Sunday, 10 April 2016

Making sentences

This blog is about words, how putting them carefully in the right order can be incredibly effective, it's an entry I've been thinking about for a long time*. In fact this is a subject I will likely return to many times over the coming years. Generally when I give myself space to think about writing I tend to focus first on how to create good characters, following that comes the story. It is only once I feel those things are squared away that I give myself time to think about the craft of making sentences. There are various reasons for this. Partially I feel that putting too much thought into words can lead to an overactive pretentiousness. Probably I also feel that this is an area where I already have a certain level of competency. However when I do spare it a thought it is clear to me that I care about it an awful lot and that I should try to explain why.

I think when a lot of people think about the importance of words, the thing which comes to mind for them is flowery verbose language (Oscar Wilde describing a garden for instance). There are good reasons for using that form (though I'm personally not a fan) but honestly to me the importance of language is that with careful thought it can penetrate our defences. We have a tendency in our writing and our general speech to fall back on specific terms which are known and understood. A good example is ''From that height the people looked like ants', it is clear what this means, it is a little too clear though. What I mean is that due to repetition this phrase is already known to our brains it has a lot less impact and as a result we don't fully register the meaning. I think a good analogy is the landmarks on your journey to work. After a few years of travelling you hardly notice them (and this is nice, it can make the trip feel shorter in my experience), but if someone were to come along at your side the red brick building might jump out at them. To return to the writing example, if I were instead to say 'From that height the people were a lonely shifting sea' then that is very different. In fact as a result of breaking the phrase it also may say something about the story or the character whose perspective this is from**. The important fact though is that it forces our brains to think and process.

The result of writing like this is that it can be much more impactful and that allows a writer to better get the reader where they want them (I've talked before about how showing people unseen parts of their brain is valuable). There are many examples of this type of writing, in fact I believe I will talk about three of my favourites in next week's blog. However one of the things which I would like to finish by talking again about simplicity. A long time ago I wrote a story from the perspective of a very poorly educated woman in the 1500s. As a result I forced myself to use very simple language to express her thoughts and feelings. I was surprised to find that in describing the meaning of complex words through that lens I rediscovered a lot of the meat of what they really implied. I say this to re-emphasise the fact that saying things in a new way does not mean saying them in a fancier way. Using more unusual words can be valuable, but using only the simplest of words there are still a huge number of undiscovered and important sentences waiting out there and I want to find some of them first.

*(I suspect I have struggled because, given the subject matter I feel an extra responsibility to craft it carefully.)

**(Admittedly it does this at the cost of being somewhat more verbose. The most well known and used phrases tend to get to that position precisely because they work well on the initial reading. Honestly this paragraph went through several iterations where I set myself challenges of phrases to replace (like 'I'm sorry for your loss') and came up empty. This is an incredibly difficult job and one which many writers struggle with every day (many others simply don't bother).)

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