A simple writing exercise that packs a punch FROM THE ARCHIVES
I’m recovering from two total replacement knee operations and everything is going well. A bionic new me will be sashaying out in the summer, maybe even doing a bit of dance, although the lack of a go-faster switch is a bit of a design fault. At the moment though I’m going through the weary stage where it’s two slow steps forward and one step backwards (not literally) and I thought I would take this opportunity to publish on Fridays some of my favourite posts from the past. To paraphrase BBC radio: this is your chance to read again… (and I’m not using the words recycle or repeat.)
Varying the length of a sentence is very simple device that can add flavour and texture to your writing. It can also add to the atmosphere you want to create.
1) Describe a room, real or imaginary in just one sentence using as many words as you can – count the words afterwards, see how many you can fit in while still making sense and obeying the usual rules of English.
Tip: lists can be useful. Before you start think about the words we use to link parts of a sentence such as although, unless, so, but, while, because…
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I have in mind. (It’s 56 words long, but you can probably do much better – if in need of inspiration pick up any Dickens’ novel. He’ll show you the way.)
The gilt picture frames that decorated the walls of the guest bedroom were set on fire by the early morning sunlight shining through the stained glass window and brought the collection of oil paintings to new, vibrant life while transforming the swathes of muslin draping the four poster bed into an opal waterfall of translucent colour.
The result is a layering of images, none of which stand out, but put together give the impression of a room that is rich, crowded and colourful.
Now describe the same room, but this time no sentence can be more than six words – it can have fewer words, but not more.
The light shone through stained glass. The oil paintings came alive. Dawn set the picture frames alight. Ancient gilt turned into gold. Muslin turned into water.
Each sentence is a small, clearly defined picture. In this example there’s rhythm which gives the scene a memorable elegance, but short sentences could just as easily produce a stark, uncomfortable feeling. Sentence length is part of the writer’s toolkit . What you should avoid is sentence after sentence of the same length and the same structure because the lack of variety is tedious to read. Pretty soon the reader will switch off.
Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs are often used to give the sensation of speed. Brevity is also very good at conveying powerful emotion. Think of the difference between She died last Tuesday evening after a long illness and the succinct She’s dead.
Do the same as before – one long sentence followed by a paragraph of very short sentences – but this time tackle a more challenging subject:
someone recently bereaved
a man running away from an angry mob
A winter afternoon in a care home
If you enjoy this exercise there’s a good chance you’ll like Back to CREATIVE WRITING School – 30 exercises, 33,000 words, available now as an ebook and in paperback. US Amazon UK Amazon
photo credit: Studying via photopin (license)