Fred Shafer’s second lecture on The Music of Sentences was another good one! The main thrust was on the importance of creating variability and unpredictability to sentences. If every sentence is around the same length, it becomes predictable and boring. Boring is not the fiction writer’s goal (unless you’re Jane Austen and you’re writing a Mr. Collins).
I’ve been aware of varying sentence length, and it is something I’ve given focus in the past, but this lecture took it to the next level. Thinking about sentences like they’re music unearthed some further depth.
It also made me think about comedy. Comedy has “the rule of threes.” Jokes, lists, and setups often come in threes. They build to the third thing, saving the best, most dramatic, for last. Since the human brain loooooves patterns, this pleases us. Patterns can also be used by not fulfilling the third or taking the third thing and doing something unexpected with it.
“She loved his rough hands, his deep voice, and his five-alarm tofurky chili.” See what I did there? That third thing didn’t exactly go with the first two. Surprise!
I love it when a couple of concepts come together. Having a pattern and fulfilling it or breaking it works beyond comedy. Changing up the words, tone, sentence length, and weaving surprises into sentences and paragraphs can enable writers to hit the next level. It can help make stories come alive and engage the reader. Very cool stuff.
Fred also had us look over some passages from writers who particularly excel at good sentences: Tobias Wolff, Grace Paley, Lauren Groff. It’s interesting to see when/how other writers made their sentences purposefully short or purposefully long. There’s actually quite a lot of leeway in sentence construction. Seeing the possibilities and the freedom is pretty awe-inspiring (and at the same time overwhelming).
I’m looking forward to playing around with some of my own sentences. Fred also recommended finding authors/novels whose rhythms and sentence structures could be emulated. Sort of like doing a cover in reverse–new material, but done in the vein of a master. According to Fred, the structure is something that the reader isn’t likely to notice, unless looking for it. Nevertheless, the structure, the way the sentences are constructed certainly affects the reader.
The layers and levels of writing never cease to amaze and intimidate me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…writing is hard!