of verbs does the author use? Does the author use metaphors, body language, or scenery to show emotion, or is the language so Spartan you have to guess at the character’s inner thoughts? All of that reading will begin to reveal patterns you may have been oblivious to before, but as a reader were affected by nonetheless. You can do the same with your readers as you hone your own sense of voice and pacing.
Once you get beyond the sentence and paragraph level, the concepts of pacing and flow in your story get much more complex. We’ll look at some of those ideas in future posts, I promise!