Do you ever notice how a good introduction always ends with the name of the person who is being introduced? You get all of the information about the person before you hear their name. Why? Because the name is a trigger, a signpost to the audience that the introduction is done and it’s time to applaud. The name is, as a story metaphor, the climax of the introduction.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my distinct honor and privilege to introduce the President of the Iconic Bacon Society, inductee of the Distinguished Order of Trout Husbandry, and winner of the Edward B. Pearl Award for Superior and Constant Brevity in the Face of All Manner of Verbosity… Ralph McMillen.”

Rarely do you see this form broken, and rarer still do you see it broken to positive effect. Mention the name early in the introduction and you cut the power of the climax. Not only is the name no longer a signpost to the audience, in a broader sense (and with a nod to writing philosophy) it is no longer the thing/event at which the rest of the introduction was pointed.

This is true in our writing, where every chapter, passage, paragraph, and word must point our reader to the inevitable conclusion of the story and then deliver that conclusion on time and in rhythm. It is also true with regard to sentence structure, where the impetus of what we are saying can sometimes get lost in the way the sentence first meets the page.

Consider the following sentence:

“The first time I killed a man I was five and living on the street.”

That is a jarring revelation, to be sure, but the power of the sentence is buried. The power of that sentence is, “I killed a man,” but the time the reader’s brain can pause to consider that, you’ve already hit them with more details. Even as sad as those details are (a five year old on the street), they mute the impact of the first revelation (killing a man).

Better to let the sentence build to its highest crescendo:

“I was five and living on the street the first time I killed a man.”

In most cases this rendering of the sentence will have more punch because you’ve written to your power. In other words, you set up the strongest part of your sentence as your focal point, and you aim the rest of the sentence components at it.

Obviously, this is a matter of context and there are exceptions to every rule. If your character is already known as a killer to the reader, then it may have more punch to close with his/her age:

“The first time I killed a man I was five.”

Now, that raises another way we can cut the power of our sentences. Sometimes the power of a sentence is lost because we “sell beyond the close.” You don’t want your reader impatiently thinking, “I get it; I get it. Come on, already!” A sentence that is ill-structured will lead to that feeling if only on a subconscious level, creating a subtle tension between the reader’s visceral enjoyment of what you wrote (that part of them that forgets they’re reading words), and the physical act of getting their eyes through your sentence.

In the most recent example, above, I dropped the phrase, “and living on the street.” That’s a powerful, moving detail, but it didn’t work on the end of the sentence. It was selling beyond the close, and the whole sentence was weaker for it. To hyperbolize the example:

“The first time I killed a man I was five, living on the street and fighting the dogs for food unless it rained, cause then I just let the dogs have what they could find.”

Remember, we’re talking maximum punch here. So while “living on the street” is something about your character you’d definitely want to convey, it might serve best in its own sentence.

“I was five the first time I killed a man. I was living on the street, fighting the dogs…”

Let me state, before I’m done, that this is not the answer to every sentence. This sort of rhythm certainly has punch, but it has punch against a backdrop of other well-rounded, colorful, thoughtful sentences. Overuse of this technique can become stale and repetitive, but it can be highly effective for openings, closings, points of transition, or revelations. Take, for instance, one of the best opening lines to any novel (in my opinion): the opening line to Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson. I’ll leave it to you to see how Sanderson set up the most powerful part of his sentence to be the focus.

“Prince Raoden awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.”

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One Response to Sentence Structure: Write to Your Power

  1. [...] wrote previously on writing to your power as a way to craft powerful sentences, and closed with an example from Brandon Sanderson, the [...]

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