I’m swapping blogs today with the oh-so-awesome Janice Hardy, author of the imaginative Healing Wars Trilogy & Writing Mastermind of The Other Side Of The Story. Janice is one of the most knowledgeable writers I know, and her MG series is among my favorites. It’s a pleasure to hand her the keys and duck out…if you like, after you finishing reading her wisdom today, maybe you’ll follow me to Janice’s secret lair where I divulge (are you ready for this?) The Key To Success. And now over to Janice…
Are You Just Making Lists? Smoothing the Flow of Your Prose
One pitfall of a first person point of view is that you sometimes end up with a lot of sentences in a row starting with I. This holds true for third person as well, but it seems a bit more noticeable in first. (Maybe because it makes the narrator feel self-centered and egotistical). But the “list-like paragraph” can occur in a variety of ways, and they all have the same result.
A monotonous rhythm that puts readers to sleep.
Good writing has a musical flow, drawing the reader into and through the paragraph and seamlessly handing them off to the next paragraph. Without that flow, you get this:
I ran down to the river to look for my little brother. I found him sitting on a rock, his feet dangling in the water. I yelled for him to come home, but he didn’t seem to hear me. I went over and nudged him in the arm. He screamed and fell off the rock into the river. I just laughed.
The same rhythm, the same pace. The sentences are all roughly the same length as well, adding to that list-like feel. Before you think, “Well, that’s just how first person is,” let’s look at it in third.
Fred ran down to the river to look for his little brother. He found him sitting on a rock, his feet dangling in the water. Fred yelled for him to come home, but he didn’t seem to hear him. Fred went over and nudged him in the arm. He screamed and fell off the rock into the river. Fred just laughed.
It’s just as bad, isn’t it? And with both characters being male, you can’t even use pronouns all the time to avoid repeating the name.
A little variety makes all the difference. Instead of just using description of action, try mixing in a little internalization, setting, mood, dialog, and reorganizing the sentence structures.
Where was that kid? Fred ran down to the river, scanning the bank where Georgie liked to play. A flash of a red Elmo t-shirt caught his eye and he veered toward it.
“Georgie! Time for dinner.”
Georgie didn’t turn around; just sat on his rock, head down, his feet dangling in the water.
I can’t believe he’s gonna make me go down there. Fred slogged through weeds and mud, messing up his brand new sneakers, and nudged Georgie in the arm.
He spun around, screaming, and toppled right off the rock and into the river.
Fred laughed. “Serves you right, brat.”
A much more interesting scene now, using the same elements as the original paragraph. Now it’s more than a list of actions.
But pronouns aren’t the only culprits to list-like prose. Similar sentence structure can also give your prose a list feel.
Six men ran across the yard, carrying automatic weapons. They moved silently, their feet light against the stones. At the gate they stopped, waiting on high alert. Their leader disengaged the panel, shutting off the alarm.
Six men ran across the yard and ducked behind the wall. They moved silently and their feet made little sound against the stones. At the gate they stopped and waited on high alert. Their leader disengaged the panel and shut off the alarm.
Or another common one…
Carrying automatic weapons, six men ran across the yard. Moving silently, their feet were light against the stones. Still on alert, they stopped at the gate and waited. Carefully, their leader disengaged the panel and shut off the alarm.
See how the same sentence structure flattens out the rhythm?
Red Flags for List-Like Prose
Your ear is probably the best detector on this, especially if you read the work out loud. If it sounds like a list, it probably is.
Multiple sentences all starting with pronouns, or all the same pronoun: I-I-I he-he-he, I-he-I-she, it-it-it. One trick here is to do a find and replace for “punctuation, space, pronoun” (. I ? He) and make them bold and red. Several in a row will stand out.
Sentences of the same size and structure: These are harder to find, and you really do have to trust your ear on them. But even if they don’t all start with a pronoun, sentences with the same structure sound just as list-like. We did this, we did that. He did something and then did something else. To start, they all did something.
You skim it when you read it: If you find yourself skimming over a paragraph because you know what happens and all it does is relay that, there’s a decent chance you’re just listing the events. Your instincts are probably telling you it’s not worth reading, so you don’t.
Testing List-Like Prose
Another trick to test if a paragraph is sounding too monotonous, is to actually make a list with the sentences.
Fred ran down to the river to look for his little brother.
He found him sitting on a rock, his feet dangling in the water.
Fred yelled for him to come home, but he didn’t seem to hear him.
Fred went over and nudged him in the arm.
He screamed and fell off the rock into the river.
Fred just laughed.
Reads more like an outline than prose in this format. This also works for similar structure.
This is one of those things that once you’re aware of what it sounds like, you’ll quickly develop an ear for it and be able to avoid it in your own work. Trust your instincts. If it sounds like a list, it’s probably a list.
Janice’s Q for you: Do you check for sentence variety during revisions or does it come naturally as you write?
Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, BLUE FIRE, and DARKFALL. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
What are other tricks to avoid using pronouns so much, especially in introspection and dialogue? Can you give an example?
Janice Hardy says
Southpaw, skimming is killer. That’s always where I find the most mistakes. Which is weird since those are the areas I also assume are “fine,” which is why I skim.
I look for them in the revising stage. I love this advice “You skim it when you read it…” I have found that to be true.
Janice Hardy says
One Latina’s Pen, I have a friend who reads her entire novel out loud to her husband. She swears by it.
Traci, most welcome!
Traci Kenworth says
Definitely something to look for in revisions!! Thanks!!
One Latina's Pen says
I was the semi-colon queen, the runaway run on sentences senorita…until I began reading my paragraphs out loud. This made all the difference in the flow.
