Sentences – Dead. Simple.
A sentence is a collection of words that convey something, an idea, an action, with sense and meaning. They are developed (hopefully) according to the logical progression of idea(s) and/or action(s).The simplest sentence consists only of a noun, a naming word, and a verb, an action word. For example, in the sentence “Mary walked,” Mary is the naming noun and walked is the action verb.
How simple is that? Sense and Meaning. Subject and verb. Big stuff, huh? No.
What if we are building a scene? A scene is a small story or the setting for a whole story. Can that all come down to Mary walked? Sure. With Sense and Meaning.
Mary walked. Okay, where did she walk? The store? A window? To town? To the moon?
Mary walked to the window. Whew. Simple. What window?
Mary walked to the kitchen window. Which one? What sort of window is it? Does it have curtains, cracks?
Mary walked to the window, the one over the kitchen sink that’s always clean.
Oops. Almost. What’s always clean, the window, or the sink? Let’s get serious. In cases like this we can leave it the way it sounds best and hope readers brains sort it out, write it so it makes sense or make two sentences out of it. I’m going high road for the sake of it. Now. Did Mary do something?
Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the curtain.
Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain.
Yeah? What if we learn something about Mary in this? POV?
Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain that she and Nana hung when we were kids.
Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain she remembered helping Nana hang while her younger siblings looked on, both covered in chocolate and fascinated by the tools and Nana’s tone of voice when she used them.
What? Well, that smoothed out the sink and window bit. Now we have a real sentence. A sentence that is a mini-story unto itself. Mary walked is good. That whole sentence is tolerable. What if that sentence steps out of the narrative and sets up…
Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn, floral curtain.
Janet smiled at her. “I remember we were just little kids when you and Nana hung that curtain.”
“Oh God,” Mary held the curtain open with her index finger, leaned over the sink to peer outside. “You and Jake in nothing but droopy white underpants, y’all’s faces covered in chocolate ice cream, mouths wide open. Your eyes were the size of ping pong balls…”
“We’d never heard Nana cuss before. Or get mad for that matter.”
“Tools,” Mary flashed her sister a return smile. “That’s what she said to me when we took them back out to Papa’s garage. ‘Tools do bring out the devil in a person.’” She leaned further, shifted to the right. “That hedge line she wanted by the road, there where it comes up out the holler? It never did take.”
“She worked it hard, though.”
“We worked it hard, Janet. We all had the shovel and hoe slingin’ blisters to show mom and dad for it, too.”
Janet always found it amusing that her big sis stopped being a hotshot Kansas City lawyer immediately after entering their grandparent’s old flagstone cottage in the Missouri hills, turned back into the girl she’d grown up with.
Off we go. Break that last sentence down. Mary’s language wasn’t enough to build character depth? No. But when countered with another character’s perspective? That gives us meaning out of a sentence.
Narrative or dialogue. Every story, every scene is down to every sentence. Write a good sentence with the same questions as a good story. Where is it going? What does it look like, feel like, smell like, what does it do to you, where does it take you?
Dead. Simple. Ask simple questions, get real sentences.
Mary walked. And…there’s a million things to think about. Why was the window always clean? Did Nana watch birds or Papa working or the milk cows, or wonder about the school bus up on blocks that blocked her view or… Write a decent sentence. Follow it with another one. Follow it with dialogue, whatever.
Use your imagination, but control it with sense and meaning. Take a breath, read it out loud. Repair as required. Continue.
Make sense. Have meaning. Try it. The longest journey starts with a step, just like Mary.
Mary walked. The rest of her story awaits.
Exercise 2 –
Mary walked. Mary dragged the body to the dumpster. She was tired and sweaty. The body was too heavy to lift by herself. Could she trust her sister? Oops. Too simple and it reads like an outline.
Mary, drenched in sweat despite the sub-freezing temperature, walked back to the van after she’d dragged the body to the dumpster. No way could she lift all of that fat fucker even an inch by herself, much less four feet off the ground. Maybe she could trust her crazy sister Janet, but only if Janet was thoroughly medicated. Janet was the bionic woman, as big as the dead man rolled up against the dumpster, only Janet wasn’t fat. She was just big. NFL linebacker big, freakishly strong, crazy as a snake-handling preacher and totally unreliable. But long on strong. And crazy. Shit, there had to be another… Mary searched her brother Jake’s PianoMan Movers van for something, anything she could use for leverage. The grand board, wedged in under the organ dollys, might work. Sure. Strap that fat fucker down, lift the board, unhook the top strap, fold his dead ass in. Perfect. Unless she couldn’t lift the grand board with the fat fucker strapped to it. Strong was exactly what she needed. Shit. Her finger hovered over Janet’s number, a bee over a dying rose. Fuck it.
“Janet? Mary. No, your Big Sis Mary, not the Sainted Mother. Yeah…No, I didn’t know you were expecting her to call…Hey, look. ‘Member that handsy pervert Nana married after Papa ran off with the turned out not to be a lesbian wrecker driver…”
It doesn’t matter in what genre we write. Long sentences, short sentences, one after the other.