Tuesday 6 November 2012

From Words to Flash

These are notes for running a workshop

This evening I hope to illustrate that there's more to sentences than might first appear. Like stories, they can have tension and resolution, pacing and surprise. Getting a sentence right can take a long time but it's worth it - if an editor sees a bad sentence in the first paragraph, your script is likely to go straight in the SAE. We're going to look at words first, then try to calibrate our sensibilities by looking at good and bad sentences, then we'll try to assess some sentences before trying to write our own. At the end we might get as far as writing little stories.

As we'll see later, people disagree about the goodness of sentences. I'm going to focus more on form than content; I'm not going to highlight sentences for their wisdom.


However complex the sentences, they're always made up of words, so we'll start by sensitizing ourselves to the building blocks though we're not going to focus on individual words today.

Ex 1 What are your favorite words (you may like them for their meaning or merely their sound). What are your least favorite words.

Dylan Thomas liked "drome". Some people don't like "garaged" or "to medal"

In poetry books you'll sometime see provocative lists of forbidden words ("shards", "gossamer", "fester", "frond", "lambent","shimmer" etc) but of course, it's not that easy. They say of weeds that they're only flowers in the wrong place. One might say a similar thing about unpopular words.

One way to try to improve a sentence is to replace some of the words by more interesting ones mined from a thesaurus - replacing "red" by "vermillion", "road" by "thoroughfare", "bird" by "lesser spotted warbler" etc. Alas, a sentence full of pretty words might not be pretty. One misplaced word, however interesting, might destroy a sentence.

Today I'm going to work on the assumption that "if you look after the sentences the words will look after themselves". If you want to see how tackle a sentence word by word, take a look at Jim Murdoch's blog where Jim Murdoch tells us how he spent 3.5 hours trying to get a sentence right, or look at the University of Rouen's collection of Flaubert's scripts


Now we're going to study some sentences. First we'll look at the extremes

Bad sentences?

In "PN Review 185" Frederic Raphael spends 4 large pages attacking the prose quality of Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach". For example, he quotes his sentence -"Two youths in dinner jackets served them from a trolley parked outside in the corridor, and their comings and goings through what was generally known as the honeymoon suite make the waxed oak boards squeak comically against the silence", commenting "'Parked outside in the corridor' is another stock phrase, in which 'outside' is superfluous and 'parked' witless. The repeated use of the copular after the comma appends a tail too long to be supported, most of it ('comings and goings … generally known as the honeymoon suite … comically') redundant. Who cares what the honeymoon suite was generally called when we are already in it? If you use your imagination, you may guess that it had a considerably less brochuresque nickname among the staff, whose consciousness we are supposed to be sharing. Let it pass; what was comic about the squeak, if comic is right, has surely to be that someone - Florence, Edward, the 'youths' - found it so. In which case, in whom and how did the comedy express itself?" (p.45).

I've seen far worse sentences than that. Some of the ones below come from famous writers -

Ex 2 - Can you improve these sentences? Do any make you wince?

  1. Having pitched the tents, the horses were fed and watered
  2. Before describing what happened, the background to these events must be understood
  3. What a beautiful sky, she thought to herself as she ran slowly along the narrow road.
  4. More than one person lives in this house.
  5. On holiday her car got scratched.
  6. On a late winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.
  7. She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco
  8. Craig stared into the mirror and squinted his eyes, for a moment he could almost see his brother staring back at him.
  9. There were less people there than I'd expected.
  10. Abstracting the face of the student from the file, the probationer took it to his superior.
  11. He and his group swelled in number.

There's an old joke - "I know a man with a wooden leg called Jim". "What's the name of his other leg?". 1 and 2 are from "A Student's Guide to Writing" (Gordon Taylor). 6 is by Norman Mailer - first line of "Harlot's Ghost". 7 is from "Star" by Danielle Steel. The last two are from "The Afghan" by Frederick Forsyth

Good sentences?

Joseph Epstein chose this as the best first sentence in literature - "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina, Tolstoy). Fish's "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One" (HarperCollins, 2011) doesn't mention this. He suggests that you use good sentences as models.

Ex 3: Study 2 of Fish's favorites

  • "And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars." (Joyce)
  • "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (Fitzgerald).

Here's one response to the Fitzgerald sentence: I love how it's so tantalizingly close to iambic pentameter - 5 iambs followed by 4 and 1/2.The cadence carries the reader forward in the first phrase with four staccato syllables. The choppiness of the second phrase brings the current's restraint to life, interrupting the flow of the sentence. The final phrase glides easily, but the missing twentieth syllable leaves the reader anticipating more. One can imagine the novel's last sentence repeating endlessly, beginning again where it left off. And of course that's the point. The art of the sentence is in its structure as much as its words.

How to study sentences

I think the quality of a sentence isn't as objective as the previous comments imply. Let's evaluate some sentences, learn how to talk about sentences. Punctuation is important, so we'll consider that too.

