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The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

Rhythm, reason and rhyme: what order is your sentence in?

I've blogged about making your sentence work best on the reader's experience of the action. I've dissected a hundred miraculous words of Elizabeth Bowen's, as an education in writing. And as a bit of writerly yoga, I've blogged a whole set permutations of a sentence, just to see how many are possible. But when you're working with the forward-moving quality of long sentences (so much more flexible and profluent than short ones!), there's another reason for practising.

A sentence exists in time, and that includes the patterns built into it: not only the way the meaning accumulates as we read on, but the way sounds and connotations do, and how they all work together. This is a little paragraph I found myself writing the other day:

I found Ben sitting in the front room, staring out of the window into the street and holding a wine-glass which was clearly not empty for the first time. I was hungry, and had been thinking of my supper all the way home, but there was no sign of Carly in the kitchen. 

For the next sentence, the first-draft version (the one you write "for yourself", to discover how you want to tell the story) was this:

Ben always knew what I was thinking in those days, however drunk he was.

My storytelling fingers naturally typed this because it's the natural way to tell a story: the main point, and then the things which it would be useful to know about that main point: first that things used to be like this (which also implies that at some point they stopped being), and then that things used to be like this in all circumstances.

Narrator Alan is an old man talking about his youth. Much of the time he just conveys the story without the "filtering" of his "now", but every now and again we're reminded that this is his version of the past told from this particular present. Ben made a huge decision which also changed Alan's life forever, and the close mental connection between them was broken for good. So my first tweak, as soon as the sentence had appeared on screen, was to put narrator-Alan's status and situation up front:

In those days Ben always knew what I was thinking, however drunk he was. 

Then we get the meat of the sentence: that Ben was good at knowing what Alan was thinking. Only after the main idea is established does the fine-tuning of Ben understanding Alan emphasise that he always did. So my next tweak - after I'd written the paragraph but during the first-draft stage - was to add a comma, setting off that "In those days": 

In those days, Ben always knew what I was thinking, however drunk he was. 

And now the sentence has the classic, slightly-more-than-simple, but still basic form: this is how English sentences work. In the middle is the "main clause" - the central unit of meaning: subject + verb + object: "Ben knew what". That established, there can then be one or more phrases hitched on to either or both ends, modifying some aspects of that central piece of meaning. A very high proportion of sentences in good academic writing have this form. However, since that's quite a lot of commas for a shortish sentence, I experimented with cutting the second one:

In those days, Ben always knew what I was thinking however drunk he was. 

but wasn't surprised to find that the smooth run-on of "was thinking however" was uncomfortable: in speech there'd be a lift of the voice going into "however", as a new unit of meaning begins, and it needs separating off in print for the same reason. This is why reading your work aloud is so crucial to using punctuation well and effectively.

But the fact that "In those days" is a qualifying phrase is really important. English is a language which is end-weighted: the grammar and syntax mean that it's the end of a sentence which by nature has the real impact. This is one reason you can get in such a ludicrous pickle when you try to front-load sentences like a journalist: it's not the natural way for an English sentence to work. "The bomb went off which James had put in the babycarriage" is not the way to wreak the best havoc on your reader's nervous system. And, of course, like so many things which happen naturally as part of the creative process, I do it myself, and then have to edit it. That's why I also cut "in the kitchen" after "was no sign of Carly": the absence of Carly is what matters, not the fact that the place she wasn't was the kitchen.

Sticking with the idea of that main unit at the heart of the sentence, I tried swapping the qualifiers:

However drunk Ben was, he always knew what I was thinking in those days.

You can drop the second comma much more naturally, but the sentence has gone rather flat. Although "in those days" is very important to my overall storytelling purpose, it isn't the most dynamic, energetic way to end this sentence. That's partly because the words are quite abstract (no bombs or even baby-carriages), but also because of the sounds. Lots of soft Ss - the ones we pronounce like Zs - and a D, which is also a voiced consonant and so relatively soft (its un-voiced sibling is the much stronger and spittier T). The Th  is also soft because it's the kind which is voiced as in "they're", not un-voiced as in "thin". 

