Building Blocks: Avoiding Weak Sentence Construction

This month our editors are tackling Fatal Flaw #3: Weak Construction. Often fiction sags and wilts due to lackluster word choice, uninteresting or incorrect sentence structure, and use of passive voice and vagueness. Editor Rachel Starr Thomson kicks off this month’s flaw with an introduction to the topic.

Annie Dillard wrote that one who wants to be a writer should like sentences. In reality, I think, most of us write because we have stories to tell, but the love of words (and sentences, and paragraphs) must come into it, or else we would all be making movies instead instead of writing books.

Along the way we learn that not every sentence is created equal: that our words and how we string them together will give life to the stories we tell or drain them dry.

Thankfully, while natural talent and a good ear certainly help, good sentence writing is not some mystical skill that only the most devoted Jedi will ever attain. This month’s topic is weak sentence construction—or more specifically, how to avoid it.

To Be Inging, There Was Passive Vagueness

Okay, that nonsense subhead was fun to write. I admit it. Let’s watch its parts in action:

BEFORE:

The ramshackle mansion was being built on a hilltop. In the trees birds were singing and the leaves were rustling under a sky that was sunny and clouds that were puffy and white. Nails were hammered sharply into boards while bricks were laid. It was a beautiful, pristine day. The work was coming along. Filling the air, the sounds of construction were encouraging. Laying aside his tool, the workers were waiting for him.

AFTER:

Garth stood on the hilltop, arms folded, gazing on the workers and the ramshackle mansion rising at their hands. The striking, churning, buzzing, scraping sounds of construction drowned out the songs of birds in the trees. Dark-skinned slaves hammered nails into boards and laid bricks one by one as the sun shone down on them from a pristine blue sky.

He laid aside his hammer, encouraged by their progress. The workers awaited him.

The main problems of the “Before” paragraph can be broken down as follows:

  • Overuse of “be” verbs (be, being, been, is, am, are, was, and were)
  • Overuse of the past progressive (aka past continuous) tense—the “ing” verbs
  • Overuse of the passive voice
  • Vague descriptors

I use the word overuse when addressing these problems because “be” verbs, past progressive, and passive voice all have their place in our writing. Artists will use all shades, not only primary colors. But overuse—or just plain bad use—of any of these is death on vivid storytelling.

Be verbs. The eight forms of the verb “be”—otherwise known as state-of-being verbs—are useful, necessary little words without which English would hardly function. It’s a great mistake to try to excise them from our writing vocabularies completely. (And contrary to popular editorial legend, the use of a “be” verb does not automatically constitute passive voice.)

In storytelling, however, the state-of-being verbs can be a problem because they do just that: they state being. They do not show action. They do not move, or act, or really describe. They are just there. And nine times out of ten, they can be replaced by a stronger verb.

So rather than, “She was at home,” you might try “She waited at home,” or “She stayed at home,” or “She twiddled her thumbs at home, wishing with all her might that she were somewhere else.” A “sky that was sunny” becomes “a sunny sky,” and “clouds that were puffy” become “puffy clouds.” “There was a man on the hill” becomes “A man stood on the hill.” Word count drops, rhythm improves, and images grow vivid.

The “be” verbs also act as helpers for past progressive verbs. Rather than simply stating that an action happened, a past progressive (or past continuous) verb traces its action—it shows that is “is happening.” So we get “was being,” “were singing,” “were rustling,” “was coming,” “were encouraging, “were waiting.”

At times you may want to stress the continuation of an action. In that case past progressive is fine. But normally, the simple past form of the verb will be more effective: sang, rustled, came, encouraged, waited. “Was being” is completely replaced by wording that SHOWS the mansion being built.

The forms of “be” show up again in the use of passive voice. This is actually the biggest problem with the “Before” paragraph, far outweighing the others. Reading it, you might wonder, “Who the heck are these people? There’s no one in this scene!”

