Sunday, 26 March 2017

Writing for Beginners (26)

Don’t run out of puff.

It’s amazing what a difference a couple of decades makes. In a second-hand bookshop recently, I found a couple of novels I hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years. (Neither of them mine, I hasten to add). One of the first things that struck me (apart from the wonderful, musty smell – try getting that out of an electronic reader) was how breathless I became while reading.
 
No, it was nothing to do with decades of dust invading my respiratory tract. What I found was that most of the sentences seemed to run on for line after line, broken only by the occasional comma, until I began looking for the full stop rather than enjoying the story. Mentally, at least, I was rather like a musician, lunging for the end of the piece before running out of puff, or a driver going faster to reach a service area before running out of petrol. (You’ve never done that? Sheesh, you haven’t lived.)
 
This type of extended sentence was clearly something I hadn’t really noticed first time round, most likely because the style of much writing years ago was for longer, all-embracing passages, with a few asides along the way to impart important ancillary information and additional comments thrown in as the writer felt fit, to give colour, depth and background, like this one, dear and no doubt by now, equally breathless reader. (See what I mean?)
 
Since then, thank goodness, there has been something of a change. How this came about, I’m not sure. But most fiction now goes for a shorter, punchier style of sentence, perhaps suiting modern communication means and speech patterns.
 
This discovery coincided with me being on a panel of judges for a short fiction competition. The theme was open, so the entrants were varied. Many had adopted the current style, using shorter sentences sprinkled with current expressions and references, or the odd throwaway comment by the narrator. But a few used a more literary style, with florid language and longer sentences.
 
This seemed to work well when the subject matter or setting was of a historical or ‘serious’ nature. However, I found myself having to re-read a couple with a more contemporary setting, because it seemed to jar a little. It wasn’t simply that the words used seemed out of context, or that the flowery description sometimes got in the way of the basic story; it was that the sentences seemed longer than I was accustomed to, and littered with extraneous bits of information like sheep’s wool on a barbed-wire fence. With some, this spoiled the tension of the storytelling, killing what might have been an interesting or captivating passage. Had it been a book, it would have been less noticeable, given the greater space available for expansion of a theme or descriptive narrative. But in a short story, where getting to the point is paramount, it was all too visible.
 
Equally, I suppose, telling a story with a period setting, but using modern colloquialisms - ‘Why,’ pon my soul, Mr Darcy, innit.’ – would be just as jarring. (Unless it were a deliberate parody, of course. Sadly, there were none of these, which might have been fun, and likely to have carried away a prize for originality).
 
A series of shorter sentences with full stops is quite useful if you wish to convey tension. Where describing a dynamic action scene, for example, you might need to make the style punchier, to reflect the kind of event being portrayed.
 
This is also useful in a more reflective piece where you may have a first-person narrator under some emotional, physical or mental strain, and you wish to convey this as if his or her thoughts and conclusions are being ripped out of them in a series of sharp, painful tugs, rather than as if it were a carefully worded discussion over a pleasant glass of sherry and one elbow on the mantelpiece. (And if anyone out there below a certain age wants to know what the heck a mantelpiece is, you either live in a modern house or you need to read some older books – they’re peppered with them).
 
Dialogue is another example where shorter can be better. Most people speak in short bursts, interspersed with pauses, ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ rather than long, fluid speech. I’m not suggesting you include all these exclamations in your writing, because that would be intensely irritating and might lead to severe book abuse. But using brevity in an exchange of dialogue is certainly more true-to-life, and allows you to move the action along while giving a sense of the often rapid ebb and flow of characters’ intentions and reactions as they speak.
 
This is particularly evident where an argument is raging. Most writers instinctively allow each character to take their turn, whereas in real life, there are interruptions, pauses and overlapping speech. Again, to include all this in a passage would be detrimental, but the occasional interruption or flare-up would show verisimilitude and allow movement down the page in a series of shorter, sharper sentences with, perhaps, movement and action to break up the speech.

TOP TIPS

·       Match the style of language and delivery to the setting.
·       Reflect tension by the use of punchier sentences.
·       Would two short sentences be more effective than one long one?
·       Be wary of monologues – alternate dialogue is more interesting to read.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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