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I’ve heard this question floating around again recently. It’s good to see most people know the answer now, but a mix of “long enough”, “depends on the scene you’re writing” and “depends on your style” is not really all-encompassing or detailed enough to really identify the deciding factor. That’s what I’m here for.

So what does sentence length achieve? In a word: pace. There are only two tools a writer has to manipulate pace, and they are sentence structure (of which length is a major part) and diction. I’ve done a post on both pace and diction before in my 5 Tips to Improve Your Fiction Writing.

Advocates of long, elaborate sentences are often misguided by the misconception that good writing requires sophisticated language, which in turn requires length and adjectives. These people often make an appeal to authority fallacy and bring up Hemmingway or Tolkien (I mention these two because I hear them brought up the most often). I want to point out two problems with using these authors as examples. First, language has evolved over time. We no longer use Elizabethan English, for example, so it would be inappropriate to write a story with such language. In general, older books will feature much more elaborate sentence structures. This is just a reflection of the language paradigm of their time. Second, Hemmingway and Tolkien actually do use short sentences to create impact and pace. They may not use it as often but if you go flick through one of their books and specifically look for them, you’ll find the sentences I’m talking about.

Thus, we are now at a position where we must agree that sentence length is used to control pace. There is no argument in this. How you use it and how often you use it is entirely up to your own style, but the bottom line is that your decision should be based on what sort of pace you’re trying to achieve in a particular scene.

So, I mentioned that comments like “long enough” weren’t specific enough (though true). What answer would I give? Everything I’ve said so far, but the crux of the argument is that short sentences create more impact and give an impression of action and pace. Further, you can enhance the sense of action and adrenaline by putting more emphasis on action words (verbs – things the characters are actually doing). On the other side of the spectrum, an emotional scene is less likely to have short, action sentences than a fight scene. It would focus less on action words and more on inner thoughts, and emotional tells. Introspective and emotional sentences would be more appropriate than short, sharp sentences. Just an afterword, remember to use all techniques with an even hand. Don’t go lathering on the short sentences. Or. You’ll. Be. Narrating. Like. This.

In short, the length of your sentences should be dependent on the scene you are writing. I’ve identified the two ends of the spectrum: short sentences for fight/action scenes and long sentences for emotional/slow scenes. I’ve also identified certain types of words you should (or should not) focus on, such as action words and introspective words (words relating to inner thoughts and emotions). Now it’s up to you guys to fill in the blanks and add your own flavour to it.

P.S. I debated adding examples to this post to show you but I didn’t feel like it in the end. There’s an example in my 5 Tips to Improve Your Fiction Writing. Otherwise, just read any good book and you should be able to identify what I’m saying.

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I’ve been noticing another wave of incorrectly used semicolons. I joined another writing forum to see if I could meet any interesting writers, concepts or tips, and to provide advice. It seems a lot of amateur writers are caught in that transition phase between simplistic writing and using linguistic features (such as punctuation, and in this case semicolons) to spruce up their narrative. Unfortunately, this transition phase tends to see a lot of errors.

So let’s lay down some quick terminology. You should all know what a semicolon is. A comma splice is when two sections of a sentence are joined together by a comma when they can be standalone sentences by themselves (known as a main clause/independent clause). By the way, if you omit the comma altogether (so it’s just two sentences stuck on the ends of one another with no punctuation in between) it’s known as a fused sentence.

I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to use semicolons.

That’s an example of a comma splice. Now there’s a number of ways to fix it.

  1. Separate it into two sentences. I’m still learning about punctuation. Today I learned how to use semicolons.
  2. Use a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but or, yet, so). I’m still learning about punctuation, and today I learned how to use semicolons.
  3. Use a subordinate conjunction (because, since, once, as, if, unless, though, etc.). Because I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to used semi colons.
  4. Use a semicolon. I’m still learning about punctuation; today I learned how to use semicolons.

Let’s just solidify what those examples should have taught you (if you didn’t already know) and refocus on semicolons. The two clauses separated by the semicolon have to be independent clauses. They have to be sentences by themselves. It’s very easy to remember but oddly hard to follow.