The mansion might be raised by phantoms, for all we can see:

The ramshackle mansion was being built . . . by whom? Nails were hammered sharply into boards . . . by whom? Bricks were laid . . . by whom? Who was encouraged by the sounds of construction? Who lays aside his hammer? There isn’t a single actor in the whole paragraph; instead, every noun is acted upon. That is the difference between passive and active voice.

Even passive voice has its place in fiction: it’s quite effective, for example, to create surrealism or suggest shock. But active voice acts, and that makes it by far the stronger mode of construction. The “After” paragraph has people, real characters, doing real things.

Which brings us, finally, to the problem of vagueness. Passive voice and state-of-being verbs contribute to making a scene vague; so does past progressive with its tendency to suggest that nothing is ever really finished or going anywhere definite. But here nouns, adjectives, and adverbs all come into play as well:

The more general the wording, the less vivid it will be. The more concrete and specific, the more vivid. Specifics make a movie out of mud.

In the “After” paragraph, therefore, we have Garth, a man with a name; we have dark-skinned slaves, a hammer, sounds that are not just “sounds of construction” but that buzz, scrape, churn, strike, and drown out other sounds.

Strong verbs, active voice, concrete nouns and modifiers: all make for scenes that move, that are vivid, that create stories out of sentences and invite us in.

Your turn:

Has this post given you a better sense of how to construct active, effective sentences? Has it changed your understanding of “passive voice” or helped you understand how these sentence constructions might be used to “shade” a scene rather than as its primary colors? Can you identify weak verbs, vague descriptors, or poor choices of tense in your own writing?

17 Responses to “Building Blocks: Avoiding Weak Sentence Construction”

  1. Christy Distler March 4, 2015 at 6:45 am #

    Excellent advice, Rachel!

  2. Rachel Starr Thomson March 4, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Thanks, Christy!

  3. Catherine Babbitt March 4, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate the reminder, because even though I know this the “be” verbs sneak in and take over, so when I’m revising it is useful to have your article at the forefront of my mind.

    • Rachel Starr Thomson March 5, 2015 at 8:38 am #

      Thanks, Catherine! Keep in mind that the “be” verbs themselves are good, useful, and necessary; it’s all how you use them.

  4. Carole Raschella March 4, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    This is an excellent article and I agree with all points, with one exception:

    It’s sad but true that many people think movies make themselves, that the actors show up and create the words as they speak.

    I was a screenwriter for 25 years and resent the implication that the dialog I wrote is on a lesser scale than the written word. In a film script, your entire “Garth stood on the hilltop” paragraph is merely a description of the onscreen image or action, but it’s the words a character speaks that are responsible for driving the story.

    Tightening up a poorly written, rambling sentence is essential in both genres, I agree, but scripted dialog can sometimes convey information and describe the character in a very few words. “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” “We need a bigger boat.” Or even one. “Rosebud.”

    In my present career as an artist, I compare it to the difference between a photorealistic drawing and a cartoon. The former may seem harder to do, but if a cartoonist, limited to a few simple lines, misplaces even one, the entire image is ruined.

    When it comes to telling stories and the love of words, there is no difference between writing a script or a novel, between bare bones simplicity or elaborate complexity. One is not superior to the other.

    • Rachel Starr Thomson March 5, 2015 at 8:41 am #

      Carole, thanks so much for adding that corrective! I really appreciate the perspective here.

      When I wrote “making movies” (rather than “writing movies” or “writing screenplays”) I had in mind some friends who produce and direct films. They hire screenwriters (because they know they don’t have the skill set and that a good script is ESSENTIAL to making a good movie), but they personally deal in images, music, and sequences, not in words.

      That’s the difference I had in mind–not the difference between writing a book or writing a screenplay.

      And that is why I absolutely agree with and appreciate your input :).

  5. Carole Raschella March 4, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    My previous post left out a quote from the original article, which was that if we didn’t have a love for words, we’d be writing movies rather than books. Without it, my post seems to have no point.

