BEGIN WITH MOVEMENT

Starting, once again, with the basic caveat that there is no one way to always do anything in creative fiction, and the advice I’m about to give is not meant to be blindly applied to every single sentence you ever write from now on, consider this:

All things being equal, try to begin a sentence with the thing that’s moving—or in any way actually doing something. Or really: Start with the experience.

For instance, most of the time, I think this:

A roar echoed from somewhere deep in the forest.

…is better than:

From somewhere deep in the forest, a roar echoed.

In this example, the roar is the thing that is doing something, and what it’s doing is echoing. I know that seems a little weird, but it’s true. “Somewhere deep in the forest” is the place in which that is happening, but the place isn’t actually doing anything—it isn’t moving. This is another one of those little bits that can add up to a sense of “passive voice,” or passive writing in general, and is most important in action.

Consider this example from Mel Odom’s novel Master Sergeant:

The aircraft jerked and shuddered as the pilots fired the jets in an effort to gain control of the rotation.

Here we see the thing that’s moving move: the aircraft jerked and shuddered. Then we learn why it’s jerking and shuddering.

Mel set it up in this order:

  1. Here’s what the characters experience: (the aircraft jerked and shuddered)
  2. Here’s who is actually doing something: (the pilots)
  3. Here’s what it is they’re actually doing: (fired the jets)
  4. Here’s why they’re doing that thing: (in an effort to gain control of the rotation)

Fiction is a shared experience, so we always need to be sure to show our readers what our characters are experiencing. Next, sentences in fiction tend to be about people—characters are the vessel through which the experience of the story is conveyed—so let’s get them in there next. Good, active fiction is about characters doing something, so next we’re shown what those characters are doing, and only in the end—if it matters—does he explain why this is happening.

If we flip it over:

In an effort to gain control of the rotation, the pilots fired the jets and the aircraft jerked and shuddered.

That feels more like a list, and remember: We don’t want to write in bullet points!

This order explains first and ends with the actual experience:

  1. Here’s why they’re doing that thing: (in an effort to gain control of the rotation)
  2. Here’s who is actually doing something: (the pilots)
  3. Here’s what it is they’re actually doing: (fired the jets)
  4. Here’s what the characters experience: (the aircraft jerked and shuddered)

There can and should be some degree of suspense even within a single sentence. By starting with the experience then ending with the explanation, we spend a few seconds wondering why the aircraft jerked and shuddered, then we see someone do something to affect that in some way, before it ends up in some kind of context. And the stakes are still there, since we only know what the pilots are trying to do, not what they have succeeded in doing.

The worst example of this would be leading with some version of “everything is fine” then going through the action to get there:

The werewolf fell dead after the silver bullet from Bronwyn’s gun tore through it’s blood-soaked chest.

Here the actual action of the sentence is undercut by the spoiler that leads it off. The werewolf is dead, now let me briefly explain why. Again, especially in action, we want to create and nurture suspense, not reassure our readers that everything is fine then explain how it came to be fine.

I would actually make this three sentences:

Bronwyn fired and the bullet tore through the werewolf’s blood-soaked chest. The beast fell dead. “Silver bullets…” Bronwyn said with a smile, “gotta love ’em”

This gives the character in question the lead. Her action (firing the gun) starts everything off, we see the bullet fly, but we know enough about werewolves to wonder if this is going to have any effect—then see that it actually does tear through the monster’s chest. But is it enough to kill it? Sentence two says yes. Sentence three confirm/explains, adding a little moment for Bronwyn to be her badass self.

Don’t be afraid to write a couple extra sentences!

All this having been said, of course, there does seem to be a bit more poetry in From somewhere deep in the forest, a roar echoed—hence the opening caveat. If you’re sure that simply sounds better, it fits better into the overall context of the scene, or for whatever reason you just want it/like it that way… fine! But as with all things, make that decision, not that mistake.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to BEGIN WITH MOVEMENT

  1. Shawn says:

    Feeling like this post was directed at me, I had to post a reply.

  2. James Ross says:

    “…as with all things, make that decision, not that mistake.” (Athans, 2018)

    Words to live by. In fact, this sort of explains why following bad advice in writing seems to be as useful as good advice. The content of your advice is pretty good, too, with a couple levels of meat to it. Write on!

  3. How many times have I told writers to use the active voice? You could ask my writing group, and they’d know…without a doubt.

    But, that said, we have a recent MFA graduate whose critiques a few weeks ago ran like a stuck needle on a record player. Her complaint? Too many sentences starting with Subject-Verb structure. I asked her to explain what she thought needed to happen to fix this issue. The people who received this critique wrote in varying sentence lengths with occasional transitional phrases or fragments instead of the subject-verb structure. No overdone introductory phrases. Little to no gerunds. They didn’t start each sentence with a person’s name or She or He or I. Yet, this member objected over and over again. As a side bar, many of our members are award-winning writers, several with Pushcart Nominations, several published multiple times. We are not a newbie group by any means.

    Was she a broken record, passive-aggressive (wink), pompous and puffed up over her degree, or is there a point I’m missing?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Well, obviously I don’t know her and wasn’t there so I can’t speak to her being “pompous,” etc. Still, sometimes those MFA programs can do some damage. Fiction can only be workshopped so much before it spirals out of control and becomes some effort to please everyone all the time or worse, to discover the perfect short story, which is a thing that can not possibly exist. This is why I started that post maybe even over-qualifying my assertion so that it doesn’t come off as a hard and fast rule that must always be strictly adhered to or all is lost. In my courses and tutorials like Writing Scary and things about pacing action scenes, for instance, I encourage short sentences, single-sentence paragraphs, sentence fragments, run-on sentences… anything that best conveys the emotional experience you’re trying to establish in that moment, in the specific context of that story, which by definition is a story unlike all other stories, written by an author unlike all other authors.

      Maybe throw that idea at her and see what happens!

      • Or ignore her which I usually do. This time she got on everyone’s nerves. Even a first time visitor commented on her withering feedback. The visitor was part of the reason I pushed her to qualify her statements, which she did not do.

  4. Pingback: Writing Links 3/19/18 – Where Genres Collide

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