How to Write a Sentence (cont.) by Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan has over twenty years critiquing experience as a member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, and a half dozen years writing for a living, mainly fiction and poetry but also a considerable amount of literary criticism and commentary.

How to Write a Sentence (cont.)

Hal Duncan

 So, last week I kicked off this wee six-part series taking you through the principles of writing a half-decent sentence of narrative, opening with the principle of decision — of clarity. If you missed it, you may want to click back and catch up. The upshot is I took a prime example of what I like to call garblage (it’s garbled! it’s garbage! it’s garblage!) from Jim Theiss’s notoriously bad 1970 novel, The Eye of Argon, and tweaked it into this:


A sweeping blade of flashing steel shot forward from behind the massive barbarian’s hide-wrapped shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel blade up to the hilt into the soldier’s vital organs.*


This is still pretty ropy, right? Try reading it aloud, for pity’s sake, starting with a natural breath before you begin — not a deep breath, like you’re diving for pearls, just a normal everyday breath — taking another only at the single point that actually reads as a natural breath-point — that comma. Most likely, you’ll run out of steam well before you reach that comma. Most likely, that’s a sign a sentence has grown out of control.


2. Excision


There are many things you can say in a sentence, but you don’t want to say them all. We do not give a fuck about many of the things you could say. We do not give a fuck about most of them. Redundancy is fat, and fat should be flensed. Adjectives and adverbs — all modifying terms — are to be met with the ruthless scalpel of a surgeon. Do they actually add information that is not carried in the verb or adjective already? Even if so, is it information we need? Even whole clauses are to be put to the sword if they repeat what has already been said. If clarity is a primary aim, so too is economy. Excise all that is extraneous.


So here, since the motion of the sword is the predicate of a clause, it doesn’t have to be a quality of the subject too. “The moving blade moved” is redundancy, the verb rendering the adjective extraneous. We can eliminate “sweeping” then. We don’t need to specify that it’s his “right” arm either; the reader’s imagination will default to that. And if the blade “shot forward” then we don’t need to know that the arm holding it “thrust forth.” This is one action, not two. The secondary action performed by that arm is to send the sword into the soldier’s guts, so we can cut and stitch. Similarly we already know that the object in use is “a steel blade.”

So this:

A [sweeping] blade of flashing steel shot [forward] from behind the massive barbarian’s hide-wrapped shield as his rippling [right] arm [thrust forth], sending [a steel blade] up to the hilt into the soldier’s vital organs.


A blade of flashing steel shot from behind the massive barbarian’s hide-wrapped shield as his rippling arm sent it up to the hilt into the soldier’s vital organs.

It’s not a whole lot better, that sentence, but then we’re only just beginning. Clarity and economy are only the fundaments of prose as prose. The next part is where we really start to make it work as narrative…


* If you read the last blog, of course, maybe you made a different decision, came up with a different sentence. It wouldn’t do any harm to take that sentence and apply the principle of excision now, ask yourself what’s redundant in it. Go on, get your scalpel out and have some fun.


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  • Alanboy

    Thanks again.
    I try to cut out fat in every edit. I hope I’ll get to the stage when I don’t put it in to begin with. By the way, Mr. Theiss thought it most unfair that his novel, written when he was only 16, was, and still is, held up for universal derision.

  • your lucky you got that far, just keep trying, I’m 61 and write poetry, I put my poems on the net i.e. facebook hoping someone will notice, but i seem to be invisible or maybe I don’t write in the same way the modern poets seem to do because I like the lines to rhyme and most modern poets dont do that these days, but my point is i’m 61 and times running out for me, you just keep trying kiddo, never give up.

  • Kate Robson

    Concise and to the point. Clearly put, as was last week’s. Really helpful advice. Using the extract and applying the advice to develop it makes the concept concrete. Too many articles on writing are abstract and one can come away wondering what was actually meant, but this is truly helful.