RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #28

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.

Dead. Simple.

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.

Dead. Simple.

Published by

Phil Huston


7 thoughts on “RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #28”

  1. Why is it that, every time you write one of these it feels as if you painted your words on poster board and shoved in front of my nose?
    Dead. Simple. Eh? Then there can be no good reason for all the crap writing out there, yeah? Or maybe, there really is a need for “wax on, wax off” taught to grasshoppers. “Wax on, wax off” seems simple. Dead. Simple. Yet, somehow, Karate is not.
    However, you breaking down this specific example is quality instruction. Calling it dead simple, not so much. Were you to do this a dozen times, with different intents — going into the exercise — those too would be excellent instruction. Your writing reflexes are well developed. For most others, stumbling is all we can accomplish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crap writing is down to people not looking. Believing it’s okay because their writer’s circle jerk, most of whom would have trouble with a grocery list, just loved it. Someone asked John Wayne how he walked they way he did. “Well, I put one foot in front of the other.” If you can walk you can write. It’s easier to tell when you’re walking is off when your fcae finds the floor, but it’s the same idea, Mole walks. Where? The exercise is in there, insert your own imagination in the where, what, next, how slots. See if it stands up. Next. Do not draft this way. Do I need to put up the canons of rhetoric next?


    2. Go buy, with utmost haste, “The Lie That Tells a Truth.” Start at the beginning. Then “Revising Prose.” I mean it. Dufresne nails it in a not so abstract and usually humorous way. Lanham will teach you to see it. Dead. Simple. Exercise your writing. Take it for walk. Push it.


      1. Certain personality types require this sort of thing. I rebel against the establishment. Hey, if they’re such hotshots, why are they doing clinics for $? Doing synth clinics, I don’t care if it was NYC or Klute, TX I would be introduced as an expert, and I’d say the definition of an expert is someone who is at least 50 miles from home who knows a few big words that no one in this room, including me, give a damn about, so let’s have some fun. Hey, the actor’s studio type interviews with real authors? Yes. Bullshit factology and SM trend speak for $. No.
        You bought the book. Practice what Dnn said in that post of mine Think about something, open the book, read. After a week or two of that you’ll be a freaking genius and see the dead simple equations you’ve been looking for. Stop working at it, work for it.

        Liked by 1 person

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