In the last post, I spent a while exploring all the different types and forms of sentence that you have available to you when you write.
- simple sentences
- compound sentences
- complex sentences
- sentence fragments
- compound-complex (and maybe complex-compound – who knows in these turbulent and anarchic times?)
- declarative sentences
- interrogative sentences (a.k.a. questions)
- exclamatory sentences
- imperative sentences
- and negative versions of all of the above.
And if you are unsure what they all look like, you might want to take a trip back to the previous post, where I’ve provided examples and explained what they are. To be frank, it’s a rather constrained caper – less a fragrant romp than a smash-and-grab. But I appreciate not everyone has the stomach for a more exhaustive exploration of the peculiarities of English sentence construction… and so we move on today into exploration of how writers can use them.
I’m going to be looking mainly at a passage of narrative from best-selling author Lee Child and a piece of purplesque description from Angela Carter to explore sentence forms for effect in narrative and descriptive writing. Next time I’ll look at a bit of opinion from David Mitchell so you can see how sentences for effect work on Paper 2. Between them, you’ll see how writers are using a range of sentence forms for effect…
You know me well enough by now to know that I start with identification, and you can find that in the videos below.
Then some discussion.
And then a little application.
First is an identification of what type of sentences Lee Child uses in an extract from one of his action novels. You can explore the passage with me here:
To summarise, if you can’t be bothered to watch, he uses lots and lots of fragments, a lot of short sentences and the occasional ‘slow-motion’ complex or compound sentence where he breaks all the rules to really slow the action down and break it into pieces whilst at the same time giving it a sense of continuity.
One of my favourite fragments has to be this one:
You can tell I love it because I do a silly voice.
Technically, you don’t really want a full stop. Alone in the dark describes how he waited – it’s a complement of the verb. Alone is actually a way to describe ‘he’, so you have an adjective and then an adverbial that completes it, where he was, ‘in the dark.’
But if I’d seen it written, “Then he waited alone in the dark.” or “Then he waited in the dark”, or with a comma after waited, then he would have a complete sentence.
So why that full stop? Why that fragment?
It just builds up the drama. It makes you focus on that word Alone because it’s now after a pause. It just has the effect of highlighting that fragment, drawing attention to the content and reminding us that Reacher is a one-man army. The pauses before the paragraph and after the paragraph – all that empty space – adds emphasis to those two sentences. And then the full stop adds a break so that you’re really having to emphasise Alone.
The sentence that follows is also pretty cool. Seven actions – three complete and four participles…
Perez stepped into the night, turned to close the door behind him and Reacher swung, arms extended, hips twisting, driving forward off the back foot
You might ordinarily think that a long sentence slows things down and detracts from the tension. Whilst this slows things down and we get the minutiae of movement, that one sentence has seven actions in it. The fact that they are not separated by full stops makes them continuous. All that detail has the effect of going into slow motion so that we get a sense of a lot happening in a short moment. At the same time, by giving us all the details and all the movement, we are delayed from knowing whether or not he was successful.
The short sentence fragments that follow tell us that he wasn’t.
No Good. Late.
He’s really playing around with the momentum, speeding us up one moment, slowing us down with a baseball metaphor. We have pairs of simple sentences started off by coordinating conjunctions:
But Perez’s head was not a baseball. And the G36 was not a bat.
Before he takes us into the graphic compound sentence:
The sight block caught Perez in the temple and punched a shard of bone sideways through his left eye socket and on through the bridge of his nose and halfway through his right eye socket.
So why a compound sentence here, and why all those ands?
Firstly, compound sentences are long – and without punctuation, to use a cheesy cliché, they flow. There is a sense of unbroken movement. And that’s what this is describing. An unbroken movement. Although the actions ‘caught’ and ‘punched’ are chronological, by using a compound sentence, there is a sense that the ideas are equal too. It’s slow. It allows us to go slow-motion again and imagine the path that the shard of bone took. Were we of an unnecessarily violent disposition, we may savour that moment and appreciate those graphic details. It also has the added effect of not letting us know whether that stopped Perez or not. We’re still waiting to know what happened next.
In fact, Lee Child dedicates a full NINE sentences to that ONE blow. That’s a lot of detail for one action. We have a metaphor about baseball. We have a simile rooted in speculation about a soft-boiled egg.
That one hit with an assault rifle is evaluated in more detail than you’d probably expect, before we reach the conclusion:
Messy but effective. Perez was dead long before …
and I don’t even care what happens after we’re told the conclusion.
So why get that nine-ways-from-Sunday description and those compound sentences, that detail, the brutal figurative language?
Because otherwise it would read like this:
Reacher moved to the building. He could hear Perez inside on the telephone. Reacher waited. When Perez came out, Reacher hit him with the assault rifle. Perez died instantly.
Not very exciting, suspenseful or interesting, is it?
But it’s the interplay between all those fragments that makes it interesting. It’s the use of that long compound sentence with that list of actions, the compound sentence that describes the impact of the blow, the parallel simple sentences… and barely a complex sentence at all.
That works beautifully for the action bit of your narrative.
