Sentences express complete thoughts. Each sentence contains a subject and a predicate, expressed or implied. As we learn any language, our sentences increase in complexity. Some people believe the more complex a sentence, the more impressive. Never confuse wordiness for eloquence.
In grammar, we classify sentences by their functions. There are four basic sentence types in English:
• Declarative / Narrative
A declaration is a statement or observation. Narrative and descriptive passages are written using declarative sentences.
I did not kill him.
We declared our love in college.
To interrogate is to question; hence, questions are interrogatives. Grammarians like to use jargon, while telling writers to avoid it, so we have to deal with words like interrogative.
Did you interrogate the witnesses?
Imperatives are commands, important requests, or emergency pleas.
It is imperative that you leave today.
Please, open the door for me; the groceries are heavy.
Most exclamations stand alone, making for very short sentences. Sentences can be exclamations, if they contain a strong emotion or opinion.
Wow! What a great book.
Dialogue exists within special sentences known as containers. Containers are sentences containing sentences. Most containers represent spoken or unspoken dialogue.
“I will name him Fluffy,” she said, hugging her new kitten.
Six Basic Structures
In English, six basic structures form most sentences. These structures are:
S-V-DO Subject-Verb-Direct Object
S-V-IO-DO Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object
S-V-PN Subject-Verb-Predicate Nominative
S-V-PA Subject-Verb-Predicate Adjective
S-V-DO-C Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Complements
The subject of a sentence contains the “who?” or “what?” described by or acting in the sentence. The predicate makes a statement, asks a question, gives a command, or expresses a state of being. A complete sentence contains a subject and predicate.
A simple subject is a noun or pronoun. When there is more than one subject in a sentence, the group of subjects is known as the compound subject. We prefer simple subjects when possible, using collective nouns or pronouns instead of subjects joined by conjunctions.
Old grammar texts call the modified word the “headword” and the complete subject a “cluster.”
A complete subject is a simple subject and any modifiers of the simple subject. Most subject modifiers are adjectives. You should be able to identify the complete subject of a sentence easily since it normally precedes the verb.
A simple predicate is the predicate verb, being verb, or verb phrase associated with the sentence’s subject. A complete predicate is the simple predicate and any modifiers. Predicate modifiers may be adverbs, adjectives, and phrases.
A sentence complement is a word or phrase adding meaning to the subject or verb. A complement clarifies the sentence. Complements usually appear after the simple predicate verb in a sentence, forming the complete predicate. Simple remember that complements complete predicates. There are five “complements” in English sentence structures:
• Direct Object
• Indirect Object
• Predicate Noun
• Predicate Pronoun
• Predicate Adjective
Predicate Nouns and Pronouns
A predicate noun or pronoun names the subject of a sentence. Most sentences with a predicate noun or pronoun use a conjugation of “to be.” These sentences are not passive because no action is involved.
The author is John Smith.
“John Smith” names the author; the author is not doing anything in this sentence.
Predicate nouns and pronouns are sometimes called predicate nominatives. Nominatives are words typically used as objects within a phrase.
Predicate adjectives describe the subject of a sentence.
The breeze felt cold against her face.
The breeze is described as cold.
A direct object answers the question “who or what?” and is being acted upon by the subject of a sentence. Direct objects are said to receive actions.
The cat chased the mouse.
The mouse is the direct object of the cat’s actions.
An objective complement modifies a direct object. Objective complements are nouns, pronouns, or adjectives.
The critic considered the book a joke.
Sarah considers him a friend.
“Joke” is a noun describing the direct object “book.” In the complement position, a noun acts like an adjective. In the second sentence, “friend” describes the direct object “him.” (Thinking about a noun makes the noun an object of action — even if the action is abstract.)
An indirect object answers “to/for whom/what?” an action was conducted. The indirect object receives no action but is frequently confused for a direct object. A sentence can be rewritten to place the indirect object within a prepositional phrase. Indirect objects can conserve words and increase precision.
Direct: For catching the mouse, she gave a treat to the cat.
Indirect: She gave the cat a treat for catching the mouse.
She gave a treat; it was the treat being acted upon by the cat’s owner. The cat was not a direct object of an action, but in the second sentence it is the indirect object.
A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses connected by a conjunction or semicolon.
The Russian winter is severe; many invading armies have been stopped by the conditions.