On an ending note, I’d like to point out that sometimes rules can be broken. I’m a big advocate of bending the rules for stylistic effect but I’m tired of seeing people use this as an excuse. If you break a rule to create rhetorical effect, fair enough. Just make sure there’s a distinct purpose for you breaking the rule, and that even an idiot can tell you did it on purpose. And don’t overdo it. It’s only special if it’s rare.

While I’m on the topic, here’s another excuse that really ticks me off. Using cummings as an excuse to ignore rules of English. For those that don’t know, cummings was a poet famous for (among other things) ignoring capitalisation in his poems. That’s why people often don’t capitalise his name; it’s sort of like a weird little tribute to him. However, let’s get this straight. First, he wrote poetry, which already bends a lot of rules. Second, he became famous. It’s very difficult to criticise the successful. Third, you are not cummings. There are literally tens of thousands of other writers competing with you (in any sense of the word) and not many people have even heard of your name. You will not be excused for breaking rules. At least not until you become famous first.

This is one that people often mix up, and for good reason! A parody is a type of satire. Satire is the umbrella term, and involves a wide range of satirical techniques. There’s no such thing as a “parodical” technique. I guess in this sense, you could be excused if you call a parody a satire, because technically that would be true, but specificity is a hallmark of true knowledge. If someone showed you a picture of a flounder and asked you if you knew what it was, and you said “yes, it’s a fish”. Well …

So, the difference? Well, the commonly accepted difference is that a satire is more subtle. How? It’s sort of like the difference between metaphors and symbols. A metaphor is explained and made clear in the very sentence it is introduced. A symbol is never explained and thus open to interpretation. Similarly, a parody is always self-evident. The best examples are parody movies like Scary Movie, Vampires Suck and Meet the Spartans. You know straight away what they’re imitating; it’s blatant and exaggerated, and it’s precisely that hyperbole that creates the humour.

But a satire? A satire is subtle. It’s the gentleman of the mocking genre. Often, the uninformed will not even realise the text is a satire and will just read the surface as if it were a story on its own. The example that comes to mind here is Animal Farm, a classic by George Orwell. It is a criticism of communism and its failings, and identifies the nature of greed and megalomania as inherent personality flaws that will always undermine any attempt at equality. Of course, there’s more to the story than just that, but those are the main overarching themes. However, the uninformed would just presume it was a story about animals on a farm that ended up trying to run the place by themselves and live like humans. A funny little fiction, but not something as deep as political and sociological commentary.

If you’re familiar with any of the texts I’ve mentioned, you should be able to identify a key difference between parodies and satires. While both engage in ridicule, the method by which they do so is different. If we were to classify the humour as a point of reference, parody would be slapstick. It’s in your face; it uses hyperbole to blow things to ridiculous proportions and it’s meant to be lighthearted. Satire on the otherhand is clever, witty, intelligent humour. It uses references, symbols, themes and similarity to create humour, but the humour is more of a dark chuckle when you get it. It’s not lighthearted, it’s usually something heavy and deep, the kind of stuff that makes you question the intelligence of your leaders in politics or the nature of human society or our shortcomings as a species. It’s a sad moment of realisation that causes the laugh. Sometimes, there’s no humour at all; just realisation.

Notice I’ve mentioned similarity and imitation. Here’s another key difference, one that’s far easier to remember for you guys to keep in mind. A parody will mimic something blatantly. The characters and plot will be very similar (if not exactly the same). If you’ve seen the underlying text, there’s no way you’d not realise it’s a parody. Even if you haven’t most of the time things are so overblown that you’d realise it was a parody anyway. Satires don’t mimic things; at least not blatantly. They copy scenarios and concepts but replace everything so that only the underlying skeleton remains. Take Animal Farm for example. You’d never be able to tell a bunch of talking animals who want things on the farm to be more fair to everyone were actually representative of communist society. At least not unless you read very deeply into it.

 

Again, a short story in warm up for my novel. Again, first draft; excuse any errors. Experimenting with repetition in this one. Please let me know if you feel it’s too overdone.

————————————————————–

Rain

There was a lone man walking in the rain.

It was the well into the night and she would never have seen him if she hadn’t been gazing aimlessly out the window. Raindrops hammered the house relentlessly, filling her ears with a sound like static. Her vision was hampered by the crisscross of the rain outside, driven at different angles by the wind. But a small patch of illumination struggled bravely under a streetlight and surely, there was a man walking through it.

