Sunday, 21 September 2014

How to write a sentence. (FOW 2014)

This year at the Festival of Writing, although there were some titles among the workshops I'd already attended in previous years, there were lots of new ones too.

One was Hal Duncan's 'How to Write a Sentence.'

Found at

Now it sounds simple, doesn't it? Most of us can write a complete sentence. I'm writing one now, and it makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Well, Hal's rapid-fire Scot-accented lecture got me thinking that perhaps I'm not as good at writing them as I thought...What follows is taken from my notes, so there's a strong flavour of 'Hal Duncan-ness rather than original Squidge!

We were told at the start of the session that 'Words are free and sentences are not precious; just write the sentence. Now throw it away. Repeat until you get it right.'

It's Hal's perception that the rules that are applied to sentences often try to rationalise an intuitive skill. So, for example, the 'Don't use adjectives' rule is more to do with mis-use than over-use...because sometimes, more IS better.

So rather than apply rules to sentences, Hal applies Principles. These Principles allow us to use words to conjure an illusion in the skull of the reader. They are Clarity, Economy, Specificity, Ingenuity, Acuity and Fluidity - and a lot of how effective they are relies on style. Not style (noun), which is a patina that can sometimes obscure the content, but style (verb), which is the act of shaping the words into tighter prose.

The following sentence was used as an example to work with - it had those of us sitting in the session cringing...

A sweeping blade of flashing steel riveted from the massive barbarian's hide enameled shield as his rippling right arm thrust forth, sending a steel shod blade up to the hilt into the soldier's vital organs. 

Hal applied the Principles...

CLARITY - Basically, decide between all the things you could say, the ways you could say it and the words you have; does the final sentence say what you want it to? Don't give in to garblage, ie garbling and garbage. Did the author really mean riveted?

ECONOMY - not everything is relevant. There are some qualities implicit in the noun or verb - you don't have to repeat yourself.

SPECIFICITY - Use exact terms. Do you need thrust? Is buried better? Is it a shield or a targe (the proper name for a hide-wrapped shield, apparently).

INGENUITY - Use a verb to conjure the qualities of a noun. Seek words that make others redundant.

ACUITY - Cut to the quick of what things mean. Make your phrases loaded - is the dog a cur or a pooch? Our barbarian is massive - as in a ripped hulk or a couch potato?

Up to this point, we've chosen to focus on the words and substance - now we get to the meaty bit: narrative, the process that makes our story flow...

FLUIDITY - Think of the dynamics of the piece. Yes, it could be written grammatically correctly, but that can interfere with the flow. Use punctuation to provide stress points.

Hal's final version ended up as

From behind the targe, steel flashed, brawn rippled, and the barbarian sank his blade, thrust it up to the hilt in the soldier's guts.

Applying each of these principles in turn, Hal then challenged us to rewrite the original sentence. After several false starts that either upped the word count or made the perpetrator of the action ambiguous, we settled on the following:

The soldier's blade flashed, glancing off the leathered targe as the barbarian buried his sword in the b*****d's guts.

Much improved, don't you think?

Remember - Work with the essential substance of your sentence...and make it sing!


  1. Great recap, thanks, I missed the start if this but really enjoyed the rest, a very useful thought process, sx

  2. Thanks Katherine, very helpful.

  3. P.s. Spelling and grammer? - not my four tay!!!! S

  4. Hi squidge,
    I cannot be reminded enough about those words and sentences!
    Thanks for sharing that bit of York round :-)

  5. Actually, I prefer Hal's version because the Barbarian is the subject of his sentence. The amended version is ambiguous, IMO, because it could be read as the barbarian buried his blade into someone else's guts, not the actual soldier mentioned.

    1. Ah, but that's where 'the b*****d' referred to is what the barbarian thinks of the soldier - so strictly speaking, it's still the barbarian who's the subject, because we're now right inside his head. Also goes to show what happens with a single sentence taken out of context - it is difficult to place the subject sometimes. We need the rest of the piece for it to properly make sense.

      There's also personal preference in what we like to read, too...but that's a whole other can of worms! ;)

  6. Pedantic, I know, but it is unclear whose leather targe it is by starting the sentence with the soldier. It could be the soldier's, the barbarian's, or some other combatant by using the word 'the' in front of the leather targe. Even if we're in the barbarian's head. And if we are, it still needs to be made clear - or am I splitting hairs?

    Nevertheless, good blog, and some useful tips. Thanks for sharing. Any more, please?

  7. How about this? Play around with it.

    The barbarian saw the soldier’s blade flash, glancing off his leather targe, as he buried his blade into b*****d's guts.

  8. The barbarian saw the soldier’s blade flash, glancing off his leather targe, as he buried his blade into the b*****d's guts.

    missed the 'the', ha ha.

    1. Yet I'd read this one as ambiguous too, Stephen - did the soldier's blade flash off his own targe? I think it all goes to show how carefully we have to construct our sentences to give them everything the reader needs. I'm beginning to think that it's an art form!

  9. OFP here.

    Wrtie and throw away until you get it right. How simple, obvious and spot on is that?

    Cheers for this.

    1. Glad it helps, OFP - though I'm finding it might sound simple, obvious and spot on but it's not as easy to do in reality! I think a lot of stuff might get thrown away before I get it right...

  10. Hi Squidge. I couldn't make it to the FOW this year so thanks for sharing these tips - they're going to come in very handy as I'm in editing mode!