Come on! Get Your Will Ferrell On

Deconstructing Sentences: The Will Ferrell Effect

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Imagine sitting in an auditorium and listening to a lecture on macroeconomics. The professor is going on and on about consumerism. How Americans buy more than they produce. On, and on, and on. The monotony of the professor’s voice sounds like a Maharishi’s mantra, lulling you toward a deep, blissful sleep. On, and on, and on. To the point where your numbed mind begins to wonder if investing money in this class–along with your 400 other fellow American, college student, consumer, investors . . . yep, the same ones nodding off next to you—was a bad idea.

Now, take this same scenario and pretend the professor is . . . Tom Hardy. (Sorry, I’m still in my dream state at the macroeconomics class.) Okay, I’m keeping Tommy for myself. How about . . . Will Ferrell?

Will Ferrell is up in front of 400 students, striding back and forth, and talking about macroeconomics. Except his voice is animated. Full of inflection, long pauses for effect, and humor. His verbs are sharp and his sentences are varied. The lecture is fast-paced. Engaging. You’re ready to hit the mall after class.

Hmm . . . which lecture do you want to attend?thCAB4TSXN (2)

Today’s blog is on deconstructing sentences. How to take your writing style and employ different sentence structures to make your sentences sing. An examination of ways to avoid monotonous sentences, in favor of entertaining sentences. Sentences that scream Will Ferrell.

Writers put thoughts to words in a way that is comfortable to them. Relying on simple sentences. Or compound sentences with preposition. Or even more complex sentences, using commas, prepositions, and em-dashes. We all have our standard style, developed over time.

Understanding your writing style, your strengths and weaknesses, will better enable you to fix monotonous sentence structures so your paragraphs sizzle.

Sentences that will make your readers take notice.

Excerpt from Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas covering the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This was the day of the reaping.

Sentence analysis:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

Began with an adverb, the subject is the second word, and the direct object (and setting) come after the comma. Tip: Don’t begin every sentence with the subject.

My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas covering the mattress.

Subject with verb, followed by a comma, ING verb, but, and ING verb  Tip: In a sentence with several verbs, vary them. Begin with a past tense verb (or in this case, present tense), use a comma, followed by an ING verb. You can use a preposition—but—and add a second ING verb, as shown above. ING verbs show movement and action. They break up the monotony of a sentence reading the same way.

She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.

Compound sentence with the conjunction AND. Tip: Use these sentences before or after a longer one (or a shorter one). This example is after a longer sentence.

Of course she did. This was the day of the reaping.

Short sentence. Short sentence.  But, they are the most powerful sentences in this excerpt. Why? Reread the excerpt. Most sentences are . . . longer. Intentionally so. Written this way to set-up these two short, more powerful sentences. Tip: Always set-up short sentences to have maximum effect, by either preceding longer sentences or following them.

 

Excerpt from Rachel Gibson’s Rescue Me

Saddie had always been a little . . . off. Different. Not bat-shit crazy different. Not like Mrs. London who collected cats and magazines and cut her grass with scissors. Saddie was more notional. Like the time she got the notion in her six-year-old head that if she dug deep enough, she’d strike gold. As if her family needed the money. Or when she dyed her blond hair shocking pink and wore black lipstick. That was about the time she quit volleyball, too. Everyone knew that if a family was blessed with a male child, he naturally played football. Girls played volleyball. That was the rule. Like an eleventh commandment: Female child shalt play volleyball or face Texas scorn.

Sentence analysis:

Saddie had always been a little . . . off.

Short sentence with the final word emphasized for effect (off), set-up with . . . Tip: It’s the same idea as the short sentence following longer sentences.

Different. Not bat-shit crazy different.

First sentence is supported by one word—different. Followed by another incomplete sentence beginning with a negative (not) and repeating the word different. Tip: Use repetition for effect (repeat words) and begin some sentences with negatives (not).

Not like Mrs. London who collected cats and magazines and cut her grass with scissors. Saddie was more notional.

Repetition for effect, using the negative. Long sentence followed by a short telling sentence. Tip: Yes, you can use “being” verbs . . . which, OMG, tell. But set them up with a longer, descriptive sentence. Use them sparingly.

Like the time she got the notion in her six-year-old head that if she dug deep enough, she’d strike gold. As if her family needed the money. Or when she dyed her blond hair shocking pink and wore black lipstick. That was about the time she quit volleyball, too. Everyone knew that if a family was blessed with a male child, he naturally played football. Girls played volleyball. That was the rule. Like an eleventh commandment: Female child shalt play volleyball or face Texas scorn.

I love this introduction to Saddie. The author uses incomplete sentences effectively because they support a prior established idea. Tip: Begin sentences with Like, Or, That, to show sequencing of information established in prior sentences. The use of a colon at the end is shortening that final sentence to read like three short sentences. Again, short sentences are powerful when preceded by longer ones.

Excerpt from Victoria Dahl’s A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure

The storm had passed only hours before, blanketing the countryside with a half a foot of snow. Moonlight and torch flame glittered and sparkled off the icy garden, and the sight called to Emma Jenson through the hard cold of the window. Nature had reclaimed the tamed bower, swept in and buried the pathways, softened the stark angle of hedges cut to precise corners. This garden, painstakingly shaped by man, now lay hidden under gentle hills and deep drifts of snow, and Emma wondered how it would feel to be so effortlessly smothered. So still.

Her deep sigh fogged the glass and blanked the stark scene. Straightening, she glanced back to the bright whirl of the ballroom. Boredom had set in, and when she grew bored, her mind turned to useless melancholy. Her life was not so bad, after all, or someday, wouldn’t be.

“Lady Denmore!”

