sentence fluency

All posts tagged sentence fluency

Beauty and Wonder

Published October 16, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to continue analyzing the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in notable picture books.

Having a clear purpose is important when writing a picture book. Is your purpose to entertain? Do you want to inspire? Do you want to educate? Do you have more than one purpose? “The best picture books are warm, humorous, and can be read again and again. There must be something new to take away each time you read it.  It has to hold up to multiple readings. There must be substance, depth, and layering.” (from

Great picture books should also contain beauty and wonder, both in the pictures and in the text. Consider Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. There is beauty and wonder on every page –in the lovely forest illustrations and also in the language.

Here’s the first paragraph:

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling. There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Notice the way the sentences flow, the rhythm, the rhyme, the imagery, the alliteration, and the repetition. Notice also the mood created by the brief description. What could be more mysterious and wondrous than going “owling” with your father in the middle of a winter night?

And here’s a list of some of the imagery/figurative language in the story.

1- The trees stood still as giant statues.

2- A train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

3- They sang out, trains and dogs.

4- It was as quiet as a dream.

5- Our feet crunched over the crisp snow.

6- Little gray footprints followed us.

7- My short, round shadow bumped after me.

8- The moon made his face into a silver mask.

9- The snow below it was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl.

10- An echo came threading its way through the trees.

11- We watched silently with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken.

12- The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.

Beautiful and wondrous.

Finally, notice the three concluding statements that summarize the narrator’s unique experience.

1- If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.

2- When you go owling you have to be brave.

3- When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope.

Think of the layers of meaning: We could read this picture book for the experience of going “owling,” for the relationship between the child and the father, or for what the story symbolizes (hope and perseverance). Or we could find a different, deeper, personal meaning.

Now that I’ve been inspired by Jane Yolen, I’m going to go work on my picture books. 🙂

The exercise for this week is to write a reflection on your writing habits (the when, where, and how) and perhaps on how to improve them. Examining the writing habits of other writers will help.

Talk to you next week!

P.S. Here’s another link with useful information on Picture Books:


Let’s Get Wild!

Published October 8, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Last week’s exercise was to analyze the rhetorical devices and the sentence fluency in a notable picture book.

First of all I want to say that if you think writing a picture book is easy — ha! — think again. It’s far more difficult than writing a complicated poem such as a sestina or a villanelle. You need to incorporate elements of poetry, an attention-grabbing story line, action with lots of visual possibilities, layers of meaning, and whimsical creativity within a limited word and page count. Plus you must appeal to young readers and their parents, and your message must not be didactic or condescending. A picture book writer has many balls to juggle!

The following two sites offer good information on the genre:

I chose Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak as the notable picture book I wanted to analyze because it contains all the elements I listed earlier. (And because it’s a awesome read.)

Here’s a fun reading of the book by Christopher Walken:

And here’s an interesting psychological analysis of the book:

Here are some of the rhetorical devices I noticed in the text:

1-examples of alliteration:

-wore his wolf suit and made mischief

-the walls became the world

2- examples of repetition

-a forest grew and grew – and grew

-they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

3- examples of internal rhyme

till Max said “BE STILL!”

-and made him king of all the wild things.

4- examples of assonance and consonance

night – kind

sent – bed

came – place

start – are

wolf – mischief

year – are

tumbled by

private boat

yellow eyes

5- examples of rhythm (all the sentences have rhythm)

-But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go —

we’ll eat you up — we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

6- examples of word play

-and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks

and almost over a year

to where the wild things are.

7- examples of figurative language

-an ocean tumbled by

-and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room

8- examples of onomatopoeia

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

And here’s a fabulous example of sentence fluency:

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!” And Max said, “No!”

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws, but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.

Maurice Sendak makes it seem so easy, doesn’t he?

The point of this exercise was to notice how rhetorical devices enhance the rhythm and flow of sentences, and then apply these strategies to our own work.

