Friday, January 06, 2017

I Could Make Those People Dance

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a dancer. I am not necessarily of the two-left feet persuasion, as I do possess a bit of rhythm, but I don't know dance moves nor do I have much stamina.

So my dancing tends to be done alone, in the kitchen, or as I wander around picking up and attempting to clean the house.

Even in school, when they tried to teach us line dancing in the late 1970s and disco in the early 1980s, I was not the most coordinated of students.

Ah well. We can't be successful at everything.

What I could do, and occasionally still manage to do, was make words dance. Writing a good sentence is like watching professionals dance - and the dance depends upon the words.

Writing about a sad affair of the heart? There's your waltz for you.

Need to send some zing into your sentence, and add a little syntax? You might cha-cha a bit of Latin rhythm for that one.

Sentences can rhumba, samba, flatfoot, square dance, and perform ballet. They can go barefoot on a wooden floor or they can tap a dance on the stones of the town square.

So what, exactly, makes a sentence do the twist while another sentence rests limply, noodle-like, on the tarnished cookie sheet of your brain?

As with most things, a good sentence is good mainly in the eye of the beholder, but even so, some things hold true.

As a journalist, I dealt in facts. But no sentence is a good sentence if it only contains facts. My best first sentences for articles were the ones that bypassed the facts and went someplace else. How many times did I write a lazy beginning that was factual? Hundreds. "The Board of Supervisors met today and discussed the budget. " BORING!

What would be better? How about: "The ticking of the clock was the only audible sound as the Board of Supervisors today stared for long minutes at the unbalanced budget numbers that the county treasurer had placed before them."

Better, yes? Also long and something that, for the sack of brevity, could conceivably be axed in a news story. But in an article, or a longer piece, you bet that's a better beginning.

But what makes the second sentence better? It still has the facts - the supervisors met today and discussed the budget.

However, it also contains a bit of emotion. They "stared for long minutes" - indicating that the members did not like what they were seeing. It offers an image of the members, staring down at paper. It's logical in the scenario it projects. And it contains a promise of more to come. What happens next, after the members finish staring at these unbalanced numbers?

So a good sentence could be said to contain facts, emotion, and image. It is also logical, and perhaps it holds a promise.

Want a shorter example?

Engagement ring: for sale, never worn.

Oh my. What has happened here? It's just a sale notice, right? But what intrigue! Why was the ring not worn? Did the girl turn the boy down? Was he on his way to propose when he fell off a trolley?

Those six words create an emotional connection. Sentences need not be as wordy as my first example to say something important. They need merely say it in a logical and seductive way. The reader's imagination then takes over, and supplies the emotion, the image, and the promise.

How then, might I go about making better sentences? I want to make people dance with my writing. What must I do?

First, find the facts. Example: My feet fit in these shoes. That's elementary stuff - subject/verb agreement. In journalism, this is known as the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why. You need to place that information into the sentence in specific order. This little sentence has the who: (me), the what (shoes), but not necessarily the where, why, and when.

Try this sentence: On Friday, my feet fit in these shoes when I visited the orthotics doctor, but by Tuesday my ankle had swollen so much that I had to walk around in socks.

Lots going on there, eh? But you know all the 5Ws. Who: (me) What: (my shoes and feet), When: (on Friday through Tuesday), Where: (at the orthotics doctor), Why: (because I am having ankle problems.)

Sentences dance when they offer up images. Everyone has an imagination, and the writer must feed that. A good sentence allows someone to imagine the scene but does not over-explain. It also does not offer so little information that the imagination has nothing to grab.

The best way to make a sentence boogie is to use action verbs and concrete nouns. Then add in one or two of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound). That can give you the phrasing necessary to make the sentence stand up on its toes.

Example: The howling dog chased its tail after the skunk sprayed it.

Phewie. There's an image for you. A stinking dog running around in circles.

You could get more precise in your language. The howling dachshund raced blindly in circles after the skunk sprayed it.

The thing about writing a sentence is it is almost never finished. I can piddle with a sentence for hours, trying to find the appropriate verb, the better noun, the more concrete adjective.

It becomes a marathon dance, then, one of those 1950s sock-hops where couples competed with numbers on their backs.

Sentences should evoke emotions. First, you, the writer, must know what emotion you wish to evoke. Fear? Is there a problem that must be solved? Is the person happy, prideful, sad?

If a person is sad, a good sentence does not say, "Joe was sad." A better sentence says, "Joe kicked at the rocks at his feet, his shoulders slumped, and his head down, as he trudged along the dirt road that lead to the school."

In other words, a good sentence doesn't tell the emotion. It shows it.

Lastly, a good sentence offers a promise. It may simply be the promise of more things to come, but still, it keeps the reader engaged. In the example above, the sentence promises to explain, at some point, why Joe is unhappy.

And finally, a great sentence takes much practice. None of the sentences I wrote above are truly great sentences. But I rewrote every one of them at some point. Maybe I only changed a word or two, but it didn't come flying out of me whole.

Even though I've been writing and publishing for 30 years, I still practice.

If you want to read 10 truly great sentences, check out this list from The American Scholar.

If you want to know why these 10 truly great sentences make one take a spin to Waltzing Matilda, check out Poynter's analysis here.

Dance on.

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