Monday, May 25, 2009

Have you asked your writing a question today?






Every once in a while I read a story where all the requisite elements for success seem to be in place. Such stories typically contain the following elements:

  • A competent hook
  • Serviceable characters
  • A well-executed plot

And yet sometimes as I'm reading along, I find that my interest wanes (and then dies) after just a few pages. So what exactly has gone wrong?

Here's one answer: After just a few paragraphs, I cease to give a flying squirrel about the hook, the characters, or the plot. Which means that I don't care about the story. Which means that the Writer in question is dead as a doornail.

In a past blog post that was circulated by Esquire, writer Darin Strauss said that it helps to apply a "So What?" test to each sentence in a story. To apply such a test, according to Strauss, we can measure each of our sentences against the following criteria: Why should I care about this sentence? How does it reveal character? What difference does it make to the plot? To the story?

When I first heard about Strauss's sentence test (which he attributed to Lee K. Abbott), it was like an epiphany to me, because when we ask every sentence in our novel "So What?" or "Who cares?", it helps us to avoid the following writing hazards:

  • Boilerplate character description

  • Rote, unnecessary movements by all characters, especially the main character

  • Go-nowhere dialogue

  • Boring scene description

So here's my question to you: When you're writing, do you apply such a test to each and every sentence? Do you go back and root out "filler" sentences during rewrite?

And to take on the challenge, if you don't mind sharing: What's the last sentence that you wrote today? Is it important to your story? Why will your reader care about that sentence?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

13 comments:

  1. The last sentence in my WIP:
    “This is a tough case. I need to run it.”
    Readers will care about this sentence because Detective Wade Jackson is fighting to keep his seniority.

    But of course, now I have to go back and look closely at every other sentence. Thanks for a great post.

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  2. I like that last sentence. LJ - the reader automatically wants to know why he needs to run this tough case, which in this instance, is to keep his job.

    I was excited when I first discovered Strauss's sentence test, because in the past I've used sentences as what I would call "ballast" in a paragraph. One can still do that, but each sentence must still matter to the reader, by itself.

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  3. “Sam, come with me; we aren’t going far, and we’re going to need you if you are half as strong as you look like you are.” Tom grabbed Sam and pushed him in the direction of the Old City Cemetery that was three blocks down Park Street. “Shit. Everything is going to hell in a breadbasket.”

    P. Kassees

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  4. Well, at least things weren't going to hell in a handbasket, PK! I get to cop out of posting my last written sentence because I'm on the road and can't get it off the memory stick. A poor excuse, I know! It was something like a floorboard groaning as the main character stepped onto it, ending the chapter. Shoot, now I have to go track down that sentence, and probably rewrite it (grin).

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  5. Okay, I'm game.

    Here's the last sentence I wrote in my WIP:
    "She’d already witnessed Bob’s antics, so I told her about Velma’s strange behavior at the diner, and what Ed mentioned at Rafe’s the night before."

    My protagonist is telling her mama what's been going on without rehashing everything and boring the reader to death. This scene sets up the complication of Mama wanting to help investigate, which will be a major headache for my protagonist.

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  6. What an interesting challenge. Okay, here are the last sentences I wrote before going to bed last night:

    “I’ll ask you to be stealthy on your way out,” Flynn said as he turned off the bedside lamp and returned the room to darkness. “I would hate for you to wake my bodyguards.”

    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  7. Nice post, Kathryn. To answer your question, although I don’t consciously apply Strauss’s test to each sentence, I am conscious of the need to make every sentence (and word) count. Because I work with a co-writer, we tend to address this need as we go along and definitely during the rewrite.

    To take your challenge, here’s the last sentence from the latest chapter of THE PHOENIX APOSTLES written this weekend.

    “Then he realized that he had just witnessed the tomb robbery of Hernán Cortés.”

    The reader cares about this sentence because it’s getting closer to answering the book’s story question: Why is someone stealing the burial remains of the most infamous mass murderers in history? This sentence falls about 87k words into the manuscript and it tells the reader who they think will be the final “apostle”. Of course, they would be wrong.

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  8. Okay I'm game. It was written at midnight last night so God knows how crap it is.
    Ursula stumbled to her feet. As she passed him, she faced him with such rage she could barely control the trembling in her voice. “If I had a gun,” she said. “I would kill you for that.”
    Now I'm getting ready to go back over the chapter from last night with a hatchet...thanks for the blog post to remind me of what I'm often guilty of..oh, the bane of the filler sentence...

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  9. John, loved the style of the dialogue, and its implied warning against waking the bodyguards! Joyce, your line might be advancing the prose in such a way that you don't have to repeat dialogue that the reader already knows - a very good thing! Joe, love the way the protagonist seems to have belated recognition of what he's seen, as if putting the pieces together. And Clare, I am now also resolved to stomp out my filler sentences!

    Everyone has been gamely posting their sentences, so I dredged up a compatible system and downloaded my WIP. Here's my last sentence:
    "At least snow was clean. When she got home to Boston, she’d have to wash the car before Ron got home, or else be prepared to explain why the Mercedes looked like it had just returned from an African safari."

    Hmmm...I know what I'm setting up here, and what my character has just recovered from in the scene. But will the reader care about this particular sentence? Here's a question: Should there be a sentence equivalent of "he said."? Maybe we do need fillers, Clare (grin).

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  10. Because through the courtroom doors came the person I least expected to see that day, or any other for that matter.

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  11. Good one, James! Pulls the reader right along - I really want to know who came through the doors!

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  12. She handed the AK assault rifle back to the other officer, got into her patrol car and left for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

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  13. Good amount of action, Basil - one feels like the next sentence will give the Reader a sense of her mood following whatever just happened, which must have been exciting!

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