sentence structure

All posts tagged sentence structure

“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 Hobbit-Hole

Published September 3, 2012 by Elsa Pla

I’m still using the sentence inventory (refer to the post titled “The Sentence Inventory”) to study the way my favorite authors construct their sentences and use special effects (rhetorical devices, etc.).

The exercise consists of completing a sentence inventory (see the chart below) for either a paragraph by a favorite author or your own paragraph.

Here’s a chart I created. Please feel free to modify it and use it.

Sentence Inventory

This time I chose to analyze the first two paragraphs of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here’s my filled-out chart:

Sentence Inventory Filled

Lots of great stuff here! This passage is all description: Tolkien is  starting to build a fantasy world, so he uses whimsical sensory and spatial details to help the reader visualize the initial setting. Because he’s describing a place and not an action, the main verbs are fairly simple; that allows the descriptive details (with their verbs) to stand out. I love the way Tolkien takes the reader on a tour of the hobbit-hole, starting at the green, round door and ending at the windows where the reader can see the “garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.”

The sentence structure is amazing: he uses compound sentences, unusual sentence beginnings, snappy sentence endings, em dashes and parentheses, commas and colons, and clauses of varying length. Notice the rhythm created by ending long compound sentences with short independent clauses. Wow.

There are many more rhetorical devices to notice: alliteration (hobbit-hole), repetition (lots and lots, on and on), parallelism (all were; the best rooms were; for these were), and more.

I’ll end by pointing out Tolkien’s delightful use of adverbs: a perfectly round door; a very comfortable tunnel; fairly but not quite straight. I think the adverbs add a unique flavor to the passage.

I plan to continue my sentence analysis for one more week.

I’ll post again next Monday.

The Poetic Power of Parallelism

Published August 28, 2012 by Elsa Pla

The exercise for this past week was to do a sentence inventory for either a paragraph by a favorite author or your own paragraph. I did both.

First, a paragraph by my favorite author: Ray Bradbury.

From Dandelion Wine:

“A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.”

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

A whole summer ———to cross off—————12

Like the goddess———saw, jump, pluck ——– 21

He————————-would be clothed———10

He————————-would freeze————– 9

He————————-would bake————— 11

I chose this paragraph because it showcases the rhythmic power of parallel construction (the repetition of the structure of the last three sentences and the use of three items in a series). Repetition causes the writing to “sing.”  Notice how even the number of words of the last three sentences is similar. All this repetition works because it’s used as a special poetic effect. I love it. (There are more cool things happening in this paragraph, of course.)

Here’s my paragraph:

Ioúna awoke before the break of dawn.  He lingered in his hamaca, listening to the last sweet notes of the little brown frogs and to his mother breathing to the rhythm of the ocean waves.  Stirred by the sea breeze, the sun-dried straw on the roof of their bohío swished and whispered.  He rubbed his sleepy eyes with the palms of his hands and –  careful not to wake his mother –  rolled out of his swinging bed, picked up the small spear he used for fishing, and tiptoed toward the beach.

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

Ioúna————————awoke———————– 6

He—————————lingered——————— 28

Stirred by the sea breeze—swished, whispered——– 18

He—————————rubbed, picked, tiptoed—– 38

The paragraph has variety and flow, but after analyzing Mr. Bradbury’s use of parallel construction, I think I’ll change the end of the last sentence to “rolled out of his swinging bed, picked up his fishing spear, and tiptoed toward the beach.” By repeating the pattern of “his swinging bed” in “his fishing spear,” the sentence sounds more musical. It also shortens the last sentence a bit, which helps to balance the paragraph.

I’m going to stick to this exercise for a couple more weeks to see what else I notice about the way my favorite writers construct their sentences. I’m going to add a fourth column and title it “Special Effects.”

I’ll post again next Monday.

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.

Strawberry Shampoo, Starbucks, and Sunshine

Published July 9, 2012 by Elsa Pla

Sentence Structure

Here’s another exercise/strategy I learned at the Denver Writing Project Summer Institute. It’s from Everyday Editing by Jeff Anderson.

1- Find a great sentence (a mentor text) written by a favorite writer.

2- Analyze the sentence’s structure.

3- Imitate the sentence’s structure.

4- Use a sentence with the same or similar structure in your own writing.


“His room smelled of cooked grease, Lysol, and age.” ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

My analysis:

Possesive Pronoun – common concrete noun – past tense verb: smelled – preposition — adjective – common concrete noun – comma – proper noun – comma – conjunction – abstract noun

I notice that Maya Angelou lists three items in a series and uses parallel structure to create flow and rhythm. She also uses synesthesia (a mixing up of the senses). (You can’t really smell “age.”)

My imitation: His bed smelled of wet dog, Cheetos, and childhood.

My attempt at using a similar sentence structure in my writing (notice the alliteration):

Prompt: Write about what it means to feel welcome, or describe a scene where someone feels welcome.

As I approach the classroom, the new teacher is standing by the door, greeting the students. The first thing I notice is her hair: red, long, and wild. She smiles at me, says good morning, and shakes my hand. She smells of strawberry shampoo, Starbucks, and sunshine. I enter the room and sit in the back by a window. So far, so good.

When the bell rings, she marches to the front of the classroom, introduces herself, and writes her name neatly on the board. She pronounces her name so it sounds like a book dropping on the floor. We all imitate her and laugh. She laughs with us. Then she shares something interesting about herself: she owns three cats: one without a tail, one with one eye, and one that’s terrified of mice. We all laugh again. After that, she asks us to stand and say our names plus something special or unusual about ourselves.

Soon the classroom is abuzz with kids sharing stuff about themselves and giggling. When it’s my turn to speak, I blurt out that I like to climb on the roof to escape from my family. She nods and tells me that sometimes she does the same thing. That’s when I know for sure it’s gonna be a great school year.

Now you try it! 🙂