‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’
‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.
‘I won’t!’ said Alice.
‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.
–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
You wouldn’t normally associate the Queen of Hearts with thoughtfulness, but Her Mad Majesty is on to something here, at least as it speaks to writers. Our first and most basic task is conceiving, birthing, nurturing–wait for it–a sentence. The noun plus verb kind.
And as Alice found Wonderland, sentence construction isn’t easy. The artiste in you wants to strut out darling turns of phrase. Your inner Professor Strunk demands clean prose. The craftsperson understands what content and structure the story needs at a given moment. Every part of that brain cocktail is a lot right–and a little wrong.
Take clean prose or the unadorned bones of structure, for examples. All work and no play makes Alice a dull read. I mean, a crisp sentence might go:
Alice struggled playing flamingo croquet.
That’s certainly clean prose, and the soul of brevity. It’s also undercooked for such an imaginative concept. It doesn’t show what about flamingo croquet was so darn troublesome.
Or, that sentence could go:
The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing: and when she had got its head down, and was going to begin again, it was very provoking to find that the hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away: besides all this, there was generally a ridge or furrow in the way wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to, and, as the doubled-up soldiers were always getting up and walking off to other parts of the ground, Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.
–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Playful, vivid, full of obstacles that convey her difficulty and the fabulist ridiculousness of it all. This is not to pound the pub table that long sentences are inherently good, but this one sings because it lets us deep into what Alice is going through. It’s very length and rhythm tells us Alice had a multi-pronged problem.
I think about sentences. A lot. It’s a thing with me, occasionally a problem. Where to start them, how to land them, how to vary them.
Dictionary.com defines a sentence’s subject as: “a syntactic unit that … consists of a noun, noun phrase, or noun substitute which often refers to the one performing the action or being in the state expressed by the predicate.”
Good God, no wonder most people glaze over in grammar lessons. Try how Dictionary.com defines a musical subject: “the principal melodic motif or phrase.”
Ah, the principle thing in play. Whatever the most important thing in action or at stake right then, I make that my sentence’s subject. If the POV or antagonist is acting to move things forward, then “I” or “she/he” likely is the strong fit. Let a proactive character get due credit. This brings a bonus. With clarity of subject, a power verb will follow soon enough.
Or, maybe the POV experiences a revelation or sensation. A threat. The best subject then is that threat: a horrid party, a pill to make you large or small, a rabbit hole. That’s the more immediate actor then a POV being acted upon. Carroll does this masterfully in the example above. Read the opening words again. His subject isn’t Alice. It’s her difficulty. In a sentence about difficulties.
#2: The Spice of Life
Variety, the spice of fiction. I take this to heart and structure every next sentence differently, be it longer plays with a compound verb or related ideas connected by a conjunction. Or short beats for emphasis. “But” constructions can be effective, setting up an initial idea as a straw or straight man, but overuse bogs down the pace. Best saved for moments of contemplation. Sometimes, I might start with an opening word or clause other than the subject. Every new sentence has a structure not repeated immediately before or after, which makes a smooth flow. Just like in this paragraph.
#3: The Punch Line
Nothing powers a sentence like freshness and surprise. And damn, does Carroll march out squirming flamingos, hedgehogs walking off the grass. Better, he frames her bird-wrestling problem, and after twists and tangles, he ends the sentence having amped what he began: the difficulty of difficulties. Call it going out on a high note, call it nailing a punchline, call it sticking a dismount. It works in fiction the same way it works in life.
Think about it: In writing, every sentence serves two masters, to provide clear information necessary to moving things forward and also to carry the drama and narrative voice. To please a reader’s eye, to keep on reading or not, to recommend you or not.
The Queen of Hearts wasn’t right about much, but we writers can learn from her anyway. Sometimes a sentence must come first. Always then, the verdict after.