Through the Tollbooth welcomes guest blogger, Vanessa Ziff Lasdon who reminds us that great writing begins with great sentences.
Ready for today’s grammar lesson?
Arrange these phrases and punctuation marks to build a complete sentence. (Note: just because Harry’s name is capitalized does not necessarily mean he begins the sentence)
holding his broken glasses up to his nose
covered in soot
Harry got gingerly to his feet
, , , , .
Lots of ways to arrange these pieces, right? I count ten at least.
A sentence has to have some basic parts in order to be complete and carry a message. I call this base part (the subject and verb), the Skeleton, the bare bones of a sentence.
The extra stuff in a sentence, the Tools you choose to add in or leave out, I call that the Flesh - the meat and muscles – what makes a sentence uniquely yours. Consider humans: similar in our skeleton structure, but what makes us, us? Our flesh and how we carry it.
Let’s look at the original sentence by J.K. Rowling: “Dizzy, bruised, covered in soot, Harry got gingerly to his feet, holding his broken glasses up to his nose.”
Notice the one part of the sentence we can’t live without: “Harry got gingerly to his feet.” If we removed this Skeleton, our sentence would cease to be complete.
Notice, also, how many ways you can add, subtract, or arrange Fleshy Tools around the Skeleton. Each time you do, you alter the content and style of your sentence.
Subject + Verb = Skeleton (basic, but necessary)
Tools = Flesh (extra details that dazzle!)
Skeleton + Flesh = a more awesome sentence!
Now there are 3 types of Fleshy Tools:
Words Phrases Dependent Clauses
And there are also 3 ways to arrange those Fleshy Tools:
- Openers (before the subject) – Spellbound, she opened the door.
- Closers (after the verb) – The dog jumped into the pool, splashing mightily.
- S-V Splits (in between the subject & verb) – Joe, squinting in the sunlight, pointed at the kite.
Now, if our job is to flesh out our skeleton sentences with more content and style, then we need Tools we can arrange in our sentences that enhance our nouns and verbs.
The 4 Fleshy Tools That Enhance Nouns
1. Prepositional Phrases (add details about time & place)
She wandered along the river that wound around the woods.
2. Appositives (define a noun in a new way)
She chose James, the second youngest, who loved to read.
3. Participial Phrases (add energy & action using –ing verbs)
The snow swirled, blurring his vision.
4. Adjective Clauses (answer what a noun has or does)
That night, he kept a fire going, which blazed until dawn.
(For more details on Fleshy Tools that Enhance Nouns, see Vanessa’s Grammar Tool in Google Docs using the link at the end of the post.)
And The 2 Fleshy Tools That Enhance Verbs
5. Compound Verbs (add a series of energetic actions)
A burning limb fell into the pit, struck the water, hissed like a snake, and went out.
6. Adverb Clauses (answer how, when, or under what condition an action occurred)
Lila could focus more, if only the hammering would stop.
(For more details on Fleshy Tools that Enhance Verbs, see Vanessa’s Grammar Tool on Google Docs using the link at the end of the post.)
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I know where to put the commas?
A: You will almost always place commas around your Fleshy Tools. That’s because, a.) They are add-ons to a sentence and b.) When you read the sentence out loud, it just sounds right.
Q: Can I add more than one Fleshy Tool to a sentence?
A: Be my guest. Add multiple Fleshy Tools to one noun or one verb, a single Fleshy Tool to every noun in the sentence or every verb, one Fleshy Tool to just one special noun or verb…
Q: Please, do I have to call this stuff ‘Skeletons’ and ‘Fleshy Tools’? It’s a little weird.
A: Call them Wilma and Fred for all I care. Just try it out.
Q: Umm…How Do I Remember All This?
A: Easy. Save this post + download Vanessa’s Grammar Tool in Google Docs using the link below (originally used for grades 5-8, but useful for all) & keep it tableside when you revise and edit.
Q: Why should I care? (ie: Why are you intentionally trying to make my brain hurt?)
A1: Because grammar fundamentals help us break the rules with panache.
A2: Because you control the content and style of Every. Single. Sentence. (So, may as well say exactly what you mean, whether explicitly, in metaphor, or through innuendo.)
A3: Because sentence by sentence, your writing adds up to equal your VOICE, and your emotional impact on the reader.
A4: Because even though your sentence choices will depend on your character’s motivation and personality, as well as the particular plot circumstances, it is still essential for you, good, dear writer to:
- Cut dead flesh that adds length and clutter, not value and meaning
- Replace fluff and blah nouns or verbs with focused, energized varietals
- Enhance each sentence with such tools as the 6 you learned today
- Read like a writer and hone your craft. Study and imitate the skeletons and flesh of your favorite sentences. Get a feel for how decisions on arrangement, word choice, punctuation, and length impact the meaning, emotion, imagery, and musicality of a sentence.
More Questions? Drop a line in the comment section. I promise a prompt response.
Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is a teacher and the founder of W.O.R.D. Ink, an L.A.-based educational and editorial services company. A 2007 MFA grad of Vermont College of Fine Art, she has a middle grade novel and a young adult fantasy WIP, and is represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger. Vanessa’s blog W.O.R.D. of the Week explores the power of words through writing practice, observations, revision techniques, and discoveries. Connect with Vanessa on Facebook and Twitter.