  6. Carole Raschella March 4, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    My previous post left out a quote from the original article, which was that if we didn’t have a love for words, we’d be writing movies rather than books. Without it, my post seems to have no point.

  7. Cheri March 6, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    It isn’t ‘who laid aside his tool?’ that’s wrong with the sentence ‘Laying aside his tool, the workers were waiting for him.’ As the sentence is constructed, the workers laid aside his tool. This is alarming, since it now gives the impression that a) the workers took the tool away from him, whoever he was and b) they are waiting for him with possibly evil intent, since they took away his tool.

    Improper subject of the leading participial phrase is one of my pet peeves, and can make me throw a fit when I read it in someone else’s writing. (If it’s in my own writing, it’s a grave oversight and worthy of gnashing my teeth.) I’d say if someone doesn’t understand the construction, they ought to not use it at all rather than risk such a gaffe.

    • cslakin March 6, 2015 at 8:43 am #

      You’ll notice that incorrect phrase (dangling participle) is in the Before section and has been rewritten in the After section. Yes, it is wrong, and weak construction as well. Too often writers use participial phrases to start their sentences (I’ve written some posts on this in the Say What? section), which in themselves are not necessarily wrong or weak. But overuse of them, and having the wrong subject following the phrase, creates problems.

  8. KAREN MACDOUGALL March 7, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    Excellent post! You hear these bits of advice but to actually have an example and have it deconstructed makes it a whole lot easier to see and understand.

  9. Catie March 9, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Excellent post! A lot of writers with not enough knowledge and experience that write blogs on writing get the passive voice confused with past continuous, which I find really, really irritating. They go by the logic that, since it’s continuous, it’s not “active enough”, so it must be passive. Or maybe the “was” confuses them. But they have started using the term “passive voice” for every kind of structure that makes the writing not immediate enough, which only serves to spread more confusion on the matter. Another thing that goes with it is the claim that passive voice (or their understanding of it) should be avoided like the plague. No, it just needs to be used properly, like you said. That’s why this blog is one of the few I still follow–you all know what you’re talking about.

    Just a quick comment on your “before” passive example: you said the problem was that the actors were missing. An inexperienced writer might think that’s easily fixed by adding those actors: “The ramshackle mansion was being built on a hilltop by a group of slaves.” The lack of actors is solved, yes, but it’s still a weak sentence because, well, it’s passive. It’s much more engaging to read about someone doing something, than something being done to someone, makes the reader feel she’s not really participating (not to mention that “by” sounds so awkward). So the lack of an actor is not the only problem of passive voice (although it is a major problem in your “before” example).

  10. Catie March 9, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    And yeah, I’m also one of those people that need a constant reminder to use stronger verbs than “be” :).

  11. Kyanna Kitt March 20, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    Honey, my blogs give me headaches. I am not even kidding. I just don’t want to sound like a robot. I want my work to sound like a person. I want it to sound like I am speaking when the reader is reading. Does this make sense? Instead I have a bunch of questionable issues and I just don’t know how to go about clearing this rigmarole up. :]

    • cslakin March 20, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

      Writing a blog showcases one kind of voice. It took me a while to find my writing style for my blog, which is a different topic than general weak sentence structure. I often enjoy seeing writers forego the expected or typical style for something a bit more personal and unique. I’m not sure what you mean about “questionable issues.” Do you want to elaborate?

  12. y.t.w. December 6, 2015 at 1:59 am #

    i liked the first one better. the ‘before’. everyone now writes in the ‘after’ highly decorated sentences, who’s purpose is to stretch the book. this being said, I’m Kurt Vonnegut fan, that might explain why I like the first passage better, and Kurt is an example that the first passage way of writing works just as fancier and more common does.

    • y.t.w. December 6, 2015 at 2:01 am #

      *just as fancier and more common second one does. sorry, ate apart of the sentence

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