Drill Down, Sentence by Sentence

DrillIf you want your story to shine its brightest, you’ve got to drill down to the core. That means going through it, sentence by sentence. The good news is that most sentences are simple enough and will pass without further ado. A few need further attention. Use these examples to find and fix those few.

We continued our trip on to Koufonisia, a lightly populated fishing island for a very late lunch.

At a glance, after adding the missing comma between island and for, most people would be satisfied with that sentence. It’s clear and grammatically correct. But let’s try a few things. Commas slow the eye down, so let’s move the qualifying phrase to a spot before the noun:

We continued our trip on to the lightly populated fishing island of Koufonisia for a very late lunch.

That’s better, but let’s try something else.

Our trip continued to the lightly populated fishing island of Koufonisia, where we enjoyed a very late lunch.

Better? I think so, but wait – when I was a high school freshman, my teacher refused to accept a paper with the word “very” included. “Use a stronger word,” she said. Whether stronger or different, let’s keep working:

Our trip continued to the lightly populated fishing island of Koufonisia, where we enjoyed a long-delayed lunch.

That long delayed lunch is even stronger with one more tweak.

Our trip continued to the lightly populated fishing island of Koufonisia, where a long-delayed lunch staved off impending starvation.

The first changes streamline the initial thought. Reference to the intense hunger adds a layer of sensory involvement that conveys immediacy and draws the reader in a bit more deeply.

These are the tweaks that turn stories from boring to brilliant. Precious few flow forth perfectly formed. This is craft, pure and simple. You make the transition one step at a time, as demonstrated above.

Here’s another sentence that needs work:

We would routinely see large families at the restaurants where we ate with one child, a boy, who was pampered like he was a king.

This one is confusing. Did the author eat with at restaurants with one child and pamper him? Probably not. The rest of the sentence structure doesn’t support that idea. The sentence is also bogged down with “dead would” and extra baggage. Let’s move the parts around and streamline. (You can imagine the intermediate steps.)

While eating at restaurants, we routinely saw large families pampering only sons like kings.

Actually, this sentence is a prime example of “telling”. As a reader, I have to guess exactly what is involved in pampering a young boy like a king. I’d have a much better idea what the author intended if she put this observation into a small scene and described what she saw the family doing that led her to the stated conclusion.

Finally, a writing-related example:

One of the best ways to get new story ideas is to trade stories with other people, i.e. a writing group or class.


Trading stories with friends in a writing group is guaranteed to give you at least half a dozen new memories and story ideas each time you meet. 

The best way to develop this skill is to take ordinary sentences with a moderate degree of complexity and practice moving the parts around. Then take each part and consider ways of refining with slight changes of wording. Play with it. Experiment. Delete the duds. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Write now: look for complex sentences with several phrases and experiment with moving the phrases into different orders. Look for ways to remove extra words and streamline the message and other spots where you need to amplify with stronger words or descriptive scenes. Above all, think of this as a game and have fun with it!


Herm said...

I find this drilling to be important and always necessary. I like the finish of your post: Think of this as a game and have fun with it. I accomplish more when my mindset is correct. This was a good lesson. That is to say, it alerts me to my connection with my readers. Invest more into my writing, so they can withdraw more interest while reading.

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, an important reminder in a great post! Thanks for drilling us on drilling!

Sharon said...

Herm, thanks for taking time to comment. You've been at this lifestory writing game long enough that I know you realize better than most that it's always a work in progress and there is no end to what we can learn.

Sharon said...

Sherrey, just keep having fun. I know that no story worth reading is all sunshine and light, and that editing is a downright drag at times. But if we can toss our deadlines and performance pressure, shoving words around and searching for a more precise phrase -- what could be better fun?

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, I think we need to focus more on enjoying our writing, having fun. I am aggravated often by all the pressure to join a "tribe," building your platform, create your brand. I just want to write! But this was a good reminder about drilling drown.

Sharon said...

Amen to that Sherrey! I love the tribe part, and have benefited enormously from having people to trade manuscripts with, bounce ideas around with, etc. I'm starting to realize that I tend to paint myself into corners with over-inflated expectations and commitments. I CAN make other choices and am beginning to do that. I think this line of thought is worth an entire post! Thanks for bringing it up. I'm happy to share a tribe with you.

Sherrey Meyer said...

I love our tribe at Lifewriters Forum -- that's my style and speed. I am also guilty of painting myself into corners with high expectations and commitments. Count me in on trying to make better choices. I'm learning a lot from those of you who have been at this longer than I. I'm always happy to tribe with you, and I'm glad writing brought us together!

Arlee Bird said...

Wow, this is a lot of work. Some people think writing is easy, but it's not always as easy as it looks.

I'm not signing up to leave a comment because that's too much work as well. I admit it. I'm lazy.


Tossing It Out

Sharon said...

Arlee, thanks for the feedback about this comment system. None is perfect. I'm considering going back to the Captcha one nobody likes either. Alas!

As for the writing not being easy ... I don't do the crosswords that only take ten minutes. No challenge, no thrill. My spouse saves me from myself by appropriating the NYT Sunday one, so I make do with the Chicago Times, just right for the Mama Bear.

We find our thrill niche for writing too.