Ex 4 Punctuate and study this - It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

With this and similar exercises supply it without punctuation and get them to guess the author and add punctuation. This the first sentence of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"

This dates from a time when books were often read out. Punctuation indicated where to pause, rather than indicating logical structure.

Ex 5 Punctuate and study this - When they entered the room, he was very dead, maybe three or four days dead, since no one at the hotel had seen him around for some time

It's by Margot McCamley and it comes from Writing Magazine, May 2012. They have an "Under the Microscope" feature where they study the first 300 words of a novel.

Here are some suggestions by James McCreet

  • Start with "He was very dead when they entered the room ..."
  • "The sentence as it stands cannot use a comma before maybe"
  • "quite halting and convoluted. This final clause overloads it with information when it needs to have impact and focus"
Ex 6 Punctuate and study - The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which, however, there was still something of langour, the attractions of easy strolls

It's the first sentence of Henry James' "The Middle Years"

Note that there are lots of opposites. Here are some notes about it from "next word, better word" by Stephen Dobyns (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

  • "James used these commas to call attention to important words, used them in fact as line breaks are often used in poetry", p.129
  • "begins with an independent clause; the tone is straightforward and somewhat optimistic ... Rhythmically, we notice the clause is four iambs, which contributes to its lightness.", p.129
  • "The second independent clause has seven commas, which ensures no consistent rhythm can be established. This rhythmic disruption, as it were, arises directly from the word "poor" ... Dencombe is "poor" because of his health, but also because he is deceived.", p.129
  • "The modifying phrase between the subject, Dencombe, and the verb, "stood," the following dependent clause and string of prepositional phrases create tension by delaying verbs and direct objects, but they also in their progression and rhythm imitate the languor of Dencombe's thought [which] leads to a slightly humorous direct object", p.129
  • "As with a classic Latinate sentence, James's second independent clause accumulates meaning until it reaches its most important words.", p.130
  • "James's sentence keeps us from being able to anticipate its direction and controls the speed at which we read it, while the word "poor" provides us with suspense enough to care about that direction", p.130
Ex 7 Punctuate and study this sentence - There was a little stoop of humility as she passed through the door, into the larger but darker library beyond, a hint of frailty, an affectation of bearing more than her fifty-nine years, a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted.

From "The Stranger's Child", Alan Hollinghurst

Here are some notes - "humility" has rather quickly elided into "affectation," and the point of view has shifted by the end of the sentence, and the physical movement through the rooms accompanies a gradual inner movement that progresses through four parallel clauses, each of which, though legato, suggests a slightly different take on things

Note how these sentences have a shape - they have tension and release, the form of the sentence emulates the mood. They flow. But try this

Ex 8 Punctuate and study this sentence - Oddly enough, she was one of the most thoroughgoing sceptics he had ever met, and possibly (this was a theory he used to make up to account for her, so transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others), possibly she said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (more an exercise in punctuation). If you have the time, try this

Ex 9 Punctuate and study this sentence - No, I don't know them," he said, but instead of vouchsafing so simple a piece of information, so very unremarkable a reply, in the natural conversational tone which would have been appropriate to it, he enunciated it with special emphasis on each word, leaning forward, nodding his head, with at once the vehemence which a man imparts, in order to be believed, to a highly improbable statement (as though the fact that he did not know the Guermantes could be due only to some strange accident of fortune) and the grandiloquence of a man who, finding himself unable to keep silence about what is to him a painful situation, chooses to proclaim it openly in order to convince his hearers that the confession he is making is one that causes him no embarrassment, is in fact easy, agreeable, spontaneous, that the situation itself--in this case the absence of relations with the Guermantes family--might very well have been not forced on, but actually willed by him, might arise from some family tradition, some moral principle or mystical vow which expressly forbade his seeking their society.

Proust. Translation by C.K.Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.

Sentence length

These sentences are growing longer. Is there any limit?

  • Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis (ManBooker-shortlisted in 2012) begins with a 5 page sentence
  • "The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (5 pages)
  • Molly's soliloquy in "Ulysses"
  • Jonathan Coe's novel "The Rotters' Club" (2001) ends with a 33-page sentence (13,955 words)
  • Ed Parks' novel "Personal Days" ends with a sentence over 16,000 words long.
  • "Dancing Lessons" (Hrabal) is a single 117 page sentence
  • "The Gates of Paradise" (Jerzy Andrzejewski, 1960) consists of two sentences, the first 158-pages long and the final one 5 words.

Writing sentences

We get into habits when writing sentences. The next exercise strives to break those habits by varying structure while keeping the words the same.

Ex 10 Use the all the following phrases in 1st person, past tense sentences. No embellishments - just stick to the given information. "Jim", "purple armchair", "blow his tea cool" (or "blowing his tea cool", or "the better to blow his tea cool"), "talking" (or "talked"), "Arabella", " resigned amusement on her face" or ("an expression of resigned amusement on Arabella's face"), "walked into the room" (or "walking into the room"), "I saw". First write the sentence that comes most naturally to you, then try some variations

Adapted from an Emma Darwin blot post. Get people to produce sentences, then discuss the ones below

Here are some of the alternatives you could have produced. Which is best?