I’m revising a couple of picture books right now, so I’m going to stick to this exercise for one more week.

Talk to you next Monday! 🙂

“A Hand in the Darkness”

Published September 10, 2012 by Elsa Pla


I won’t be able to post again until the 24th.

This is the last sentence inventory posting (refer to the post titled “The Sentence Inventory”). For now, at least. The point of the inventory is to study the way you or a favorite author constructs sentences and uses special effects (rhetorical devices, etc.).

Again, here’s the chart I created. Please feel free to modify it and use it.

Sentence Inventory

This time I chose to analyze the first four paragraphs (they’re very short) of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Here’s my filled-out chart:

Sentence Inventory – Filled 2

Mr. Gaiman’s prose is simple, subtle, and absolutely brilliant. In the opening scene he describes the cold and calculated murder of a man, his wife, their young daughter, and, possibly, their baby boy. But wait, this is a story written for children! Mr. Gaiman meets this challenge by avoiding graphic descriptions and making use of allusions and understatements, instead. For example: “The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.” There’s never any mention of blood and gore or actual violence, but the reader can easily imagine what has happened. Especially since the assassin’s name is Jack.

The passage is scary and suspenseful in the way old black and white movies used to be. Then there’s the surprise at the end of the scene: “That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of.” The killing is possibly not over! And the next victim is a baby! The reader is hooked.

The vocabulary is simple, with a few high-level words here and there. His sentences are varied, and the writing flows. It’s a wonderful read-aloud book. I love his use of short, straight-to-the-point statements. For example: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” “The hunt was almost over.” “One more and his task would be done.”

I also love the words and descriptions Mr. Gaiman uses to evoke the mood. For example: “Wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.” Gorgeous writing.

After analyzing Mr. Gaiman’s work, I went and revised a passage from a story I’m working on. Here’s the revised version:

The drownings, the murder victims, and the hole in the middle made the lake a creepy and scary place, but also terribly interesting, in a morbid sort of way.  But they weren’t the reasons people stayed away at night.

The real reason was the ghost.

Those who had seen it described it as a woman in a wedding dress who appeared late at night, usually close to the water’s edge. Drownings usually followed these apparitions.

The night I saw her I was staying at my neighbor’s house.

I was babysitting my neighbor’s twins, and I was sleeping on a cot in their bedroom. Except I couldn’t sleep because I always have a hard time falling asleep in strange surroundings. So, instead, I was wide-awake, thinking depressing thoughts, as usual.

The twin’s bedroom door was partially open, and I could see down the hallway into the living room. Suddenly a light-green glow began to rise from beneath the living room’s floorboards. That by itself would have been enough to scare me into a parallel universe. But then a misty-white figure casually glided above the glow.

That’s when my brain exploded a little bit.

That’s it for the past week.

Because I’ve been studying sentence structure and fluency, I’d like to do the following exercise this week:

1- Choose a few short passages, each by a favorite author, and read them aloud.

2- Choose a passage from your own work and read it aloud. (This exercise works best if you read the passage aloud to someone else.)

3- Revise your passage by improving its fluency and poetic musicality.

Happy writing! 🙂

The Sentence Inventory

Published August 20, 2012 by Elsa Pla

This past week’s exercise:

Go through your list of titles (refer to my post “The You List”), pick one, write a reflection piece on it, and see where the muse takes you. 

My earliest memory is of playing hide & seek with my mother at my grandmother’s creepy house. Here’s an excerpt from my reflection on “The Locked Desk”:

As a little girl, I was afraid of my grandmother’s house. It possessed an eerie quality that made me nervous. Perhaps its strangeness resulted from its ancient, unkept appearance and the fact that it was dreadfully out-of-place in the middle of the modern city. Perhaps because of the artifacts it contained: solemn columns, antique furniture, unusual objects, and obscure family portraits whose threatening eyes seemed to constantly glare at me. Whatever the reason for its weirdness, the house frightened me.

