How to Write Sentences: Understanding, Logic and Meaning

Picture of April MurphyAuthor: April Murphy

SNAPPY INTRO

If you’ve never paused to consider the sentence, it’s probably because they’re not very glamorous. Sure, you might think, I know that I write in sentences – but isn’t it what my sentences say together that matters? Am I not an artist? Who pauses in front of a Van Gogh and only sees the brush strokes?

Calm down. Yes, of course, your essay’s overall argument, or your character’s big revelation, or the swirly starry night image you’re pushing for is ultimately important. But, paradoxically, your sentences are important because they are your image, revelation, or what have you. They are how you express your artistic perspective, what makes you different from everybody else. They are your writerly fingerprint, the smallest part of your body of work that can identify you. Don’t believe me? Check out the following four sentences:

  1. There are lies that are terrible and lies that are fine and I feel fine about lies that are fine and so should you.
  2. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut.
  3. Life and death so close together, and love and hatred, and right and wrong, said something to me which I did not want to hear concerning man, concerning the life of man.
  4. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:–of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any part of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey…. It was of the men, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters, with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and deer juxtaposed and reliefed against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and unmitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter; — the best game of all, the best of all breathing and forever the best of all listening, the voices quiet and weighty and deliberate for retrospection and exactitude among the concrete trophies — the racked guns and the heads and skins — in the libraries of town houses or the offices of plantation houses or (and best of all) in the camps themselves where the intact and still-warm meat yet hung, the men who had slain it sitting before the burning logs on hearths when there were houses and hearths or about the smoky blazing piled wood in front of stretched tarpaulins when there were not.

Even if you don’t know the identities of the people who wrote these sentences, you can get a feel for them by how different each sentence is. Sentence A illustrates Sarah McCarry’s trademark conversationalism, her offbeat perspective – here expressed in a delicious whirlwind of rhythm that spits the reader back out into the ‘you.’ Annie Dillard speaks to us in Sentence B, taking a simple sentence ‘I walk without a camera’ and using an adverbial phrase to bring it to beautiful spiritual and metaphoric heights. James Baldwin, listing dualities in Sentence C, makes us syntactically pace with him as he wrestles with the meaning of his father’s death. And finally, in our marathon Sentence D, William Faulkner shows us how far and complicated we can make these brush strokes in the way that only he can. (Plus, you can’t really have an article about sentences and not include the Faulks).

Perhaps Raymond Carver expresses the simple elegance and importance of the sentence best. In his essay “On Writing” when trying to figure out what makes an exceptional writer, Carver says:

“It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent.”

So. Sentences. They’re important and glorious, they’re the radioactive spiderbite that gives you awesome powers – but here comes the Peter Parker moment – they are a mercurial ally. If you don’t treat them well, they will destroy you.

If you’ve got a flaw in your sentences, it’ll disfigure your entire corpus. Just imagine how important a misplaced chromosome is in DNA: one dangling amino acid can ultimately determine whether a person lives or not, and in what form.

The purpose of this article isn’t to make you a sentence-hypochondriac, but rather draw your attention to them and help you understand your sentences, and then how to get your sentences to work for you and your writing.

UNDERSTANDING SENTENCES

Sentences are surprisingly simple. They follow a basic logic, always and forever, and understanding this logic helps you build your textual masterpiece.

Basic Sentence Logic 1:
Sentences have a subject and a verb.

The first thing you need to understand in order to maximize your sentences is the basic form of a sentence. In English, this means your sentence must have a person, place, thing, or idea (Noun!) which is going to perform (or has performed) some sort of action (Verb!).

For anybody but a writer, the above definition of a sentence would be complete. But, dear writers, we are more complicated. For us, basic sentence structure is a key to unlocking narrative. Narrative is a kind of motion, a kind of story. Questions raised and answered. Sentences provide writers with the ability to create narrative momentum on a molecular level.

To paraphrase a basic law of physics, an object set in motion will move until it is acted against by an equal or greater opposing force. If you structure a sentence effectively, the momentum of your subject will carry through the entire sentence.

Let’s revisit Sarah McCarry’s sentence:

There are lies that are terrible and lies that are fine and I feel fine about lies that are fine and so should you.

