The final installment of Fred Shafer’s series of lectures on the Music of Sentences was every bit as good as its predecessors. He threw down some serious grammar terms that took me a while to decode. Participial phrase? Sounds like something I should know. For those of you out there (like anyone is reading this) who don’t know a participial phrase, it’s a phrase with an “ing” verb in it.
Example: “He stared at her, imagining his callused hands around her delicate throat.”
In fiction writing circles, writers are always encouraged to write active sentences. Active sentences are (and this is overly simplified) Subject-Verb sentences.
Example: “Hank grabbed her by the throat.”
Same concept in the passive voice example: “His hands grabbed at her throat.”
Fred did not encourage us to write in the passive voice. In fact, he didn’t mention it at all. But it got me thinking about the passive voice. Every once in a while, I want to write something in the passive voice. If I’m really honest with myself, it’s more often than I should. So, I took some comfort in thinking that in finding a variety of rhythms in sentences and paragraphs, there is a place for the passive voice. Better to be used sparingly, to be sure, but a place nonetheless.
I also thought about another craft concept: writing tight. Writing tight refers to getting rid of unnecessary words, adjectives and adverbs are particularly loathsome to some writing scholars. I, myself enjoy a nice adjective. See what I did there? I used an adjective to modify the noun adjective. Is it wrong to find myself clever? Probably it’s just wrong to put it in writing.
Anyway, it occurred to me that blindly writing tight could totally ruin the rhythm of a story. Not every sentence should be cut down to the essentials. That doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t use “sprint” instead of “ran quickly”, but it does mean that sometimes, it’s okay to “almost laugh” or “grin wildly”. Sometimes, extra words serve a purpose.
Fred also talked about the importance of variety within the story, that the rhythm of the writing should change as the story progresses, to keep it fresh. I’m sure that I don’t do this. But with the examples, I can see how it’s done and how it can be an effective tool for invoking emotion and keeping the reader engaged. Pretty cool.
He also broke out a quote from Jay-Z’s book, Decoded. Fred is not the kind of guy I expected to quote Jay-Z, which made it all the more delightful. The concept, of course, was about music, but it applies to writing. Jay-Z talked about beat and flow. The beat is a constant, the meter of the music. He compared it to time, which doesn’t vary. Then there is flow. Flow is the phrasing in a song, how sometimes it’s right with the beat, and sometimes it’s stretched out or condensed, or slightly off. Flow, according to Jay-Z is like life. Flow is what is done with time.
Applying Jay-Z’s concepts to writing, I think of it like the timeline of the story, is the beat. The sentences, the phrasing, the chaptering all correspond to the flow, the way the story unfolds bit by bit.
So, I think I’ll listen to a little Billie Holiday, jazz phrasing royalty, and write me some sentences.