Reading the story out loud also helps to find out where the boring begins.
Janice Hardy says
Cleemckenzie, thank so much 🙂 It wasn’t even about zombies this time (my examples frequently are)
Julie, it’s another way of looking at it, and something changing scale makes all the difference.
Julie Hedlund says
These are great tips Janice! I especially love the idea of listing the sentences in a paragraph to make sure they’re not all the same length, structure!!
i love the sound of well-crafted prose and your example of the good v the bad are super. Thanks.
Janice Hardy says
Angela, we totally have to do it again. I think you’re better than you think. Your blog posts are always entertaining and well written. I bet that translates to your fiction.
C0, a lot of it is developing your writer’s ear and hearing when something’s off.
Glacier, you can try looking for words like, as, and, but, so, then, while, etc. You see them a lot in too-long sentences.
I am guilty of a lot of long sentences. Varied sentence structure is so important. I pay attention as I write and especially in revision. I was having this very problem last night. The rhythm was all the same – boring!
Your welcome, Angela. I did notice the book was available on your site as a PDF, but I like to highlight with colored markers. I’m sure it will be an excellent resource book I’ll use again, and again.
Angela Ackerman says
Tracy, thanks so much! I hope you enjoy the book and it becomes a great writing companion. I hope it gets to you sooner rather than later, too!
Hi Janice & Angela:
Both of your posts were excellent.
It’s information I’m filing away for future reference.
And Angela, I just ordered your book on Amazon – The Emotion Thesaurus. I live in Canada, so I have to wait until July. I can’t wait to read it, and then apply what I learn.
Chihuahua Zero says
All the more reason to vary sentence structure when re-writing prose. Word flow is something I’m not sure if I have down yet, but…
Angela Ackerman says
Sentence structure and word flow is definitely my biggest nemesis. I do not have a natural talent of putting words together in a compelling way, or at least I feel like I don’t. Luckily I don’t fall into sentence structure patterns any more. As others have said, once I became aware of it, I naturally kept my ear tuned in so it didn’t continue to happen. 🙂
Thanks Janice–this blog takeover was a ton of fun–we’ll have to do it again some time!
Janice Hardy says
Rexa, if nothing hits your ears funky you’re probably fine. But if something sounds off and you’re not sure why, this could be the reason.
Becca, aw, thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying tot so far. Reading out loud is a great way to catch awkward sentences. I have one in the opening scene of Shifter I stumble over every time I do a reading. And every time I wish I could change it! I mentally edit if when I remember.
Stina, if that works for you don’t knock it. You’ll end up with much cleaner first drafts than I will 🙂
Ava, it’s a great thing to check when something feels wrong or hits your ear funny and you’re not sure what’s wrong.
Ava Jae says
This is fantastic advice. Like Laura, I don’t really worry about it in the first draft, but it’s definitely something to look out for while revising. I’m going to have to try that find and replace trick. 🙂
Thanks for the great tips, Janice!
Stina Lindenblatt says
I’m super paranoid about this, so I pay attention to my sentences even in my first draft. Crazy I know, but I can’t help it. Even during editing, I’m self conscious about it. I always check my last couple of sentences to make sure I’m not creating a pattern.
Awesome post, Janice!
Becca Puglisi says
Reading aloud lets you catch so many repetitions and mistakes. Great advice, all of this. And Janice, I happen to be reading The Shifter right now, and I have to say that so far it’s great. I turned on the TV yesterday for my kids so I could keep reading :). Not something I do often, so that speaks volumes! Thanks for posting.
Rena J. Traxel says
I’ve never thought about it as I usually write by ear. I’m in the revision stage right now so I will have to check.
Janice Hardy says
Jericha, awesome, glad that tip will work for you. Good luck on those crazy sentences!
Bish, they really do, even when you’re paying attention. That boredom factor dies pop up during a re-read though.
RE Hunter, thanks! The examples are always my favorite parts of a post.
Matthew, thanks! I try my best to make things easy to get, so I’m happy to hear when it works.
Patti, I love when the right post hits the right writer at the right time. Glad to help you out.
So timely. I was just struggling with this late last night. I like your idea of listing the sentences out.
NICE tips! So helpful. Thanks!
Matthew MacNish says
I tend to write very short paragraphs, so this is usually easy for me to spot, but not always. You’ve broken it down most excellently. Thanks, Janice!
R. E. Hunter says
Thanks for the tips, Janice. I do catch myself writing like that sometimes (when I’m not feeling inspired, I think). I really like how you rewrote the first example.
Bish Denham says
I’m on the alert for those kinds of lists because it’s boring to write. But they show up anyway.
Jericha Senyak says
I have a tendency to incredibly complex, multi-part, run-on sentences complete with ellipses, semicolons, and multiple conjunctions. So I try and adjust for that as I write, but half the time I over compensate and end up breaking the clunky constructions down into a series of short and monotonous sentences instead. The list thing is a trick I’ve never seen, and it’s perfect for me! Saves me from the run-on AND helps me check against over-brevity. Lovely.
Janice Hardy says
Laura, awesome. Yeah, with a first draft, anything goes 🙂
Natalie, thanks! Sometimes just being aware of something is enough to make you notice it. I’ve had plenty of bad habits over the years that once I knew to look for them, I caught them as soon as I wrote them.
Natalie Aguirre says
I confess. I fall into this trap. I’m going to watch for these problems more as I write. Love your examples. Makes it so much easier to see how to fix it.
Laura Pauling says
I don’t worry about this in the first draft but am always looking for those list-like paragraphs when revising!