Shrunk and White published a little book that is regarded as the ultimate guide for mastery over the written word. The Elements of Style. Authors around the globe swear by it, and while some of the techniques don’t mesh perfectly with the way modern literature is going, I swear by it too. Certain rules about grammar and construction are more fundamental than passing styles or what is considered “fresh.” Every writer should pick up a copy and study its pages well.
Among the most important is how to structure your sentence.
Basically, put the “new” part of the sentence at the end for greatest impact.* I’ve found this to be true of the sentence as much as even the paragraph itself–and on to the page, chapter and entirety of the book. It goes both ways, too, even stretching down to lines of dialogue. Cross media, cross genre, it’s a universal rule that’s rarely better when broken.
Let’s look at some examples:
When Ellen Ripley confronts the Queen Xenomorph in “Aliens”, she boldly steps in front of her and says,
“You, bitch! Get away from her!” … wait that’s not right. See how when we reverse it, it just loses it’s power? “Bitch” is the MEAT of that line. Save it to the last possible moment for most impact.
“Get away from her, you BITCH!”
Those writers knew what they were doing. It’s bold and commanding. But, it doesn’t always have to be some exclamation. It works even in description.
“Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm’s End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden’s fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned the armor and the great antlered helmet of his house, he became a veritable giant.” –George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones.
“Maiden’s fantasy” defines the rest of the sentence. Everything builds to that point and puts the line in context. The next sentence does this as well with “veritable giant,” And the two even work together. We get a sense of The Lord of Storm’s End. He’s a veritable giant out of a maiden’s fantasy. Those are the parts that really stick.
This especially works for the mundane.
“Horses were always her favorite of all the animals.”
works much better as…
“Out of all the animals, her favorite was always the horse.”
Careful ordering of words creates a roller-coaster-like experience when reading. Remove what’s being said and focus on the cadence of the sentence. You want the reader to be thinking: “What is this? What are they getting at? I think I might know. Oh, It’s coming. We’re getting closer. Wow, there’s the punch! … Okay, what’s next?”
It doesn’t have to be the subject of the sentence, but it should be the word or words that sell the idea; the part that’s really defining. The part that’s new. Different. The Oomph!
By putting this part last, it gives each line a sense of satisfaction. They’ve accomplished a TINY journey by reading it and want to know more.
Story theory dictates that the plot will rise to a climax, then drop down slightly, rising to an even higher climax at the end, until it fades off to the FADE OUT or last page. The Hero’s Journey.
I would argue that should we zoom into any one section of that line, we would see lots smaller rises and falls. Each Act would have a climax then fall down again just before the end. So would each scene. And further each section of the scene. Each line delivery. It makes the story dynamic. The ending never drops as far as it started, keeping the plot moving along, but it definitely drops. That last bit of impact changes something and propels the story forward.
*If this really isn’t working in your text, Shrunk and White point out that “the other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence other than the subject becomes emphatic when placed first:
Deceit or treachery she could never forgive.
Yet, even there, the sentence builds to what about deceit and treachery she could never _____.
The most powerful tool a storyteller has in their arsenal is withholding information.