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Strong Sentences and 3D Storytelling

I’ve mentioned this before, but my dad is (among many other things) a speech professor and an accomplished storyteller. I was talking with him last week about some difficulties he’s had in his creative writing, though, trying to achieve the sort of impact and effect he can get effortlessly with the spoken word.

The problem, he said, is that public speaking draws on so much more than just the words. He described it as three-dimensional expression, using verbal cues like stress and tone as well as nonverbals like stance and gestures to add depth to his message.

Good writing is exactly the same way, but the depth elements are different. Instead of mastering enunciation and dramatic pauses, you learn sentence length and structure. Robbed of forceful emphasis, you focus on emphatic verbs. Effective writing conveys information, but good writing goes deeper.

Expressive Sentences

When Dad said that, I had to laugh, not at the idea but at the realization that came with it. Dad was complaining that writing didn’t have the tools he needed, but I’d been telling him about those tools for years. It took that comment from him, though, before I knew how to make it clear.

That’s what the passive voice rule is about, though. You’ve had English teachers and editors complaining about passive voice forever, and sometimes you get irritated and shout, “Passive voice has its place!” It does. Of course it does. But the point isn’t that passive voice is grammatically wrong, the problem is that passive voice sentences are inherently less expressive. They’re one-dimensional. Sure, they convey information, but they do it in a monotone, maybe even at a mumble.

I go straight to passive voice, because most writers know there are people who hate it, and most writers just don’t understand why. If your only goal is to set facts down on paper, passive voice is perfectly fine. If you’re trying to connect with a reader, though, to convey attitude and meaning, then you need to focus on making expressive sentences.

Unstressed Expression

You need to focus on making all your sentences expressive, and you can do that by doing everything you know how to do, on every sentence, to make it as strong as possible. In other words, practice.

I mentioned before that Dad’s frustration came from the difficulty of doing things in writing that he can do without effort in speaking. That’s really not a difference in the medium. It’s a difference in experience.

After all, when I step up in front of a crowd I can barely stammer my way through a coherent sentence, let alone an expressive one, but the three-dimensional writing is easily for me. That’s where my experience is. And Dad, of course, has spent years longer practicing good public speaking.

Not only that, he’s studied it. He has studied the rules of non-verbal expression, the best methods of eye contact, posture, mimicking and blocking and pacing. He didn’t just do what felt natural, what seemed good enough. He learned the best methods — and why those methods were best — and then he trained himself to do it that way every time.

Best Methods

So what are the rules for writing expressive sentences? It’s more than just good grammar. Here are some of the rules that spring right to mind.

Eschew passive voice. Cling to active voice.

I’ve said enough about the reasons for this, but in case you’re a little unclear on exactly what passive and active voice look like, come back tomorrow for a refresher.

Hunt for the perfect word.

Wherever possible, use strong nouns and verbs instead of letting adjectives and adverbs do the heavy lifting. “Sprinted” and “bolted” and “darted” all say so much more, with their subtle differences, than “went quickly.” “Eschew” is a much more expressive verb than “avoid,” too.

Get to the Point

Say what you have to say clearly, but choose shorter phrases and simpler words when possible. Strong verbs and nouns add richness and depth to your writing, but often it’s tempting to use big complicated words just to make your writing seem more important. It doesn’t.

Cramming in unnecessary syllables only dilutes your message, and gets in the way of clarity. (Same for exotic or rare words, too — perhaps “eschew,” for instance. Ahem.)

Keep it Simple

In the same way, keep a close rein on your verbs. Try to use simple verb tenses as much as possible — “he went” instead of “he had been going,” and “she will go” instead of “she will have gone.”

Like passive voice, complicated verb tenses exist for a reason and they can be perfectly grammatically accurate while still weakly conveying your message. It’s often worth reworking a whole paragraph to make the verb tenses work out, instead of defending the verb tenses you’ve already got.

As a good rule of thumb, you should make sure to use at least one strong, simple verb in every sentence, and make it the sentence’s main verb phrase.

There’s no way that’s every single rule of expressive sentences. Let me know which ones work best for you, which ones you have trouble with, and which ones you’d like to hear more about. That’s what the comments section is for.

4 Responses to “Strong Sentences and 3D Storytelling”

  1. I have a difficult time eschewing.

    Ha ha, I couldn’t resist. (Love how you broke your own rule.) 🙂

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    Well, they do say that rules are made to be broken.

    Although I think, in this case, it’s more a matter of using the right tool for the job. Sure, a dramatic pause can add a lot to a presentation, but if you incorporate one in every sentence…well, you get to become captain of one of the Enterprises.

    I got lost somewhere in there.

    Anyway, the ultimate rule is always to write the best thing you can to the audience you’ve got, and I’m confident the audience I’ve got here can handle an “eschew” or two.

    (I’m deeply grateful to you for commenting, Becca, just because it gave me an opportunity to utter that last phrase.)

  3. Glen says:

    Interesting post Aaron. I tend to write the way I speak so my sentences end up choppy and full of made up words, ha,ha..

    I will keep reading and trying to learn if you keep writing.

  4. Aaron Pogue says:

    Glen, thanks for stopping by! I’m working on two articles a week, and two writing exercises. And I do accept requests!