When my dad offered to buy me an audio lecture from The Great Courses, I didn’t pass it up. I was surprised however by which lecture he had in mind: Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft taught by Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa.
“That sounds interesting,” I said.
I know everything about writing, I thought, especially on how to write a sentence.
Now before you call me cocky, I believed I had the qualities of a sentence master. I had published numerous short stories and articles, had plays produced, and wrote numerous papers that received high marks, not to mention my seven years of post-secondary education that was dedicated to the writing craft. I even wrote three theses (never mind because the first two were rejected).
I smugly played the first lesson, eager to prove my ego correct. And I was winning the bet for the first ten minutes when he talked about subjects and predicates, independent and dependent clauses, simple and complex sentences, prepositions and propositions.
A sentence is a series of propositions. Simply, a sentence is a series of statements (be it true or false). It is the arrangement of these propositions that determine what facts are presented, what words are used to express these facts, and what order these facts are presented.
And that’s what we call style.
Let me explain it further with this sentence:
The new yellow dog jumped over the neighbor’s iron fence.
These are the propositions:
- There is a dog
- The dog is new
- The dog is yellow
- The dog jumped
- There is a fence
- The fence belongs to the neighbors
- The fence is made of iron
- The fence is what the dog jumped over
When the propositions are broken down (and hopefully I didn’t miss any), I begin to think about other propositions that I could jam into the sentence. What time of day was it? What was the weather? Who owned the dog? What was the dog’s name? Who were the neighbors? Were the neighbors mean or nice? How high was the fence? Why did the dog jump? Who watched the dog jump? What else should I know about the fence? What else should I know about the dog?
And then there’s how to convey the sentence.
The dog, new and yellow, jumped over the neighbor’s fence made of iron.
The new dog that was yellow jumped the iron fence belonging to the neighbors.
The neighbor’s iron fence was jumped by the new yellow dog.
The yellow dog that was new jumped the neighbor’s iron fence.
I could go on, but I’ll stop.
Instead of feeling defeated by Professor Landon’s wisdom, I was euphorically intoxicated. I walked around after the first lesson, smitten by every sentence that I crossed, brainstorming ways to grow every sentence and tallying all the ways to rearrange its propositions. I hadn’t been this excited about a new idea since I learned about the holographic principle.
It’s not that this was the first time I learned about the relation between a proposition and a sentence. It was that his lesson solved a large problem I was having in my own writing.
Back to those failed theses. Thesis #2 was Draft #8 of a novel I had been working on and reworking for years. I was recently making the same mistake with Draft #9 by launching into the story without an outline or concrete grasp on the story from beginning to end. At the time I was struggling with writing my protagonist out of her room, and I was growing more frustrated and less motivated to continue on with my writing.
But that’s where my problem was. I forgot that the novel is a collection of sentences. And if a sentence is what provides description and action needed for the next sentence, shouldn’t I know the plot so that my sentences can build upon each other and be most effective?
Instead of trying to write my way out a problem, I should have been strategizing how to play this plot out to win at this game of writing. I needed to be an expert on the big picture of the novel in order to create the detailed sentences that will build a complete story arc.
I just needed a few sentences (and 24 lessons) to figure it out.