Sentence analysis:

The storm had passed only hours before, blanketing the countryside with a half a foot of snow. Moonlight and torch flame glittered and sparkled off the icy garden, and the sight called to Emma Jenson through the hard cold of the window. Nature had reclaimed the tamed bower, swept in and buried the pathways, softened the stark angle of hedges cut to precise corners. This garden, painstakingly shaped by man, now lay hidden under gentle hills and deep drifts of snow, and Emma wondered how it would feel to be so effortlessly smothered. So still.

Hmm, have you caught on to the pattern?  Subject, verb, comma and ING verb. Compound sentence with comma and additional sentence. Followed by a MAGIC THREE sentence. Tip: Use three verbs and images in one sentence with commas to break them up. Three reads well.  Notice how the final two words—so still—are so powerful. This entire paragraph establishes a setting and a mood, but the way the sentences are written is a set-up for the next part.

Her deep sigh fogged the glass and blanked the stark scene. Straightening, she glanced back to the bright whirl of the ballroom. Boredom had set in, and when she grew bored, her mind turned to useless melancholy. Her life was not so bad, after all, or someday, wouldn’t be.

“Lady Denmore!”

Compound sentence. Sentence beginning with ING, followed by comma, and subject/verb. MAGIC THREE—this time, three ideas. Shorter sentence that reads like three very short ones because of the commas.

Lady Denmore! – Short. Her name. And, an exclamation mark. (It can’t get any more powerful than that!)

Excerpt from Suzanne Brockman’s The Unsung Hero

Tom swung his duffle bag down from the overhead rack and shuffled slowly with the other passengers off the commercial flight and out into Boston’s Logan Airport.

Moving slowly was good, especially since—like right now—he still had bouts of dizziness from that head injury that had nearly taken him out of action permanently.

Outside the terminal, the city skyline was muted by the hazy morning sky. Welcome to summer in New England.

Sentence analysis:

Tom swung his duffle bag down from the overhead rack and shuffled slowly with the other passengers off the commercial flight and out into Boston’s Logan Airport.

Compound sentence with additional sequencing verbs: off, out. Masterful!!!

Moving slowly was good, especially since—like right now—he still had bouts of dizziness from that head injury that had nearly taken him out of action permanently.

Begins with ING verb. Broken up (so you get right into the head of the character) using em-dashes. Subject (he) is in the middle of the sentence.

Outside the terminal, the city skyline was muted by the hazy morning sky. Welcome to summer in New England.

Begins with a prepositional phrase. Long sentence followed by short, more powerful one.

Conclusion:

So, the next time you are revising a manuscript, think about how you are using sentences. Have some fun playing around with their structure so they don’t read the same way. Vary them.

Come on—get your Will Ferrell on!

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11 Comments

  1. Jenna Blue

     /  May 14, 2013

    Love your choices in excerpts, Michele! What a good teacher you are! : ) Great idea for a blog topic, thank you!

    Reply
  2. Way cool idea for a blog post, Michele…actually marking up the excerpt like the wonderful teacher you are. Awesome!

    Reply
  3. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  May 14, 2013

    Wow, Michele! Just wow! Thank you SO much for taking the time to deconstruct each of these writing excerpts. Great job analyzing how the mechanics of the language are used to convey emotion or provide the needed punch/emotion/focus to a moment. Honestly, I was never the best English student. All those pesky rules and NAMES for WORDS really drove me nuts! I just wanted to write and express myself. You’ve taking the time to present this in a way I can grasp in an exciting way. Well done, teacher!!!!! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Hi Jenna, I’m glad you found my excerpts (and analysis) useful! It’s so difficult trying to read a book (as a reader) as opposed to reading it (as a writer). The writer-side is ALWAYS stopping and thinking about how authors mix up their sentences for effect. Fun to look at, if you have the time! Cheers, Michele

    Reply
  5. Hi Jaye, I do a similar activity with my 5th graders, where we read openings of their favorite books (they bring them in) and we look at how the author is “varying their sentences”. And . . . as I peeked over their shoulders during the NJASK this week, wouldn’t you know it, they are writing like their favorite authors! Neat, right?! Michele

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  May 15, 2013

      I wish you could be my daughter’s teacher next year!!!!

      Reply
  6. Hi RoseAnn, If you look at your stories, I bet you are already applying these skills . . . naturally. It just READS better, using varied sentences. I don’t get caught up in all the jargon and labels of terms when teaching my students. It’s better that they understand the concept, how they should begin sentences (sometimes) with ing verbs, write complex sentences and simple ones. We had SO MUCH FUN looking at Suzanne Collin’s THE HUNGER GAMES for the writing (and WOW, she did an amazing job!) I suppose at any age, and at any stage in your writing, you learn something. Glad I had my teacher hat on and was able to point out a few skills authors have used.

    Michele

    Reply
  7. Finally, the teacher in you is unleashed! This is a great post. I have to work at mixing up my sentence structure. This is a big help!

    Reply
  8. Hi Maria, Glad you liked it! Funny how every kid in my class loves to write now; guess it’s kind of hard when your teacher gets so excited about it. Hopefully, my excitement shows in my post. Cheers, Michele

    Reply
  9. This was great! You know I always love examples. You’ve given some great tips here. It helps to read it aloud sometimes, I think, to hear the cadence. Some writers really nail this, and reading his or her work is pure poetry. Josh Lanyon comes to mind for me. Or Joanna Bourne.

    Nicely done!

    Reply
  10. Hi Joanna, Thank you. Glad you love the examples, especially as you recommended the Victoria Dahl Historical, of which I used an excerpt from. I agree – Joanna Bourne is masterful with varying sentences. Michele

    Reply

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