This sentence is actually made up of three little sentences, or, if you prefer grammatical terms, complete clauses. 1 – there are lies that are terrible and lies that are fine 2 – I feel fine about lies that are fine 3 – you should feel fine about lies that are fine too.

If we line up the subjects of these three clauses, then we can watch how McCarry create both narrative and syntactical momentum.

1- Subject/Verb – ‘There are’

(Question raised – what is ‘there’ and what is ‘there’ doing that’s interesting?/ Answers There are ‘Lies’ and they’re interesting because they are ‘fine’ – something I don’t expect lies to be capable of)

2. Subject/ Verb – ‘I feel’

(Question Raised – What do you feel? /Answered ‘fine’ – lack of explaining what ‘fine’ means implies stubbornness on part of ‘I’)

3. Subject/Verb (implied) ‘You should feel’

(Question raised/answered ‘How am I supposed to feel about you and this new concept of ‘lie?’)

The feeling then, inside of this sentence, is kind of like a little narrative arc – one that speeds up and takes off in the middle around the I – and lands with the ‘you.’ And this movement is caused by a relay-race of sorts among the different subjects and verbs.

HOW TO LET THIS LOGIC HELP YOU:

Your sentences want to move. Help them out by going back over some sentences that you’ve written and check your subjects and verbs, asking the following questions:

1. Do my subjects inspire questions? How do they relate to each other?
2. Are my subject actually interacting with the verbs I have them paired with?
3. Am I impeding the narrative momentum of my sentences by breaking up the movement with unnecessary phrases or description?

You may find it helpful to underline the subjects of your sentences. This will allow you to see the relay-race they are performing, so that you can see who the players are of your larger narrative. If it looks like you’re placing someone who isn’t a strong player in a subject position, or if you’re impeding the handing-off of narrative between subjects, then revise to streamline the movement.

UNDERSTANDING SENTENCES

Basic Sentence Logic 2:
Sentences exist in chains.

A good sentence will always be connected somehow to the sentences that precede and follow it, even if it is the first or last sentence of a paragraph. And sentence chains don’t necessarily have to be paragraphs, sometimes a paragraph will have two or three different chains inside of it. Paragraphs are defined by being a visual chunk, and sometimes sentence chains will continue through several paragraphs.

So, what makes a sentence chain? The sentences are linked together. Even if the sentences are about completely different things subject-wise, they are connected via theme, image, or tone. This connection keeps the momentum inside of the sentences moving forward, and pulls your reader along for the ride.

To show you what I mean, let’s take Sentence B, Annie Dillard’s, and put it in its sentence chain. (This chain is in the middle of a paragraph, and I’ll be leaving out the opening and closing sentences of that paragraph – though they are connected too, just looser).

“The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens and the moments’ light prints on my own silver gut.”

These sentences are linked together. The first subject “The difference between the two ways of seeing” is illustrated in the subjects of the following sentences, walking (with)out a camera. The verb (walking) is thus illustrated within the following in sentences two metaphors about light. The light goes into a scientific object in the first sentence, and in the second it goes into the narrator – thus syntactically illustrating the point that Dillard is trying to make narratively (one must become an unthinking object to truly see).

HOW TO LET THIS LOGIC HELP YOU:

First and foremost, the big comfort about thinking of sentences as being parts of a chain is that it helps you write. If each new sentence must be building off of the sentence which comes before, then it takes a lot of the pressure of writing off of you. You simply let your sentences direct you (and they’re good at doing this, as they’re full of interior movement like we already discussed).

If you’ve already got some writing done that you want to revise for narrative flow, then just check the sentences with these questions in mind:

  1. Does this sentence connect to something in the previous one? If so, does it build upon the previous sentence or simply repeat something my audience already knows?
  2. If I’m introducing a new idea in this sentence, do I actually transition from the preceding sentence out loud, or is it a break in the chain?
  3. If this sentence isn’t connected, is it necessary?


HEARTFELT OUTRO

As we end our brief conversation about sentence logic, I hope that these two basic tenets of sentence structure will help you, dear writers.

Your sentences have been waiting for you to understand them, so that they could help you by being the best sentences they could be.

They can’t help it, after all. It’s in their natures.