A sentence is in inverted order when the predicate precedes the subject. Sentences inverted do not require a comma after the introductory phrase. In the following examples, the first sentence is inverted and the second is not.
Among the weeds were a few wildflowers.
A few wildflowers were among the weeds.
The word “there” begins many inverted sentences. There is not the subject of the sentences. Some writers like “there” and use it to impress readers. We suggest using it sparingly.
There might be some truth in his words.
He might be telling the truth.
Some inverted sentences feature a split predicate. A split occurs when a portion of the complete predicate appears before the subject and the remainder of the predicate follows the subject.
Split predicates are common. Most effective writing uses split predicates to break monotony. Any phrase or clause appearing before the simple subject of a sentence, but which can be moved to the end, are part of a split.
In 2000, due to the Electoral College system, George W. Bush became President-Elect.
George W. Bush became President-Elect in 2000 due to the Electoral College system.
George W. Bush is the simple subject in the preceding sentences. The first sentence features a split predicate, as demonstrated by rearranging the sentence.
We suggest three rules for great sentences:
Clarity is the first principle of good writing. Readers and audiences need to understand your writings. It seems obvious, but many writers get lost in “art” and forget people read words or watch actors to be entertained, educated, and then challenged.
Don’t misunderstand; we believe we write to educate people and challenge some social situations. However, we know that meaning can get lost in figurative language. Say what you mean as effectively as possible. Concise is not synonymous with “brief.” Use as many words as needed to communicate and describe, but keep sentence structures as basic as possible.
Concise writing is important for two reasons: it improves clarity and reduces the risk of reader frustration. Even better, concise sentences with obvious subjects and verbs reduce the number or grammar errors possible.
Keep modifiers next to their objects. Have pronouns close to their antecedents. Use precise terms when possible instead of vague adjectives and adverbs. If it helps, underline the subjects of sentences and circle the verbs or whatever pattern works for you. If more than four words separate the subject and primary verb, your sentence might not be concise.
In fiction, avoid passive voice sentence structures and linking verbs. Subjects of sentences should act, moving the reader along. Descriptions can be embedded using clauses, phrases, and appositives.
Nonfiction tends to require more sentences with linking verbs, but the passive voice structure can be avoided. The text, for example, uses many linking verbs, but few passive sentences.
1. Have a clear theme. What is the story about? That doesn’t mean what is the plot line, the sequence of events or the character’s actions, it means what is the underlying message or statement behind the words. Get this right and your story will have more resonance in the minds of your readers.
2. An effective short story covers a very short time span. It may be one single event that proves pivotal in the life of the character, and that event will illustrate the theme.
3. Don’t have too many characters. Each new character will bring a new dimension to the story, and for an effective short story too many diverse dimensions (or directions) will dilute the theme. Have only enough characters to effectively illustrate the theme.
4. Make every word count. There is no room for unnecessary expansion in a short story. If each word is not working towards putting across the theme, delete it.
5. Focus. The best stories are the ones that follow a narrow subject line. What is the point of your story? Its point is its theme. It’s tempting to digress, but in a ‘short’ you have to follow the straight and narrow otherwise you end up with either a novel beginning or a hodgepodge of ideas that add up to nothing.
A short story begins as close to the conclusion as possible, and grabs the reader from the very first line. It conserves character and scenes, typically focuses on just one problem, and drives towards a sudden, unexpected revelation.
Who is your protagonist, and what does he or she want? (The athlete who wants her team to win the big game and the car crash victim who wants to survive his injuries are not specific enough.)
When the story begins, what morally significant actions has he or she already taken towards that goal? (“Morally significant” doesn’t mean your protagonist has to be conventionally “good”; rather, he or she should already have made a significant choice that sets up the rest of the story.)
What unexpected consequences — directly related to the protagonist’s efforts to achieve the goal — ramp up the emotional energy of the story? (Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences?)
What details from the setting, dialog, and tone help you tell the story? (Things to cut: travel scenes, character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A, and phrases like “said happily” — it’s much better to say “bubbled” or “gushed” or “cooed.”)
What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story? (Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t see it coming.)
Creative short stories need not all look alike, but they do all share a basic structure that makes them “work”: they’re readable, entertaining or profound. This involves learning certain basic skills that support all successful writing. Once these skills are developed, one may want to explore various ways of using them, or even of breaking the rules; but as all serious artists know, one must know the rules before they can be broken.
