16 Questions to ask a Critique (and some to ask about a critiquer)
Yours to remember and mine to forget

A Million Little Versions (or nearly)

I've asked before whether you've ever thought about the order in which you put the elements in your sentence. And my post on the joys of the long sentence is relevant too, because of course a longer sentence, in our lovely, bendy, syntactical English, gives you more opportunities: you can play with rhythm and sound, with subtleties of meaning, with front-loading the sentence or keeping the grenade for the end. You can fine-tune for the period or the voice, for the character or their state of mind.

So when, the other day, I found myself writing the first version of what follows, I decided to do a writerly five-finger exercise with it. How many ways could I recast the sentence while retaining the exact sense by not changing the logic of the relationship between the five main elements: He, Surprise, Fierce, His-Need and Find-Out. And I'm sure there are more permutations I haven't thought of. I'm going to leave you to do the Maths about what works, what doesn't, why, and when you might use which. Yes, one or two of them do sound like off-cuts from the Star Wars script. But then you never know when you might need just that, do you?

  • He was surprised by how fiercely he needed to find out.
  • He was surprised how fiercely he needed to find out.
  • He was surprised [by] how fierce was his need to find out.
  • He was surprised [by] how fierce his need was to find out.
  • He was surprised [by] how fierce his need to find out was.
  • He was surprised by the fierceness of his need to find out.
  • He was surprised that in him the need to find out was so fierce.
  • He was surprised that the need in him to find out was so fierce.
  • He was surprised that the need to find out, in him, was so fierce.
  • He was surprised that the need to find out was so fierce in him.
  • He was surprised that the need was so fierce in him to find out.
  • He was surprised that so fierce was the need in him to find out.
  • He was surprised that so fierce was the need to find out in him.
  • He was surprised, in his need to find out, [by] how fierce that need was.
  • He was surprised, in his need to find out, by his need's fierceness
  • He was surprised, in his needing to find out, how fierce the need was.
  • He was surprised, in his needing to find out, [by] how fierce the need was.
  • He was surprised, in his needing to find out, by his need's fierceness.
  • His need to find out surprised him in its fierceness.
  • His need to find out surprised him by its fierceness.
  • His need to find out was surprising in its fierceness
  • His need to find out was surprisingly fierce to him.
  • His need was to him surprisingly fierce, and it was the need to find out.
  • His need's fierceness - the need to find out - surprised him.
  • The need in him to find out surprised him by its fierceness.
  • The need in him to find out was surprising to him in its fierceness.
  • He needed to find out, and the fierceness of his need surprised him.
  • He needed to find out, but the fierceness of his need surprised him.
  • He needed to find out, yet the fierceness of his need surprised him.
  • Surprising to him was the fierceness of his need to find out.
  • Surprising to him, in his need to find out, was the fierceness of it.
  • Surprising to him in its fierceness was his need to find out.

  • Finding out was a need which surprised him in its fierceness.
  • Finding out was a need whose fierceness surprised him.

  • To find out was a need in him whose fierceness surprised him.
  • To find out was a need in him which surprised him in its fierceness.

  • How fiercely he needed to find out surprised him.
  • How fiercely he needed to find out: that surprised him!

  • How surprisingly fiercely he needed to find out!
  • How surprisingly fierce was his need to find out!
  • How surprising was the fierceness of his need to find out!

  • It surprised him, how fiercely he needed to find out.
  • It surprised him, the fierceness of his need to find out.
  • It surprised him that his need to find out was so fierce.

  • It was surprising to him, how fiercely he needed to find out.
  • It was surprising to him that he needed to find out so fiercely.
  • It was surprising to him, his needing to find out so fiercely.
  • It was surprising to him, the fierceness of his needing to find out.

  • The fierceness of his need to find out surprised him.
  • The fierceness of his need to find out was surprising to him.
  • The fierceness of his need to find out: that surprised him.
  • The fierceness of it - his need to find out - that surprised him.
  • Surprised, he was, by the fierceness of his need to find out.
  • Surprised by the fierceness, he was, of his need to find out.
  • Surprised by the fierceness of his need to find out, he was.
  • Surprised by the fierceness of his need he was: the need to find out.

And that's before you've stretched things around a bit more, let go of the need for a grammatically complete sentence, or settled for a meaning which isn't quite the one we've been dealing with above. That might well not matter (it doesn't matter to poets, often; it's the way the words rub up against each other they're interested in, not always the connections of logic and grammar) but it might: you need to know which you're after. Some would only be unambigious in the context of other sentences. Some disconnect the need from being his need: it could be someone else's need. We could be here for hours, though, so here are a few samples.

  • The ferocity of his need to find out was a surprise.
  • The surprise was the ferocity of his need to find out.
  • Needing so ferociously to find out was surprising.
  • The necessity to find out wasn't surprising; its ferocity was.
  • You're surprised by how fiercely you need to find out.
  • What's surprising is the fierceness of your need to find out.
  • Fierce - surprisingly fierce - how you need to find out.
  • Surprisingly, his need to find out was ferocious.
  • Fierce, his need to find out - fierce, and surprising in its fierceness.
  • A fierce need in himself to find out, and that ferocity a surprise.
  • It surprised him, his need-to-find-out's fierceness.
  • He needed to find out: needed surprisingly, fiercely.
  • Fiercely, surprisingly, he needed to find out.
  • A need - a ferocious need - a need to find out... surprising in its ferocity
  • It wasn't his need to find out that surprised him, it was the fierceness of his need.
  • Surprisingly fiercely, he needed to find out.
  • A need - fierce - a need to find out... but what surprised him wasn't the need, but its fierceness.

See what I mean? That's over sixty versions, and if you start playing fast and loose with A/His, The/An, fierce/ferocious, need/necessity, him/you, and so on, you could probably perm another sixty, or more.

It sounds frivolous, or pointless, although if you've stuck it this far I hope you see why it's not. But what this actually is, is yoga for writers. Of course there will be some versions which feel more like you and your voice, than others. Some might be a character's voice. And who says you won't need someone to sound like Yoda, one day? Do this, every now and again, and you're making your word-hoard and syntax-mind bendier, more responsive to what you're trying to say, more likely to serve up the right answer to a wrong sentence, more likely to get the right sentence there first go. Try it with one of your own sentences.

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