But switching to thinking about sounds made me notice there are two Ks in the sentence, which isn't all that common. (K scores 5 in Scrabble, which is as good an indicator of letter frequency as any). They're actually NKs: the poets would count drunk and think as a half-rhyme, and use it to connect words to connect and so enlarge their meaning and implications. (Visually, of course, there's a third K, in "knew", but unless you're Chaucer that's not so relevant when we're dealing with the voice of fiction.) This is one reason I'm always telling prose writers to take poetry courses: it opens your ears to this whole aspect of writing, which in prose-writing is so often operating below both readers' and writers' consciousness. 

Mind you, intuitive writing often requires some conscious checking and tidying up: here, "he" vs."Ben" may also needs tweaking, depending on which phrase comes first. So should we start with a bang - i.e. the main point? 

Ben always knew what I was thinking in those days, however drunk he was.

"However drunk he was" is a better way to end, because it's not quite what we were expecting, and it's more forceful and concrete in both meanings and sounds than "in those days". The drawback is that "in those days" has got rather lost, and it is important. And although "always knew what I was thinking" is the heart of it, it doesn't get a chance to resonate for the reader, because we go straight on to "in those days". I tried another comma, to get the right emphasis back: 

Ben always knew what I was thinking, in those days, however drunk he was.

But when you get a pair of commas setting off a little phrase like that, most of us read them as "parenthetical commas", and although in grammar that's perfectly correct, the meaning doesn't really read like that: "in those days" is too crucially related to the other two parts to count as "an aside" or "a weak interruption".

I should say that it's taken me much longer to write this post than it did to write, tweak-while-writing, re-draft and revise this paragraph in real life - and I haven't even finished the first draft of this novel. An awful lot of revising goes on below our conscious, or at least analytical, level: most of us would perm and con this kind of sentence intuitively: changing things and feeling, rather than deliberately analysing what works and what doesn't. So I tried reversing the beginning and the end phrases:

However drunk he was, in those days Ben always knew what I was thinking.

Now we're getting there. The qualifying "However drunk he was," happens first, and since experienced readers actually read in units of whole sentences, we're entirely used to holding that on our mental clipboard, waiting for it to qualify whatever unrolls. Notice that I've chosen to use "he": after all, we actually know who "he" probably is, from further up the paragraph. "In those days" is a little set off by the preceding comma, and in reinforcing our sense that this is a man looking back at what matters/mattered in his life, hints that this was a turning point in that life. And then we get the heart of things - "Ben [name here] always knew what I was thinking". By means of the slant-rhyme "think"/"drunk" we get an echo in the ending of the beginning, to remind us that the mental communion was deep, and so its ending was a great loss. 

And, finally, remember that no sentence actually operates in isolation. So let's have a look at the whole thing as a piece of forward-moving storytelling. (And notice that I dropped the comma after "hungry": the sentence is only there to set the reader up for what happens next, and I decided that the extra comma, articulating the grammar so carefully, made the sentence seem more stately and important than it should be.)

I found Ben sitting in the front room, staring out of the window into the street and holding a wine-glass which was clearly not empty for the first time. I was hungry and had been thinking of my supper all the way home, but there was no sign of Carly. 

However drunk he was, in those days Ben always knew what I was thinking. As I peered into the kitchen, he said, 'She’s gone.’ 

  1. There's no sign of Carly, but the question of what's happened to her isn't answered.
  2. "however drunk he was", being a qualifier ahead of the main point of the sentence, micro-delays our reaching the main point
  3. "in those days" is another micro-delay, though a different kind of qualifier
  4. when we get to the main point, it's implied that Ben has read Alan's thought, but we don't know what he's read: yet another delay
  5. "thinking" is an un-stressed ending (what the poets used to call a feminine ending), which is a lighter and more provisional pause, so the sentence isn't signed off 
  6. instead, the sentence rolls on towards the the next, which is also provisional, starting with the qualifier of "as I peered" 
  7. the resolution of what Ben read of Alan's thought is delayed again by the action of Alan "peering" for Carly
  8. we peer, but aren't shown either Carly, or a definitive not-Carly.
  9. Only then do we get Ben's punchline, with a stressed ending, a hard G, and a fat, round vowel:
  10.  in the first words spoken aloud, we end with the word that these two little paragraphs have been building up to: "gone".

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