Mary Rosenblum, your web editor, has published three SF novels, four mysteries, and more than 60 short stories in multiple genres, as well as nonfiction! She also teaches writing, and has for many years.
Layering: Making One Sentence Do Many Things
by Mary Rosenblum
Revision. How many of you hate it? Raise your hands. Whether you hate it or love it, revision is a necessary part of the writing process. Nothing is perfect the first time. Yes, your story or article may say exactly what you want it to say to the reader, but you can always make that message stronger and clearer. Remember, you are not just writing for a few select readers, you are writing for a lot of readers with a wide range of intelligence, attention span, and language ability. This is not a first draft process, let’s make that clear right away. You have two ‘writing brains’. The first is the creative brain – the part responsible for the content, for that first draft. You also have the ‘editing brain’. This is the part responsible for making that content as strong as possible. Tell the editor brain to take a nap while you are creating and then send the creative brain off to rest while you edit for that second draft. J
Just What IS ‘Stronger and Clearer’?
Many things go into making a story or article as strong and clear as it can be. Surplus words are probably the most common reason for ‘slow’ or ‘flabby’ prose. Even the most compelling story or article can drag interminably if the sparkling plot or point is drowned and obscured by hundreds of unneeded words. It’s like wading through a muddy swamp instead of skimming across a sparkling lake. So how do we make our verbal lake sparkle?
Let’s take a look at the following example:
Samantha came into the living room. She had red hair and hazel eyes. She was happy.
Pretty straight forward, right? Three sentences. Four pieces of information here: Samantha enters the living room. She has red hair and hazel eyes, and she is in a happy mood. Okay, let’s look at this:
Samantha danced into the living room, red hair bouncing on her shoulders, her hazel eyes sparkling.
What do we find out from the above sentence? Yep. Samantha dances into the living room. She’s happy, right? She sure isn’t sad. And we see that red hair bouncing on her shoulders and notice her sparkling eyes. Four pieces of information, one sentence. And guess what? If you compare our plodding three sentences to our single, highly visual sentence, you will find that the single sentence has more energy.
Spring Load Your Prose
Think of your sentences as springs. A tightly compressed spring has a lot of energy and power. The more information a sentence conveys, the more powerful your sentence-spring is. Now this has a natural limit. When your sentence sprawls into a long, meandering run-on, all that energy is lost.
Samantha danced into the living room, red hair bouncing on her shoulders, her hazel eyes sparkling as she thought of her aunt and all the fun they would have next weekend on her birthday, on their annual trip to the beach. Energy? What energy? Yes, this long sentence contains many pieces of information, but, I’m exhausted from trying to process all the information here! Here, our spring-sentence has uncoiled and no longer has much ‘spring’ left.
The key here is how easily and quickly the words in your sentence translate to images in your reader’s head. When we see Samantha dancing, with her hair bouncing and eyes sparkling, we instantly see her. But when we add on her thoughts about her aunt, her birthday, and the trip to the beach, that image will have faded by the time we get to the end of the sentence. Keep your sentences short and powerful most of the time. It is fine and improves the rhythm of your prose to vary the sentence length, but make every single sentence many clauses long and heavy with information! You can get multiple bits of information into short sentences, too.
We often try too hard to make sure that the readers see every last detail we intend them to see. But don’t forget that part of the strength of prose is that we allow our readers to share our world. As they read, they envision the world and the characters you describe, but their characters and worlds are peculiarly theirs. They are not exactly what you or other readers see. That gives each reader authorship of that story to some degree. It is fine to give your readers a few clues, hopscotch over others, and let them build the a substantial part of the scene for themselves. Don’t feel that you have to describe every last detail of a scene or an event. Let the reader share in the creation. Play hopscotch with the details. Let’s take a look at the following scene.
Smantha braked the car to a halt. It was an unexpectedly sunny spring day. Hot sun beat down on her as she got out of the car. The old Honda Civic showed its age. She closed the door gently so as not to startle the injured dog. Surely she had seen it just about here on the side of the road. She began to search for it. The weeds along the edge of the cracked asphalt road were dusty. She listened intently for a whine or a rustle from the dog. Maybe she had been wrong and it wasn’t hurt at all? But then, she saw it. It looked like a bundle of dirty fur back in a muddy culvert. It stared at her. The poor thing was afraid, she thought. It was brown and white with long hair. She reached out cautiously. It might bite. But it let her stroke it. “Poor baby,” she murmured. “Let’s get you some help.”
In the example below, we will find exactly the same details, only this time they are layered into the sentences and some details are merely implied, rather than spelled out. If you look at the difference in word count, we have shed about 60 words and are saying the same thing.
Samantha braked and hopped out, the spring sun hot on her neck. “Here, baby,” she coaxed as she closed the battered old Honda’s door gently. “Don’t be scared.” Parting the dusty weeds, she listened intently for a whine or a rustle from the injured dog, wondering if she had been mistaken, if it wasn’t hurt after all. “There you are!” The bundle of brown and white fur huddled in a muddy culvert, its eyes gleaming with fear. She held out a cautious hand, stroked the tangled, filthy coat. “Poor baby,” she murmured. “Let’s get you some help.” [97 words]
Putting It Into Practice
So how do you do this? How do you layer those details into fewer sentences and tighten your story or your article? Start by listing the details that you want your readers to know. Then go back to the beginning of the section and revise your sentences one by one, adding multiple details when you can. Check off the necessary details as you include them in the revised section. If you don’t get them all on the first pass, go back and find a place to slip them in on a second pass. Yes, this is slow and cumbersome, but you are learning a new technique here. As you practice you will gain confidence and soon you will do this unconsciously, with little effort.
Why should you do this? Remember that even a good story can drown in words. Removing those excess words can make the difference between a story that readers read and promptly forget, and a story that they remember years later. Extra words are fog. If you see a stunning mountain range through a dense fog, you do not leave with an indelible image of beauty printed on your brain. But if you see it on a clear day, you may remember that vista forever. Clear up the fog. When those readers greet you at a conference or send you fan mail and tell you how powerfully your story impacted them, you will be so glad you did.
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