*The Passionate First Draft*
In the first place, the writer must have both passion and patience. When you write, you leave the territory of the mundane. The first draft of your story need not follow any rules necessarily, but should be an outpouring of words. Believe in what you are writing. Explore the interior realm, and pull words from your grief, pleasure, happiness, anger and pain. Describe concretely and specifically what you see with the inner eye, how you feel, what matters to you.
Don’t write out of a sense of duty. Good writers do not try to teach a lesson, or to be socially or politically correct. It is far too easy to censor our good writer, to mentally project our mothers or other relatives looking over the shoulder. A first draft should lie on the page spontaneously, buzzing with the joy of creative energy, regardless of form or quality of content. As one learns to write, stories will tend to shape themselves in the first draft, since the basic rules become basic to one’s nature, but beginner’s needn’t worry if the first draft is messy. Learning to write a short story that works is like learning anything else: a child rides a bike shakily at first, and scrawls his name with huge and awkward letters. It is the same with the art of short story writing.
After you write a first draft, it is a good idea to let the story sit for a while, a few days or even weeks. It is easy to love one’s own writing in the same way that we can each put up with our own singing, even when others cannot! Wait a while.
When you come back to the story for its first revision, start to notice a few things. Does the story have the basic elements? Does it have a believable plot? What is the theme, or the point of the story? Are the characters real? How does the plot build to the point of tension wherein everything is resolved in the denouement? Is the conclusion satisfying?
*The Basic Elements*
Plot. This refers to the premise and action that takes place in a story. A traditional plot involves conflict, and there are all kinds of conflicts that can be used. These include, conflicts between people, interior conflicts regarding decisions, conflicts between obligation and desire, or even good versus evil. Be aware of the conflicts in your story. Do they support and move the plot forward? Is the plot believable in terms of character motivation?
Theme. The theme refers to the point you are expressing in the story. This might be very subtle. Does the point come across as a natural outgrowth of the plot, or does it seem forced or “preachy”? Stories that work express themselves without the feeling of didacticism, or that one is being taught a moral lesson; rather, the lesson of the story sits within the plot and development of character naturally, and therefore powerfully.
Characters. In stories that work, the characters are more than cardboard caricatures with wooden hands. When you look at your first draft, consider character motivation. Do they react reasonably in proportion with the traits you have granted them? Do they speak naturally, or does the dialogue sound like an actor reading lines? It might be a good idea to make up a history for your characters, known only by you, which isn’t necessarily expressed in the story. A writer should know more about each character than he or she tells. This gives each character an aura of mystery and believability.
Denouement. This French word refers to the way the conflicts in the plot comes to a pique and are concluded. The short story that works handles this with care, since this is usually the point where the implicit theme stands or falls. Do the conflicts resolve or not resolve themselves in the story? If we are left hanging, not knowing whether the conflicts have gone in either direction, the story usually doesn’t work.
Conclusion. How does the story conclude? Has the character changed in any way? Has he learned or not learned from the resolution of conflict?
*Tightening Things Up*
Once you establish these elements in your short story, go through and scratch out every word, paragraph or page that does not contribute to them. You may have a wonderful description of a city on the second page which has nothing to do with the story. Be brutal. Scratch it out. You might have a brilliant quip on page four, or some allusive alliteration on page six, that do not contrubute to the basic elements. Do away with them. Believe it or not, the story actually works better without them, is easier for others to read, and become a powerful vehicle of artistic expression. A short story is not a novel; it is more like a poem, where every word and sentence counts. You make each word count by deleting extraneous material.
*Let Others Read It*
Listen to the advice of others. If a lot of people are distracted by some sentence you happen to love, think about changing it. Don’t be afraid to revise. You are the creator, the writer, and you have it in your power to produce something beautiful. This means revision, which is not an act of mutilation, but of creation–though it may feel temporarily painful now and then.
Re-read your story with a critical mind when you are in different moods, and re-write it accordingly. A story that works does not just “happen”, but it is the fruit of rewriting and revision. You will dioscover that you will see it differently and find various new things you want to change according to your various moods.
Once you have the basics down, you can begin to work on your own style and unique voice. But these come later. Short story writing takes skill as well as an artistic temper; you must learn the skills before you can shape it into art.