Word by Word

While I was in Mexico awhile back, I struggled to express ideas in my rudimentary Spanish. I had to build sentences word by word. One day I realized that building stories is much like what I was going through to build sentences. Let’s take a look at how one sentence unfolds.

We go.

This sentence is grammatically complete, but it does not express a complete thought. It begs for amplification. Where do we go?

We go to mountains.

That’s better. But what mountains?

We go to Sierra Madre mountains.

And when do we go there?

We go to Sierra Madre mountains yesterday.

Why did we go?

We go to Sierra Madre mountains yesterday to take pictures.

How did we get there?

We go on bus to Sierra Madre mountains yesterday to take pictures.

Now the sentence story is complete. We know who is doing what (going), when, where, why and how. Those same elements are needed to tell a complete story, whether the story is one sentence long or hundreds of pages.

You probably notice an error in that sentence. The meaning is clear enough, but the verb is incorrect. It should read “We went ... .” If you wanted to polish the sentence further you could rearrange and tweak the wording, for example,

Yesterday we enjoyed a bus ride into the Sierra
Madre mountains and took piles of pictures of Indians.

You build a story the same way, thought-by-thought, answering the key questions and polishing at the end.

Write now: build a short story, thought-by-thought, answering the key questions of who, what, where, when and why. Make sure your story has a beginning (set the scene), middle (describe the actions) and end (tie the loose ends together). Get those bones on paper, and then rearrange the words, amplify the content to make it more clear, and polish your prose.


Stephanie Faris said...

Lately it seems I keep picking up books that are written in present tense. I didn't know if this was a new trend or something. It doesn't really bother me...I can follow the book either way, but it makes me wonder if maybe I should be writing in present tense.

Sharon Lippincott said...

As I discuss in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, present tense lends an urgency to a story that isn't there with past tense. Present tense is especially appropriate for suspenseful writing. Can you imagine a Sue Grafton novel written in past tense?

For the purpose of memoir, past tense generally seems more natural, especially if you incorporate much interpretative thought.

Try writing a section both ways and see which feels most natural.