What was he doing out in that kind of weather? It was getting dangerous.

The man reached the edge of a faint circle of light and melded into the darkness. She waited breathlessly for him to reappear at the next light.

As she waited, her eyes began to widen and her heartbeat began to race. It was so mysterious and exciting, and so very surreal. Surely, he knew what he was doing. Nobody in their right mind would walk through such dangerous weather.

Just as the man reappeared, a strong gust blew a sheet of rain into him. He staggered as she heard a crescendo in volume. By the time the sound faded back to its usual static, the man had disappeared again.

She felt uncertain now. Maybe he needed help? She couldn’t see him clearly but what reason could anyone have to be out at this time in the middle of a storm? What if nobody else had seen him except her? She could be the only one that could help him right now.

As she hesitated, a flash of lightning lit up the darkness. She saw the man hunched over a bundle in his arms. He was wide eyed, as if he were in panic, but determined to protect whatever he was holding.

He disappeared then promptly reappeared again at the streetlight right outside her house. She could see a tiny hand reach out of the bundle as he struggled on. The road was ahead of him; she lived on the corner of an intersection. He didn’t slow a beat as he continued on his path.

A peal of thunder crashed overhead, making her jump. It rang and crunched and crashed in her ears. It drowned out all sound for two long seconds as she saw a pair of headlights appear out of nowhere. They collided with the man and just as suddenly, both were gone from sight.

She screamed.

Running out of her room, she crashed into her mother who was coming in to check on her.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”

“There was a man! Outside, in the rain! He’s dead. He just got hit by a car!” Inexplicably, tears overpowered her and she couldn’t breathe. As she struggled to regain control of her heaving throat, her mother pulled her close.

“Even after all these years you still can’t forget how your daddy died?”

A moment of surprise hit her. Her dad had never crossed her mind. “No! I mean it; there really was a man outside!”

“It’s ok baby, it was a terrible experience for you. And it happened on a night just like this.”

Angry now, she shoved her mother back and ran to the window. It was too dark to see anything, so she pressed her cheek against the cold pane and craned her neck for a better view.

“I swear … I really did see him.”

Her mother shook her head sadly. “It’s just the rain, dear. It’s a horrible, strange rain that brings back bad memories.”

She heard her door click shut behind her but she kept peering out the window. Nothing. No sign of anything.

Maybe it really had been just the rain.

 

Haha. Colon.

Don’t have time for a post so I just wanted to share this funny picture for those of you who like your grammar.

These two are easily confused with each other, and it’s no wonder why! The two are related to each other, blurring the line between. I was guilty of using the two almost interchangeably in my early years of high school, until I read this:

“A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something.” – Susanne Langer

Let’s go through a quick definition. A metaphor is a rhetorical device in which the traits of something are attributed to something else, but not in a literal sense. It helps to understand that a simile is a type of metaphor, so let’s take a look at an example:

“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walk o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

The coming of morning is likened to being clad in a “russet mantle” (where russet is a red-orange tinted brown). Now obviously, this is not literal. Morning does not wear any clothing. The russet mantle is a metaphor for the rising sun and the colour of dawn.

Let’s look at symbols now. These are not used in rhetoric or discourse, and is usually a specific thing that represents some other thing or concept. Symbols, unlike metaphors, are not specific or definitive in their interpretation. They carry a wide range of ideas through generations in an almost meme like fashion. Because of this, the symbol’s meaning must be inferred from context. For example, anything long and roughly cylindrical can be considered a phallic symbol; whether or not it was intended that way depends entirely on the context.

Definition aside, this is what really helps me remember the difference. Metaphors are like similes, they liken the principle term to something else (whether it be a thing, idea or process) to endow the principle term with characteristics reminiscent of that which it has been likened to. A symbol is much more succinct; it can be a single thing (usually an object but not limited to one) that is not directly given meaning through comparison (like a simile/metaphor) but whose meaning is created by the context in which that symbol is used. Basically, that means I don’t have to explain a symbol because that’s for the reader to determine for themselves based on what’s been written, whereas a metaphor must be directly explained by the text.

