Sentencing Notes

A writer can become so focused on creating great characters and plots that she can forget that stories are created out of sentences—one after the other.  Sentences matter.  They are worth playing with, fussing over, honing, and polishing.  Think about the purpose, the length, the structure, the rhythm of your sentences.

For an example of an author playing with sentences, look this excerpt from Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.  There are only three sentences in this paragraph.  The first one is medium length, the second is short, and the third one is whopper-sized.

Berndt Vogel’s passion engaged him, mind and heart.  He now prepared himself.  Having dragged army caissons through hip-deep mud after the horses died in torment, having seen his best friend suddenly uncreated into a mass of shrieking pulp, having lived intimately with pouring tumults of eager lice and rats plump with a horrifying food, he was rudimentarily prepared for the suffering he would experience in love.

The third sentence is elaborate, even excessive, but I think it is effective.  The main clause of the third sentence is “he was rudimentarily prepared for the suffering he would experience in love.”  Erdrich could easily have skipped the participial phrases in italics.  However, including them adds a whole new dimension to the characterization of Berndt and his relationship to Agnes.  The type of suffering mentioned in these three phrases are so extreme that the tone takes on a quality that is almost grotesque, almost comic, but still poignant.

I am not suggesting that you should write the way Erdrich does.  She has created her own distinct tone and style.  Each writer has to find his own voice.  It can be worthwhile sometimes, though, to “try on” a different style for the sake of experimentation.   Try rewriting some of your own sentences with different syntax, different word choice, different lengths just to see the effect.


Just for fun, try to write a paragraph of your own, but model the sentence syntax and lengths on Erdrich’s paragraph above.

As an example, I wrote a paragraph in honor of my cat Zelda, who does not like to be locked in the bedroom.

Zelda’s outrage enveloped her, head to toe.   She arched her back. Having roasted in front of the fireplace like a melting marshmallow on a stick, having decimated her Friskies and then vomited them back up, having mowed her toy mouse down the stairway and trapped it beneath her haunches like a triumphant general, Zelda was prepared to resist her captivity.  She yowled.

Now you try, and write your response in the comments.  I dare you!

Happy writing!




If you are interested in learning more about the craft of creative writing, check out Concordia University’s online MFA-Creative Writing degree here.




6 thoughts on “Sentencing Notes

      1. It’s interesting because I am re-reading some of Louise Erdrich’s earlier works. So far, I seems that her style is much simpler. I haven’t noticed as many “whopper” sentences. I’m not saying one is better than the other. They are quite different, though.


  1. Debra not only would I not write the way Erdrich does, as an editor if I was confronted with prose like this, I would send it back. Obviously she is a published writer, so someone thinks it’s A-OK, but to me it’s just bad writing.

    Is there an unengaged passion? It sounds as though there is a passion out there somewhere, that decides that this fellow needs to have some, and leaps into him, or rolls over him, coats him with passion stuff, or something. Or that he chose to do, which is not what passion is about:. Engaged him. Urgh.

    Do you really think people dragged caissons through hip-deep mud? Maybe, if they weren’t in it.

    The idea that someone was “suddenly uncreated” has no philosophical, emotional, or literal truth. Read Celine’s Journey to the end of the night (Manheim translation if poss) for some real writing about this subject., or perhaps Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. “A mass of shrieking pulp”? I don’t think so. A “pouring tumult”? was ist, gnadige frau? Eager lice? This was presumably a WWI storyline, so a quick read on the role of body lice in that conflict would perhaps surprise you. If he had it that bad, a good chance he would not be available at some later date for a passing passion to engage him.. “A.” “horrifying” food. Why the “A”? As for horrifying, does she mean people eating it reacted in terror with what was on the end of their knives, forks or spoons?

    All this before we arrive at “rudimentarily”. This is a pseudo-word I wish I had never read. I may be a terrible writer but it will never, ever appear in anything I write, and when I was a professional editor it would never have passed on to reach some other reader’s. eye, out of pity if not kindness.

    Now, there is a further structural problem with this paragraph. Second sentence and last one First, he “now” prepared himself. But in the last sentence he was in some sense prepared already through the almost unimaginable sufferings of war. So he didn’t “now:” prepare himself but was already at least partially prepared for the sufferings of love..

    Well, I don’t know. . .life is just so complicated. If I was writing this paragraph, I would have said that he was prepared in a fundamental way for the sufferings etc, or some other way than a rudimentary fashion. I would drop that second sentence. It seems to me that Erdrich has managed a fantastic double, trivialising war and love.


    1. I know what you mean. She breaks a lot of rules. But I think it works in the context of this novel. The “love” affair is very odd. The woman he loves is actually in love with Chopin and he watches her play piano naked…well…it’s complicated. She has an ability to create a world that is both real and unreal at the same time. As i said, it is almost comic-gothic, but uniquely Erdrich.


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