10.31.2019

The Emphasis of Periods

When an author chooses a stripped-down writing style, short sentences will follow. Such a style largely imitates the cadence of speech, and we use short sentences in our conversations all the time. Sometimes they are exclamatory, such as “Here we are.” Sometimes they are used to drive home a point: “You see?” Sometimes we use them instinctively because we know that varying sentence rhythms makes what we’re saying more interesting.

While an author may make a conscious choice to write simply, most of the time the style is employed because the author does not know how to write any other way. Such an author either is having a hard enough time just getting words down on a page. Or, they are writing quickly, grabbing the spare minutes they have and/or trying to meet a deadline. It is a style seen frequently in commercial fiction, since the authors engaged in it either are writing a first book or trying to fulfill a contract demanding that books be produced.

The problem with a simple style is the lack of options in expressing yourself. Unless you are a polished writer like Cormac McCarthy, fitting words together in new contexts, you are confined to the same old idioms. A character may shrug a lot, not because they have Tourette’s syndrome, but because the author wants a minor piece of physical business to break a long string of dialogue and “shrug” usefully conveys a variety of meanings.

It is not surprising that such an author fears repetition—“Oh, I just grabbed for ‘shrug’ again”—and so attempts to introduce novelty by using unorthodox strategies. Most common among them are run-on sentences. “Lee shrugged, he went to fetch the rifle.” Both sentences, considered by themselves, are pedestrian. Jammed together, well, the reader hasn’t seen that look before.

I dislike purists of all stripes, and so, as an editor, I’ll try to lean the author’s way. If the two sentences are related in subject matter, I may let the run-on sentence slide. “She turned, she knew she had to reach the door.” Okay, it’s wrong, but it’s not jarring. One sentence could be considered the continuation of the other.

Where the sloppiness falls apart is the conjunction of two dissimilar pieces of action (or intent). “She snorted, she knew she had to reach the door.” Now, that requires surgery. What does one have to do with the other? You can’t even leave the “She snorted” by itself; you have to add words, even if only “rudely” or some such. Better yet, focus on a truly interesting way to expand the sentence.

Exercise: One of the most common run-on constructions involves dialogue. “She turned, “I know you’re out there.” The physical act of turning has nothing to do with engaging the vocal cords, the last I checked. In so many of these cases, I delete the action entirely. Let the remark speak for itself.

“The wrong word is like a lie jammed inside the story.”
—Grace Paley

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine




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