How to write a sentence

Hal Duncan has over twenty years critiquing experience as a member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, and is now writing for a living, mainly fiction and poetry, but also a considerable amount of literary criticism and commentary.

When it comes to critiquing, sometimes the very simplicity of problems and solutions can be a problem. Sometimes there are flaws and fixes so obvious it seems … like a writer just doesn’t grasp the basics of how to write a sentence – of narrative, that is.

Even when the prose is perfectly acceptable as prose in and of itself, there can be so much that’s wrong, to be honest, in terms of how it works as narrative, that you wonder how the writer couldn’t see the failings of that sentence, how easily those failings could be fixed.

But then you try and explain what’s wrong, and you realise … it ain’t quite so easy to describe, muscle by muscle, the exact sequence of actions entailed in riding a bicycle from a particular Point A to a particular Point B. And if it’s difficult to explain a learned skill, it’s little wonder many struggle with an apparent mystery.

An apparent mystery, I say, though.

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I’ve found it’s not impossible to get across the difference between what works and what doesn’t, but only by figuring out what it is that’s so simple many writers take it for granted. In thrashing that out, unravelling the enigma we gloss with words like clunky or purple, the easiest thing to do, I’ve found, is just pick one sentence and show a writer how to edit it, take them step-by-step through the application of some basic principles.

Hell, even when their prose isn’t too bad, it’s easier to demonstrate than to explain the how of it abstractly.

I thought I’d take you through that process with a sentence that you should be able to see at a glance needs a whole lot of work, this prime example from Jim Theiss’s notoriously bad 1970 novel, The Eye of Argon:

A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarians hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade to the hilt into the soldiers vital organs.

Ouch.

Let’s take a closer look at it and see if we can’t perform a little alchemy, transform it … well, if not into gold then at least into a serviceable steel. Because really, the principles involved in writing a decent sentence of narrative … they’re not that complex, not that mysterious.

Decision

There are many things you want to say in a sentence, but you can’t say them all. Decide between them. There are many ways a thing might be said. Decide between them. There are many words on the shelf, close enough to hand that you could grab any one of them and just chuck it in there. Don’t. Decide between them. And when you do put the words down on the page, there’s still a decision to be made as to whether the sentence says what you want it to.

Good decision is conscious, considered, conclusive. (Excellent decision is instinctive, intuitive, instant, a skill learned to automation, but to master the skill to excellence you need to go through competence.)

Decision in sentence-writing is therefore ultimately about clarity: clarity of purpose, creating clarity of import.

So…

Imagine you’re Theiss. It seems to me, you’re aiming to say three things here, that (1) a blade is swung by a barbarian as (2) his arm thrusts forward, (3) skewering a soldier’s belly. (Or are you? That sentence is bad in part because I can’t tell. With that malapropism ‘riveted,’ maybe you mean the soldier’s blade bounced off the barbarian’s shield.)

The word ‘riveted’ has been grabbed off the shelf. Is this what is meant? Check the dictionary. No, it’s not. How about ‘enamelled’? No, that’s clearly just the first that came to hand, too. And ‘shod’? A blade is made of steel, not shod with it. Does it mean that the sword comes out of the shield or out from behind it? Does it mean that the blade is sent to the hilt or that it’s sent up to the hilt?

With ‘rivet,’ you should be deciding that you mean a sudden action as from a riveter’s gun – a shooting forward. With ‘enamelled,’ you should be deciding that you mean ‘wrapped in.’ With ‘steel shod blade,’ you should be deciding you just mean ‘steel blade.’ You should be deciding that the sentence needs ‘behind’ and ‘up’:

A sweeping blade of flashing steel shot forward from behind the massive barbarian’s hide-wrapped shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel blade up to the hilt into the soldier’s vital organs.

This is still, it must be said, a bad sentence. More on this next.

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