As promised, a literary post. This one is a common misconception. I was disappointed when it appeared on the Big Bang Theory because the show is normally fairly accurate when making its witty jokes. I’m not sure why this one is so persistent when all grammarians agree that this claim is false.

So, what’s a preposition? Well, simply put it’s a word that creates a relationship with another word. Here are a few common ones: for, of, about, in, to, with, on, at, by, after, over, etc.

To use the Big Bang Theory’s example, Dennis Kim the genius Korean boy tells Leonard that his English is pretty good, except for the tendency to end his sentence with a preposition. Leonard replies: “What are you talking about?” (Which ends with a preposition).

Now, is this wrong? Certainly not. To avoid ending with prepositions, one would have to talk like Yoda. It would be “About what are you talking?”.

Apparently this convention for not ending sentences with prepositions began in the 18th century when some grammarians believed that English should follow Latin grammar. Regardless, it is not wrong to do it.

The only time you shouldn’t end with a preposition is when that preposition is extraneous (unnecessary). An example would be “Where are you at?”, where the “at” is unnecessary because “Where are you?” is perfectly proper by itself.

I’m just here to quickly express a little gripe I have. It may seem like nitpicking but it ruffles my feathers when people use the word “inception” to mean something multi-faceted. Even little amalgamations like “forkception” annoy me because they operate on the misunderstanding of the actual word, inception. No, it does not mean mind fucked, or something in something in something, or confusing or anything close to those. Inception is, quite simply, a noun denoting the start/beginning/commencement of something. To my great anguish, dictionary.com has now included this definition due to the movie’s popularity:

3. (in science fiction) the act of instilling an idea into someone’s mind by entering his or her dreams.

I just want everyone to know that definition is wrong, and if it ever becomes an acceptable usage of the word inception, it will be due to society’s overarching ignorance of the English language forcing academics to bow to stupidity and amend definitions (much the same way “swag” is constantly used incorrectly).

So yes, everyone is doing it. Stand out by being one of the few intellectuals that realises everyone is wrong.

With the advent of the computer, more and more writers are using word programs to write. The convenience and speed are incredibly helpful, but it’s come at the cost of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation.

This time, I’d just like to draw attention to the three types of dashes.

Hyphen:

This is a form of punctuation used to separate compound words, such as water-powered or heat-seeking. This is the minus key on standard keyboards and is noticeably shorter in length. Originally, I believe hyphens were meant to be slightly diagonal as we can see above, but now they’ve been mixed up and confused so much that it’s become interchangeable with a dash. Hyphens are appropriate from most word breaks and compounding (including hyphenating telephone numbers).

En Dash:

In typography, “en” is a unit of length around the width of the letter “N”. The En Dash gets its name from this by being roughly that wide. It is used to describe a range of values or distance. For example, the range: people between ages 18 – 30 would use an En Dash. This blog doesn’t actually auto-correct the length of dashes so my dash up there is the same size as a hyphen, which is wrong. I could copy and paste one to be correct but I thought that it would be a good example of how this typographical standard remains ignorant to most. In terms of distances, the En Dash sort of replaces the word “to”, such as: the Sydney-Tokyo flight was delayed.

Em Dash:

Similar to the En Dash, this gets its name from it’s length being that of the letter “M”, which is roughly twice the length of an “N”. The Em Dash is used to denote parenthetical elements to a sentence, similar to using commas as a parenthetical marker. As the word parenthetical comes from parenthesis, some of you may already know what I mean by this. For those that don’t, I’ll have to use an example.

The building, still burning from the attack, began to crumble.

The two commas are used to describe some attribute of the subject that may not be directly a part of the sentence. Similarly, the Em Dash can be used for the same purpose, but is often used to denote abrupt parenthetical elements.

The building – a burning and crumbling mess of shattered stone and woodwork – was no longer the proud fortress it had once been.

Due to its abrupt nature, the Em Dash is also used in fiction to denote interruption in dialogue, such as: “Hey Bob, what was that sou-“. Again, wordpress doesn’t correct it to the proper length dash so just take note that even though I used a hyphen, it should be an Em Dash.

So just remember guys, not all dashes are the same! Make sure you’re using the right one, or at least understand the difference.

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