Six impossible things

The Lego Theory Part 5

Clauses are the next step up from phrases, and they are intimately connected with sentences. They come in two varieties, independent and dependent, and the first sort is a sentence, or could be if you punctuated it differently. “He ran, but she escaped.” is a single sentence built out of two independent clauses with a comma-and-conjunction in the middle; “He ran. She escaped.” is two sentences. Independent clauses are stronger than dependent clauses because they’re whole.

The difference between a dependent clause and a sentence is that a dependent clause can’t stand alone. Putting a period at the end of a dependent clause doesn’t make it a sentence, because it isn’t finished. It needs an independent clause to prop it up and finish it off, the same way a string of adjectives needs a noun at the end in order to be more than a random collection of words. “The giant red cold blinking artificial” is just a collection of adjectives until you add “goldfish” to the end, whereupon it becomes a phrase. “When the volcano exploded” and “because he knew” are both dependent clauses; sticking them together doesn’t make a sentence until you add an independent clause like “George ran” or “she would escape.”

If you leave a dependent clause or a phrase lying around all by itself, like “if Helen had set off the bomb” or “to swallow unwary travelers,” you have a sentence fragment. Sentence fragments aren’t really a separate level; they’re broken-off bits of other building blocks. Like half a Lego, fragments can still be useful to achieve certain effects, but you have to be careful where and how you use them, because a broken-off bit of a block isn’t as strong as a whole one and doesn’t look as nice. If I ever get to paragraphs and scenes, maybe I’ll talk some more about fragments then.

Like a tower of Legos, sentences are built up from smaller pieces and units – words, phrases, and clauses – and as with Legos, the properties of those units stack. Sentences, like words, can be specific and concrete, or they can be fuzzy and abstract. The position of words and phrases within a sentence affects their strength, impact, and effectiveness. The length of the sentence as a whole affects the kind of effect you can get with it, as does the overall rhythm of the sentence and the way all the words and phrases fit together. Just as with phrases, the first and last elements of a sentence tend to be more memorable and/or have more impact than the elements in the middle; establishing a rhythm and then changing it calls attention to the part of the sentence where the rhythm change happens; and short sentences tend to have more impact than long ones (unless you use too many of them in a row and wear the reader out). Within a given sentence, shorter elements tend to be more memorable than longer ones.

With the sentence level come some more key properties of prose, two of which are variation and complexity. Sentences can be simple and straightforward, or run on for a page of complicated interlocking clauses. Starting from a single, short, simple independent clause like “George ran,” you can pile on phrases and descriptors: up the hill, away from the airport, after the bomber, into the glowing forest, next to the fairy hill. You can add a few dependent clauses, or link your first independent clause to a second one to make a compound sentence. Or you can do all of those things at once: “When the volcano exploded, George ran quickly up the hill and away from the airport, because he knew that if Helen had set off the bomb, she would escape into the glowing forest next to the fairy hill, where the giant red blinking artificial goldfish waited to swallow unwary travelers.”

And you can vary all of the elements you use within a given sentence (that is, if it has multiple elements; it’s kind of hard to get much internal variation out of a short, simple sentence like “George ran.”). In the above example, there are short clauses (“because he knew”) and longer ones (“George ran up the hill and away from the airport”), different types of phrases and clauses, and every part of speech from noun to conjunction (except for interjections). The rhythm changes, but not too often (and the pauses indicted by commas fall in places where there’s a missing beat, for the most part).

Variation is immensely important for fiction, because fiction is entertainment, and no matter what kind of entertainment you are looking at, if it gets boring, it has failed. If your writing is all the same at any level – if all the phrases are the same length, or all the sentences have the same rhythm or complexity, or all the words are one-syllable, the reader starts to get used to it. If this goes on too long, the readers can get bored or irritated, which is why you want to vary different elements from time to time. On the other hand, too much variation has the same effect as trying to work in too much contrast – you get a hard-to-read confetti effect if you try too hard.

As you can see, the further up the levels you go, from words to phrases to clauses and sentences, the more options and properties one has to juggle, and the more complex things can get. This continues up through paragraphs and scenes and chapters and so on, which is one reason why juggling all this stuff to get to a more effective outcome gets harder and harder. You can micro-manage every word and phrase and sentence in a poem (you pretty much have to micro-manage everything in a haiku), but if you try to juggle all this stuff consciously at all possible levels of language in a 100,000 word novel, you will go crazy.

  1. “… if it gets boring, it has failed. If your writing is all the same at any level – if all the phrases are the same length, or all the sentences have the same rhythm or complexity, or all the words are one-syllable, the reader starts to get used to it.”

    I agree! I tend to fall into a pattern of paragraph length in my current WIP. There might be a page of dialogue, then of complex, multi-clause long paragraphs, then (most commonly) paragraphs that are 4-5 lines long. After or during my writing I take a minute to pause, lean back, and look at my writing. I mean *look* at it, not examine how well I’ve written this or if my MC is really needing to do that, or so on and so forth. I look at how long my paragraphs are, what size the sentences are and what kind of sentences I’m using (short, snappy, tag lines, complex, descriptive, idyllic, etc.). If they’re the same too much, I change! If not, I don’t. I really agree with you on the above quote.

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