I was going to write you a whole whiny post on how I can't sleep, and how writers and sleep are enemies, but my brain decided otherwise. I keep discovering new things every day, it seems, and this particular one helped me today in writing killer sentences. So of course I had to share it with you. Remember the post on having every sentence turn? Well, it's even deeper than that. Turns out, a sentence can turn three ways, and it's up to you which way you want to turn it, and according to the way you turn it, you can either rope your reader into suspense or have them relax. This is scary stuff. Scary powerful, I mean. It teaches you how to manipulate your reader, which of course is what we writers do. But I had no idea about this! And now that I know, I can't write the way I used to anymore. I see it everywhere.
The culprit is Robert McKee's new book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen. If you haven't read it, stop reading this post and go get it. Done? Okay. Carrying on.
Every sentence has a core idea expressed in one core word. For example: "They walked into a forest as dark as a grave." The core idea here is that the forest was as dark as a grave, and that means it was scary. The core word is "grave." Now, the three ways a sentence can turn are:
- When the core word starts a sentence.
- When the core word ends a sentence.
- When the core word is in the middle.
There are also other variations, like two sentences strung into one and having a parallel structure, their core words in identical places. Or the core words being absent and the sentence being completely flat. But they all really fall under the same three main ones. And here is what they do.
- Core word in the beginning makes the sentence cumulative, reflective. It's good for descriptions.
- Core word at the end makes the sentence suspenseful, powerful. It's good for action and dialogue, and should comprise most of your novel if you want your readers to keep turning pages.
- Core word in the middle makes the sentence balanced. It's neither reflective nor suspenseful, but it has a nice musical beat to it, and it breaks up the monotony of repetitive suspenseful or cumulative sentences.
And the secret is: if most of your prose sentences are suspenseful, you'll have a page turner on your hands. And if most sentences in your dialogue are suspenseful, your dialogue will be powerful and to the point.
Let's get back to our dark forest.
- Core word in the beginning: "Grave-dark was the forest they walked into." Meh. You see how it takes the suspense away? But, see how it's also poetic in a way?
- Core word in the end: "They walked into a forest as dark as a grave." Boom! It ends on "grave," and it sends shivers up your spine (hopefully). Open any book you love and see this work for yourself.
- Core word in the middle: "The walked into a grave-dark forest." Okay, this could lead somewhere if the next sentence is suspenseful, but you see how it loses the punch?
And this is basically it. A very simple explanation of how a sentence turns on a pivotal core word. The bigger revelation here is, this is true for all novel elements.
- Every sentence must turn on a core word.
- Every beat must turn on a core idea that is expressed in a word or a phrase or a sentence.
- Every scene must turn on a core idea that is expressed in a sentence.
- Every act must turn on a core idea that is expressed in a sentence.
- Every novel must turn on a core idea that is expressed in a sentence.
There you have it. Your novel is your character wanting something. In the end your character either gets that something or not. And every sentence propels your character toward that something, or pushes your character back, away from that something. So every sentence is charged with two opposite states: closer to something versus farther from something. And every sentence turns on that core word either in the beginning, in the middle, or in the end. The end gets the biggest punch and the most suspense.
With this as a guideline you can construct your novel from one big core idea down to minute core ideas of every sentence. Sounds crazy? I'm trying to do this with TUBE. It's why it's taking me so long to write it. My goal is to produce 1,000 words every day, but most days it's 500-800 words or so, because I think over every bloody sentence. But it will pay off. It's already paying off. Just today I was writing dialogue, and I had Papa say to Olesya: "I can give you a ride on a real train any time." It was missing something. Then I saw it. The core idea here is the "real train." So the core words are "real train" (yes, there could be more than one provided they describe one thing). I have reworded the dialogue line to this: "Any time you ask, I can give you a ride on a real train." Boom. This had desired effect. Just one simple dialogue line, but so important for the symbolism of the book, the theme, the plot, everything. If I didn't know about the three ways of turning sentences and the three different results it would give me, I would've missed it. Lots of weak dialogue lines without a punch, and I would've lost my readers.
YOU SEE THE THINGS I DO FOR YOU?
You're welcome. I love you. Send coffee. And read the book! This is not my wisdom here you're reading, it's the wisdom of generations of writers that Robert McKee has expertly summarized. Cheers! Here is to your writerly growth.