I’m a big fan of using interplay between simple sentences, fragments and compound sentences in action writing. The compound sentence in particular is a nice way to make a lot seem like it happens in unbroken continuity. Fragments and simple sentences speed us up through the rollercoaster of action and increase tension.
They are definitely things you can use yourself.
As for the Angela Carter example… it is the opposite end of the spectrum. Fancy-schmanzy vocabulary, airy-fairy semi-colons. Poetic diction in purple prose. It’s too rich and elaborate for everyday use, but she’s playing with those sentences too.
So… what do we have here?
I’m not even going to get into categorising these sentences!
The first bit is fine. I can manage that. Up to the semi-colon, we have a simple sentence, and the semi-colon makes it into a compound sentence. The ‘but’ suggests an extension of that compound sentence. So three simple sentences spliced together with the embedded ‘not quite yet’ stuck in there.
Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile.
Oh, okay. Already I have a problem. We have a main verb ‘is’. And then some other bits with verbs, one of which is clearly an infinitive and doesn’t count. And one, ‘smile’, which is another infinitive? Waaaaah. If they are both infinitives it could still be a simple sentence.
Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile.
It is not yet the saddest time of the year.
Plus the embedded bit *not quite yet*
That suggests then that there are three simple sentences spliced into one compound sentence. One of the splicey things is a semi-colon. One is a FANBOYS.
Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet the saddest time of the year.
And then when I put that embedded bit back in, I’ve got my full sentence.
Let’s say compound it is then. Happy to take your sentence parsing in the comments and amend, by the way, if you are a better linguist than I am. Or if you are braver than I.
The next sentence is ALSO a compound sentence with a tacked-on ‘only’ and another embedded addition.
There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being.
The year turns in on itself.
Phew. A little easier. You can see the simple sentences here.
And then a verbless fragment to finish it off.
Introspective weather. A sickroom hush.
The main thing is that she’s using these compound sentences in the same way as Lee Child is. Yes, really. They stretch out that moment and extend the idea. They slow things down and add detail. She’s using the embedded bits and stick-on words to slow it further. The final fragment changes the pace a little.
Think of it if she’d written it like this:
Now the stark elders have an anorexic look. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being. The year turns in on itself. It is introspective weather. There is a sickroom hush.
That fancy vocabulary allows it to seem more lovely than it is. Let me make it more simple:
The trees look thin. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending. The year turns in on itself. It is thoughtful weather. It is as quiet as a sickroom.
NOW we can really see what’s going on. See how average it sounds without some of that flash ‘imminent cessation of being’ (don’t get caught up on fancy-schmanzy, though… no jubilant adulations, please!)
So how does she take it from these decidedly average seven sentences?
First, she uses two semi-colons. Not to be rude, Ms Carter, you being a published writer and all, but personally I find two semi-colons in two adjacent sentences a bit rich for my taste, but it just goes to show that you can do what you like. I wouldn’t, but then that’s me.
She doesn’t just use the airy-fairy. No. She also has a simple FANBOYS. But.
She sticks on a word, ‘only’.
She adds a couple of embedded details in ‘in turning’ and ‘not quite yet’. That ‘not quite yet’ makes up for the semi-colon
abuse use. I do love a little purposeful play with almost-quite repetition, especially when it slows things down so thoughtfully.
Then there is a gloss of lovely words, of course, but even without them, you can see how she’s using sentences to control the pace.
The trees look thin; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Thoughtful weather, a sickroom hush.
Not quite so fancy when you get down to it, is it?
So… some stuff for you to try:
- Use the heck out of those simple sentences. Get your money’s worth. They are very overlooked as a great way to shift the pace and speed things up in narrative or to change the pace in descriptive writing.
- Add some fragments but please don’t put them in a single-word paragraph. They look ugly and it’s the writing equivalent of punching me in the face. Single-word fragments look fabulous at the beginning of a paragraph, add spice in the middle and add a bump on their own, but if I see another ‘Silence.’ floating on its own in space, I’m going to end up bursting my innards with angry frustration. They are dramatic enough without floating in space, dangling between paragraphs. Soften them a little, please.
- Don’t overlook the compound sentence. Just because those FANBOYS seem to be things you’ve been using forever, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them.
- Variety is the spice of life, but be purposeful. DECIDE what sentence length or type you are going to use before you put pen to paper. Stop at the full stops, lift your pen and make a decision before you venture forth into the next.
- Don’t play before you’ve got the basics right. If you regularly put commas in where full stops should go, it’s like getting out the machine tools when you can’t use a spanner. Put them away and be comfortable with the basics.
And just because I can’t resist, I’m going to leave you with two more beautiful passages of description. One is from Bleak House and it is my most favourite set of sentences of all. The other is from The Great Gatsby.
That one is from Dickens’ Bleak House. How you use sentences to make the fog seem like it’s everywhere. We’re not all Dickens, but we can learn from his style.
Now those sentences are pretty special, but they’re ways in which candidates looking to move up to the top levels might want to think about how to play around with their sentences.
Next time, I’ll be looking at how you can use a wide range of sentence forms for Paper 2 writing.