"Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
Leave it to Gustav Flaubert – the perfectionist author of Madame Bovary, a writer revered for his major role in the realist school of French literature, and arguably one of the fathers of the contemporary novel – to express so eloquently the feeling of being utterly inarticulate.
Nearly every writer can relate. You’ve poured your heart into drafting a story, but now that you’re reading it over, it just sounds…boring. Or clunky. Or cringe-worthy. You play around with the words a bit, but nothing’s popping, and you’re frustrated. You know you have powerful things to say. This piece would be amazing if only you could express your big ideas the way your favorite authors do.
Here’s the thing: you actually can. Of course, precious few writers have publicly revealed their sentence-crafting secrets (and many would say the process is too inspired to be described accurately anyway). However, all of your favorite writers have publicly revealed their fabulously-crafted sentences, and you can use those to steal the writers’ tricks. Like any good writing, this will take some effort, but the process can be broken down into four simple steps.
- The first thing you need is an excellent sentence (or few sentences). For instance, the following excerpt from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini succinctly creates a vivid sense of the atmosphere at a market:
“Tea, Politics, and Scandal, the ingredients of an Afghan Sunday at the flea market.”
Next, analyze what the author did to make this model sentence so strong. In this case, Hosseini starts off with a list of three things – one physical, two not – that contribute to a particular experience. He even capitalizes them for emphasis. He technically breaks a grammatical rule by using a comma instead of a verb to connect this list with the rest of the sentence. This gives the sentence a casual, lived-in feel that reflects its meaning. Finally, “an Afghan Sunday at the flea market” is very specific (it mentions the ethnic group involved, the day of the week, and the location).
Now turn make a sentence skeleton, removing the substantive words from the original text but maintaining the structure.
, , and , the ingredients of .
Note that this part is somewhat subjective. Someone might want to change the comma to the word are, for instance, or change ingredients to, say, elements. It all depends on what you’re writing. Think about which choices make the most sense with what you’re trying to say.
- Time to play Mad Libs! Replace the substantive words from the original with analogous words from your own story.
For this example, let’s say you’re writing about teenagers’ growth throughout their years at high school. Think of a setting that’s significant – maybe the schoolyard the first month back from summer break. Fill in the last blank by describing that setting with the same level of specificity as appears in your model text.
, , and , the ingredients of September mornings in the schoolyard at McKinley High.
Now think of three things – one physical, one not – that evoke that setting. For instance:
New sneakers, anticipation, and bravado, the ingredients of September mornings in the schoolyard at McKinley High.
Ta-da! You’ve stolen an author’s strategy. Feel free to mix in model sentences from multiple authors and to experiment with their structures. It’s all about making the sentences work for you.
One word of warning: digging through a shelf’s worth of books looking for any particular kind of sentence can be a bit of a fool’s errand, so this strategy may not work if you try to use it at the last minute. If you’re really serious about writing well, it will behoove you to get a notebook dedicated specifically to collecting sentences for this strategy. Whenever you come across a particularly delicious passage in your reading, copy it into your notebook. That way, the next time you get stuck during your own writing process, you’ll have a personal collection of model sentences from which to pilfer authors’ secrets, right at your fingertips.