Clause and Effect


Do you love subordinate clauses? I know I do. And how about assonance and alliteration, rhythm and rhyme? Let’s face it: they can be as tasty as chocolate.

But would you make an entire meal of just…chocolate? (Okay, whoever said “yes” please leave the room now!)

Consider this a meeting of Overwriters Anonymous. My name is Rick, and I used to write overelaborate sentences. Clever and musical they were; there was just too much of them. Frankly, my dependence on brilliant phrasing destroyed my relationship with my early novels, and we haven’t seen each other in decades. The words just got in the way of the meaning after a while, exhilarating though they could be.

Fortunately my current novels don’t have to put up with that dastardly habit, for I have learned how not to over-write. If you want to use your wordsmithing skills to entertain and enlighten your readers, rather than intimidate them with your wit and erudition, here are a few steps to follow….

  1. Accept that beauty isn’t always beautiful
    Verbal pyrotechnics can distract from the story . Your job as a writer is not to show off as much as possible; your job is generate emotions and ideas in a fellow human’s soul. Poetry is wonderful, but even actual poems don’t drown their effects in whipped cream. There is grace in restraint.
  2. Avoid grammatical masturbation
    Nested clauses, replicating parentheses, sentences that fold and stack upon themselves like a snake on an acid trip may be fun to work out and will also impress a few people who read to brag that they read challenging literature, but such antics get in the way of storytelling. If you want to write a toccata and fugue in words, see if you can be reborn as a Victorian novelist who channels the spirit of J. S. Bach. Music is the art where form is the subject matter; writing is the art where meaning and feeling must take precedence.
  3. Remember that form really does follow function
    It is said that sailboats are beautiful because they have to be to work well. Words that flow smoothly without making a big splash are a sign of good writing. Words themselves are marvelous, wonderful, mind-boggling in their capacity to link our lives to each other across time and space, but the more they call attention to themselves, the less the reader’s attention is called to the meaning that created the need for words.
  4. Give each character a voice of their own
    We’ve all read novels where everyone sounds alike, and you can barely tell dialogue from narration. Sometimes this works, when it is done intentionally for a structural and emotional purpose. But usually it just ends up confusing your readers, or, worse, boring them. You don’t need to write blatant dialect for each character, but every personage should have an individual style of making sentences, and employ little turns of phrase that are theirs alone. In my second novel, Family Ties, I have twenty-one named characters, and reviewers have noted how easy it is to tell them apart and follow the action. Make sure they talk like human beings, with indifferent grammar as part of their speech. Few people in English-speaking countries employ the who/whom distinction any more, or use the subjunctive. I choose to do both, when speaking for myself, if I am feeling pretentious, but my characters–including my first-person narrators–are not so fussy. They talk like people.
  5. Be stingy with metaphor
    Metaphor and simile can establish connections between your story and the bigger world, but if you overuse them they become distractions. Yes, they are fun to write. But they often upset the flow of the story. Leave the pizza-to-moon comparisons to cheesy lounge singers. Stick to the story. Stories are more powerful than the words that tell them, as long as they use the right words.

One final suggestion, one that applies to any writing you do, be it fiction, essay, or email to grandma: When in doubt, read it aloud. You may be pleased, but you may be appalled. Reading your work out loud will expose any deficiencies in sentence structure, and will make you a much better writer.

Remember that writing is based on the spoken word. If you run out of breath as you recite, you can be sure that your reader will run out of patience.

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