  1. I walked into the room and saw that Jim had sat down in the purple armchair, the better to blow his tea cool and talk to Arabella, who had an expression of resigned amusement on her face.
  2. Walking into the room I saw that Arabella, with an expression of resigned amusement on her face, was being talked to by Jim, who had sat down in the purple armchair the better to blow his tea cool.
  3. Arabella had an expression of resigned amusement on her face, as I saw when I walked into the room, and was talking to Jim, who was blowing his tea cool as he sat in the purple armchair.
  4. Jim was sitting down in the purple armchair and talking to Arabella, who had an expression of resigned amusement on her face while she watched him blowing his tea cool, as I saw when I walked into the room.
  5. The resigned amusement on Arabella's face, as I saw when I walked into the room, was caused by watching Jim sitting in the purple armchair blowing his tea cool and talking to her.
  6. Talking to Arabella, who had an expression of resigned amusement on her face as I saw when I walked into the room, and blowing his tea cool, was Jim, who was sitting in the purple armchair.
  7. Sitting in the purple armchair I saw Jim, who was blowing his tea cool, and the resigned amusement on Arabella's face as he talked to her which I saw when I walked into the room.
  8. Sitting in the purple armchair and talking to Arabella was Jim, blowing his tea cool, and I saw when I walked into the room that she had an expression of resigned amusement on her face.
  9. Blowing his tea cool as he sat in the purple armchair was Jim, and I saw as I walked into the room that he was talking to Arabella, who had an expression of resigned amusement on her face.

Emma Darwin suggests that A good basic principle is to stick with the order in which your view-point-character perceives things, which is likely to be 1) in this example. 4) is an example of what I call 'zig-zagging', which starts a little way in and then jumps back to the beginning. Would your narrator take more notice of Jim or Arabella? Would s/he observe their emotion along with their action, as in 5), or only after a general survey of the room, as in 1)? 7) is a mess.

If you were allowed to use any words in this sentence, how might you write it? Perhaps you could hint that there's something about the situation that surprizes the narrator.

Short Fiction

If you go through each sentence in a story of yours, generating a list of alternatives and assessing them, it might take a while. Maybe it's time to consider shorter forms. There are many to choose from - memoes, recipes, adverts, anecdotes, lists, vignettes, shopping lists, etc. More recently there's "ketai fiction" (to fit in a text message), "Twitter Lit" (to fit Twitter's 140 character feed), etc. There used to be markets for these genres (fillers, Readers Digest). In his collection "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You" (Bloomsbury, 2012), Jon McGregor has 2 stories that are fewer than 15 words long. Markets are re-emerging. Let's first try an easy genre.

6 word stories

How many words do you need for a story? 6 might be enough. Examples include

  • For sale: baby shoes, never worn - Hemingway
  • Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer? - Eileen Gunn
  • Longed for him. Got him. Shit. - Margaret Atwood
Ex 11 Write some 6 word stories


What is Flash? According to the Bridport competition it's a maximum of 250 words that "contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications and resolution. However unlike the case with a traditional short story, the word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten: hinted at or implied in the written storyline." It overlaps free-form poetry at one extreme, and short stories at the other. Pieces like Forché's "The Colonel" have appeared both in Flash and poetry anthologies. Often the limit's more than 250 words - 1000 is common.

Here are 2 from the web

  • Bedtime Story
    "Careful honey, it's loaded," he said re-entering the bedroom.
    Her back rested against the headboard. "This for your wife?"
    "No. Too chancy. I'm hiring a professional."
    "How about me?"
    He smirked. "Cute. But who'd be dumb enough to hire a lady hit man?"
    She wet her lips, sighting along the barrel. "Your wife."
    (Jeffrey Whitmore)
  • The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door... (Fredric Brown)
Ex 12 Put people in pairs. Get them to think up a scenario where someone has to explain an awkward situation. Get them to write an Abcedarian, each person writing alternate sentences - begin the first sentence with A, the second with B and so on.

Impro comedians can do this on the spot


We've looked at individual words and how their energy can be harnessed in a carefully punctuated sentence. The structure conveys its own meaning, like a bass-line mood accompaniment to the melody of the words' meaning. Not all readers will notice this bass-line, but they'll feel it, and some editors will look out for it.

We've looked at what to avoid and emulate, how length and clause order can be varied. What next? As an exercise, print out a story of yours one sentence per paragraph and consider each sentence in isolation. Are they of similar length? Do they all have a subject-verb-object structure? After labouring so long over so few words, you may no longer have the stamina to write 3000 word stories. Don't worry - shorter stories will do!

  • When a competition maximum word limit in 3000, don't forget that a 500 word story might win.
  • You might be able to get your piece accepted as a prose-poem.

Finally - if nothing else, get the key sentences right!

Some URLs

With help from John Riley, Janice D. Soderling et al.

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