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Monday, January 21

How to Avoid Repetitive Sentence Structure

flat writing, flat prose, repetition, he-he-he, too many pronouns
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

“List-like prose" can occur in a variety of ways, and they all have the same result—flat writing.


Writing is more than simply writing down what happens in a scene. 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 a monotonous rhythm that puts readers to sleep:
I ran down to the lake to look for my little sister, Georgia. I found her sitting on the dock, her feet dangling in the water. I yelled for her to come home, but she didn't seem to hear me. I went over and nudged her in the arm. She screamed and fell off the dock into the water. I just laughed.
-Yawn-

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 lake to look for his little sister, Georgia. He found her sitting on the dock, her feet dangling in the water. He yelled for her to come home, but she didn't seem to hear him. He went over and nudged her in the arm. She screamed and fell off the dock into the water. He just laughed.
It's just as bad, isn't it? It feels more like the description of a scene not the actual scene.

And if both characters are the same gender, it risks either using confusing pronouns or using too many names—which can be just as awkward.
Tess ran down to the lake to look for her little sister, Georgia. Tess found her sitting on the dock, her feet dangling in the water. She yelled for her to come home, but she didn't seem to hear her. Tess went over and nudged her in the arm. Georgia screamed and fell off the dock into the water. Tess just laughed.
A little variety makes all the difference. Instead of using description of action, try mixing in a little internalization, setting, mood, dialogue, and reorganizing the sentence structures.
Where was that kid? Tess ran down to the lake, scanning the bank where Georgia liked to play. A flash of a red Elmo t-shirt caught her eye and she veered toward it.

"Georgia! Time for dinner."

Georgia didn't turn around; just sat on the dock, head down, her feet dangling in the water.

I can't believe she's gonna make me go down there. Tess slogged through weeds and mud, messing up her brand new sneakers, and nudged Georgia in the arm.

She spun around, screaming, and toppled right off the dock and into the water.

Tess 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. There’s a sense of personality and even an idea of the type of relationship these two have.

(Here’s more ways to keep your sentences from sounding the same)

Red Flags for List-Like Prose

pronouns, flat writing, sentences all start with he she it
Vary your sentences for smoother flow.

Your ear is the best detector to find stilted or list-like prose, especially if you read the work out loud. If it sounds like a list, it probably is. Be wary of:

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: do a find and replace for "punctuation, space, pronoun" (. I or ? He) and make them bold and red. Several in a row will stand out and you can revise as needed.

Sentences of the same size and structure: These are harder to find, and you really do have to trust your ear on them. Even if they don't all start with a pronoun, sentences with the same structure can sound just as list-like, such as: We did this, we did that. He did something and then did something else. To start, they all did something.

Sentences you skim instead of reading fully: If you find yourself skimming over a paragraph because you know what happens and all it does is say that, there's a decent chance you're 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 lake to look for his little sister.

He found her sitting on the dock, her feet dangling in the water.

He yelled for her to come home, but she didn't seem to hear him.

He went over and nudged her in the arm.

She screamed and fell off the dock into the water.

He just laughed.
Reads more like an outline than prose in this format, doesn’t it? This also works for similar sentence structures. Now compare that to the edited version in the same format:
Where was that kid?

Tess ran down to the lake, scanning the bank where Georgia liked to play.

A flash of a red Elmo t-shirt caught her eye and she veered toward it.

"Georgia! Time for dinner."

Georgie didn't turn around; just sat on the dock, head down, her feet dangling in the water.

I can't believe she's gonna make me go down there.

Tess slogged through weeds and mud, messing up her brand new sneakers, and nudged Georgia in the arm.

She spun around, screaming, and toppled right off the dock and into the water.

Tess laughed.

"Serves you right, brat."
Even in this form it still sounds like a scene unfolding and you read it differently. The sentences flow into one another and lead readers through the action, they don’t simply describe the action.

This is one of those issues 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.

Do you check for sentence variety during revisions or does it come naturally as you write?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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*Originally published on Writers Helping Writers in June 2012, and revised here.

3 comments:

  1. This is the aspect of writing I am currently trying to improve on. I know my prose are boring.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The amazon link points to a different book: Understanding Conflict: (and What It Really Means): Volume 2 (Skill Builders)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh goodness, thanks for giving me the heads up. Fixing it now.

      Delete