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Monday, January 2, 2017

Selecting the Right Sentence Structure for the Right Emotion

Today's post builds off some other posts I've done:

Pros and Cons and Types of Third-Person
Point of View Penetration
Exactly How to Create and Control Tone
Writing Empathetically Vs. Sympathetically and Sentimentally
Let Your Reader Do the Work
Raw vs. Subdued Emotion: Getting Them Right in Your Story

But you don't have to read them to get something out of this one.

It's just that today's topic relates to deep point of view (the deepest point, point 4), creating emotion in your reader (instead of on the page), and controlling tone.

Hopefully if you've been following my blog for very long, you understand the importance of getting your reader to feel powerful emotions as opposed to just writing about the emotions.

In the deepest point of view, the prose takes on the thoughts and attitude of the viewpoint character. For example, "It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil's oven. A glass of cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing." These sentences convey the thoughts and feelings of Todd, the viewpoint character.

The decision of how to handle tone depends on how you want your reader to feel, and often (but not always) that's related to how your viewpoint character feels.

Lately I've been editing some stories where writers seem to have a pretty good understanding of deep point of view, emotions, maybe a little bit of tone, but what they seem to be lacking in understanding is how rhythm and beat and sentence structure can bring each of these to the next level for a more powerful effect.

In life, people who are scared have different sentence structures than people who are at peace. Those emotions have different beats, different rhythms. Here are some examples to illustrate my point.

Someone who is very scared doesn't talk or think in long sentence structures like this:

Jennifer had been kidnapped by the Elite, and she was terrified, but if she could figure out a way to get out of the car, she could call the police or Aaron and tell them about the Elite’s plans. There must be a way to get out and quick, she thought desperately.

If someone is truly scared, and the emotion is very raw and in the moment, their sentences and phrases are shorter. Their speech has a faster rhythm. The syllables might have more stress.

Maybe something like this:

Jennifer was going to the Elite. She was going to the Elite and she would be experimented on. She was going to die, and she couldn’t get out, couldn’t get out, couldn’t get out.

Notice how in this example the sentences reflect Jennifer's thought process in this moment. Obviously you don't have the context of the story, which feeds the fear of the narrative, but the sentence structure and rhythm and beats are meant to amplify and render raw emotions.

There is kind of a sense of absolute, of inescapable doom, in the short simplicity of "Jennifer was going to the Elite," as if she is coming to terms with it, with the realization. In fact we "see" she is trying to come to terms with the reality of that fact, because she repeats it: "Jennifer was going to the Elite. She was going to the Elite and she would be experimented on." It's as if she is so terrified her mind is repeating the reality of the situation out of shock.

"She was going to die, and she couldn't get out, couldn't get out, couldn't get out." Not only does the content of the sentence reflect her thoughts and emotional state at the deepest level (the fact she is thinking about her death and that she is trapped reveals she's afraid) but the phrases between the commas are short and quick to reflect that emotional state. The repetition of "she couldn't get out, couldn't get out, couldn't get out" (also note that the "she" gets dropped to create an acceleration in rhythm) reveals the utter desperation in her emotional state. "She couldn't get out, couldn't get out, couldn't get out"--that's what the thought process of someone who is desperate sounds like.

For contrast, someone at peace and soaking up the sun isn't going to have that kind of emotional intensity. They're relaxed. How does a relaxed person sound? Their sentences may be more leisurely. They may be longer. Depending on the person, they could be short, but if they are, it's a casual short, not a stress-short like Jennifer's example. Overall the sentences make up a lulling beat and rhythm, not a frantic choppy one.

The rays bathed Marcus in a comfortable heat. Somewhere in the woods of beeches, chestnut oaks, and hickory, a woodpecker thrummed. Further away, where Marcus knew was the lower “Cat’s Eye” pool, a waterfall spattered and splashed. He inhaled the licorice-like scent of anise and watched skeeters skate on the cool water. Everything was more than right in the world, and he could rest like this forever.

Notice that the structure of the sentences, the use of multi-syllable words in addition to the content create a sense of peace. There is nothing very choppy and sharp in structure.

Also important to note is that specificity, detail, and multi-syllable words slow the rhythm down. So in my excerpt, I have specific trees, a very particular scent, a detailed name of a pool. Generic and "invisible" words, and words with short syllables help speed it up. So in my scared example, I simply use "was" "couldn't" "going" "get out," and nothing that is trying to be literary or fancy. No details. Only two words in that example are longer than two syllables: "Jennifer" and "experimented."

These are the sort of tricks you can use to render emotion structurally, which will amplify emotions and tone.

Now remember, there are different levels of raw-ness in emotions. With Jennifer, I'm not going to write at this level of fear and intensity every time she feels any fear (unless she has a medical or mental condition that affects her in that way). If I do that, I start to steer far into melodrama. When she feels less fear, I write with less intensity. When she feels more fear, I write with more intensity--even shorter sentences, sentence fragments, for example.

Likewise, I don't need to go all out every time Marcus feels any level of peace. Only when that peace is strong and important.

Some emotions aren't important for the reader to experience, only to know about. In those cases, you summarize, not render.

Sometimes when I'm editing, I see that the writer seems to understand how sentence content affects emotion and tone and deep viewpoint, but their sentence structures don't convey that emotion and tone and deep viewpoint. In fact, a lot of the time, their sentence structures stay in about the same realm through the whole novel. And sometimes, the sentence structure even takes away from the emotion of the moment.

But if you take advantage of what I explained with the scared and peaceful examples, you can essentially amplify all those aspects. The rhythm and beats and stresses of the sentences themselves embody the sound of fear, the sound of happiness, the sound of annoyance, the sound of sleepiness. Once again, this leads to the reader experiencing the emotion inside themselves instead of reading about it on the page. When you want your reader to experiencing the emotions most rawly, most intensely in themselves, this is exactly one of the things you can (and I'd argue should) do.

But when you are aware of this and master it, you can use it in other ways too.

In fact, you can even play around with it so that sentence structures and content don't match, intentionally. This is essentially one part of how you separate character experience from reader experience, when you want to deviate those experiences. We might be with a viewpoint character who is having a rotten day, but if the structure and beat are entertaining, we might be laughing instead of feeling rotten ourselves. In this case, the tone of the passage is different than the tone of the character's interior.

So let's try to make this clearer.

  • You can use sentence structure to amplify deep point of view. The literal structure and beat of the sentences communicate the attitudes and feelings your character is having.
  • You can use sentence structure to amplify emotions in the reader. For example, if you want to make your reader feel peace, you use structures that sound of that--less stress, less choppy, more flowy.
  • You can use sentence structure to amplify tone. If the tone you want for your passage is sarcastic, then ask yourself, does the sentence structure adhere to or amplify that?

Of course, all these things can overlap. Very often tone comes from deep penetration of your viewpoint character which creates emotions in the reader. But this is not always the case, so it's important to also see them as separate things too.

In closing, if you need another writerly goal, this is a great one to work on.


  1. Great piece! Shared on my FB page--hope that's OK. If not, let me know If it sends readers your way...you deserve them.

    1. Absolutely that's okay. Thanks for sharing ^_^

      And thank you!


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