The eeriest piece of furniture in the house was my grandmother’s personal desk: a large and dark Spanish “Vargueño” intricately carved with fierce jungle animals and demon-like creatures. The front panel opened downward and doubled as a writing surface. When opened, the desk released a strong aroma of cedar and parchment and revealed dozens of small compartments and locked drawers. The desk was the heart of the house. The whole house — with its darkness, strong smells, many rooms, locked closets, and threatening “presences” — seemed to extend from it.

What did my grandmother keep locked up in her desk? Letters? Photographs? A diary? What sinister secrets does the desk conceal?

The point of the exercise is to wake up the muse. I love it.

This week I’m going to try an exercise I learned from a teacher who attended the Denver Writing Project Summer Institute:

The Sentence Inventory

1- Construct a chart that lists sentence beginnings, main verbs, and number of words (you could also list nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc).

2- Pick a paragraph from a manuscript you’re working on, and inventory the components of your sentences.

(Or, pick a paragraph from a work by a favorite author, and inventory the components of his or her sentences.)

3- Analyze the sentence structure, verb choice, and sentence length of the paragraph.

The point is to get a better picture of your writing style and reflect on possible changes.

(If you’re analyzing a favorite author’s paragraph, the point is to reflect on his or her style and learn something new.)


Sentence Inventory of the second paragraph of “The Locked Desk”:

First Words—————–Main Verb(s)———–# Words

The eeriest piece—————-was, carved——————29

The front panel—————opened, doubled—————11

When opened—————-released, revealed————–21

The desk—————————-was————————-8

The whole house—————–seemed———————20

Analysis: I notice that four of my five sentences start with “The.” I won’t change them, but I’ll keep this tendency in mind. I’m okay with the variety in sentence length. I’m not happy  with having two sentences with the verb “was.” I wonder if I should change the verb in the fifth sentence to “constituted.”

See how it works? This exercise is a great revision tool.

Try it! 🙂

I’ll post again next Monday.

Long and Fabulous

Published July 11, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Constructing Long Sentences

Here’s the companion exercise to yesterday’s post (Short and Powerful), also from Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. This exercise is a bit more challenging.

“Write a half-page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, which is all one sentence.”

My attempt serves the purpose of the story, but it’s a short, rambling passage without much substance. I need to work on this exercise some more. Studying a mentor author, such as Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, or José Saramago, will help.

Situation: A teenage girl gets stung by a bee and has an allergic reaction. A friend administers CPR.

The ball bounces behind one of the big trashcans that’s overflowing with candy wrappers, chip bags, and paper cups, and stops behind a can of Mountain Dew. I squat down to retrieve it and – ouch! – something pricks me on the tip of my nose.

Strange things happen quickly. I suddenly feel too warm, and my heart is beating really fast, and the noise in the lounge is replaced by a loud ringing in my ears, and I’m underwater holding my breath, but that can’t be because I’m looking up at the peeling blue ceiling, and, whoa! now Luke’s face is right on top of mine, and he’s taken off his glasses and is gazing into my eyes, and his eyes are the color of milk chocolate, and he whispers my name, “Vicky,” and kisses me on the lips right here on the floor of the senior lounge, and the world fades to black.

I’ve Got Rhythm

Published July 6, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Sentence Fluency and Rhythm

Try writing a paragraph that contains a 1-2-3 string of sentences (short-longer-longest) followed by a 3-2-1 string of sentences (long-shorter-shortest). Read the paragraph out loud and revise it for rhythm. (Exercise from Pyrotechnics on the Page by Ralph Fletcher.)

My Attempt:

Cats. They wake you up in the middle of your coziest Saturday morning dream. They meow and meow and stomp all over you and poke you in the nose until you give up, get up, and feed them. They bump your coffee cup and walk on your keyboard and stare at you until you’re forced to stop what you’re doing and scratch their heads. Then they swat at you. Cats!