Tag Archives: sentence structure

Layers of depth: The use and abuse of modifiers #amwriting

Depth in a narrative is created by many layers. One layer we must look at involves prose, words we use, and how we phrase things. The way we use modifiers and descriptors plays a significant role in how our work is received by a reader.

depthPart1revisionsLIRF05252021In writing, we add depth and contour to our prose by how we choose and use our words. We “paint” a scene using words to show what the point-of-view character is seeing or experiencing. Yes, we do need to use some modifiers and descriptors.

Modifiers are like any other medicine: a small dose can cure illnesses. A large dose will kill the patient. The best use of them is to find words that convey the most information with the most force.

When we refer to modifiers, what do we mean?

Any word that modifies (alters, changes, transforms) the meaning and intent of another word is a modifier. Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail.

We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” and “besides.”

What are descriptors? Adverbs and adjectives, known as descriptors, are helper nouns or verbs—words that help describe other words. They are easily overused, so these words are often reviled by authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

What is a quantifier? They are nouns (or noun phrases) meant to convey a vague number or an abstract impression, such as: very, a great deal ofa good deal ofa lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which I think of as a thought or idea describing something without physical or concrete existence.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022One of the cautions those of us new to the craft frequently hear are criticisms about the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we habitually use. This can hurt, especially if we don’t understand what the members of our writing group are trying to tell us.

Perhaps the number of modifiers isn’t the problem, but the forms we use fluff up our narrative.

Perhaps you have been told you use too many “ly” words or descriptors. Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? You may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word when speaking.

However, if you have used “actually” to describe an object, check to see if it is necessary. Is the sentence stronger without it?

  • The tree was actually covered in red leaves.
  • Red leaves covered the tree.

Many descriptors are easy to spot, often ending with “ly.” When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly.” A list will pop up in my lefthand margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

  • “ly” words are code words – a kind of mental shorthand in a first draft. In the revision process, they tell us what we need to expand on to fully explore the scene as we originally envisioned.

It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change it to a simpler form or remove it and rewrite the sentence.

Think about it – bare is an adjective, as is barely.

Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You have already spent months writing that novel. Why not take a few days to do the job well?

Sentence structure matters. Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are describing affects a reader’s perception. Adjectives work best when showing us what the point-of-view characters see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Timid WordsIn the above sentence, the essential parts are structured this way: noun – verb (sunlight glared), adjective – noun (cold fire), verb – adjective – noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes). Lead with the action or noun, follow with a strong modifier, and the sentence conveys what is intended but isn’t weakened by the modifiers.

The above scene could be shown in many ways, but a paragraph’s worth of world-building is pared down to 19 words, three of which are action words. This is an area I struggle with, and it occupies most of my attention during revisions.

Shakespeare understood the beauty and the power that contrasting modifiers can add to ordinary prose without making it artificial. Consider this line from his play, As You Like It, written in 1599:

It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. As You Like It, Wm. Shakespeare, 1599.

What brilliant imagery Shakespeare handed us—strong words with powerful meaning: dead, great, reckoning, little. His prose moves us as we read or hear it spoken because he uses words with visual impact.

Most writers know that participating in a critique group requires delicacy and dedication. They know it involves restraint and the ability to allow other authors to write their own work. Most groups don’t micromanage a manuscript because they know how too much input and direction can remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.

These are dedicated people who love reading and want your work to succeed.

As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we must write from the heart. That means using modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they are needed. It’s a balancing act. We must be mindful of the form and the context of how a modifier fits into our phrasing.

The following image is a list of code-words I seek out and re-examine when I begin revising a first draft. Each word points me in the right direction. All I have to do is rephrase that sentence with stronger forms of the “ly” word.

List of common adverbs


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Verbs and the Nouns that love them #amwriting

This week we are continuing the discussion of verbs and how they shape the narrative. Last week I mentioned that I use verbs when creating a character, seeking out the action words each character embodies. Those words illuminate the gut reactions of each character and how they will act and react in each situation.

Verbs there is no tryNow that I have identified who most of my characters are, I am designing the structure of the plot. I need to use actions and events to show the story, but I also must bring out the backstory for my two MCs. I have to shed light on the friction and the attraction and force them together in situations they don’t want to be in. I also have to show them as individuals, independent of each other. As I work on the plot, the verbs that each character embodies will come to me.

Sentences are a marriage of words. A noun is one partner, and the verb is the other. The union of noun and verb will produce offspring—sentences. Modifiers are the in-laws, necessary but meddlesome. They often try to take over and guide the children against the parents’ wishes.

So, to minimize the damage done by intrusive modifiers, we rely on strong verbs and allow the modifiers to have their say only when necessary.

So why are verbs so crucial in shaping the tone and atmosphere of a narrative?

Think about this sentence: Nelson walked away.

We have three words indicating someone has departed, but they don’t show his mood.

Nelson is a person (noun). He performs an action (verb).

That action affects both Nelson and his objective: leaving. Away is an adverb (modifier) denoting distance from a particular person, place, or thing. It modifies the verb, giving Nelson a direction in which to go.

WalkWe can write it several different ways still using only three words, and all of them would indicate that Nelson has left the scene. Each time we substitute a synonym for the word walked, we change the atmosphere of that scene.

Nelson sauntered away. (He departed in a carefree, leisurely manner.)

Nelson strode away. (He walked decisively in a particular direction.)

Nelson stomped away. (Nelson left the scene in a bad mood.)

Nelson ambled away. (He walked slowly.)

Nelson slogged away. (He departed but had to work at it.)

Nelson slipped away. (Nelson departed, but sneakily.)

This is why it’s so important to have a good thesaurus on hand—I want my words to say what I envision. If I choose the correct verbs, my sentences will express my ideas with fewer modifiers.

Many verbs cannot impact a character or object directly. These are called intransitive verbs. They are just as important as transitive verbs because they show a mood or condition, a state of being, or a reflex (instinctive response).

Consider the word “mope.” Mope is an intransitive verb that means dejected and apathetic. It’s an action word that is going nowhere.

Nelson moped. (He was dejected and apathetic.)

We can have our character in a bad mood, but with many nuances that might say what we mean in a more particular way.

Nelson pouted. (He was whiney.)

Nelson languished. (He did nothing and stagnated.)

Nelson sulked. (He was angry and self-pitying.)

Nelson fretted. (He was in a neurotic mood.)

Some intransitive verbs in the family of “mope” are more robust and carry greater force:

Nelson brooded. (He was in a dark mood, obsessing.)

Nelson agonized. (He couldn’t stop thinking about it, suffering.)

When we add a strong intransitive verb to a powerful transitive verb, we have action and mood:

Nelson strode away, brooding. (He left the scene, and someone will suffer.)

transitive verb damon suede quoteThe above examples are basic, a bald telling of actions and moods. They are the core of the paragraph, the central idea. When we strip away the surrounding words, we can see how the variations of a primary verb can change the reader’s perception of an action scene.

Every year, I write the first draft of a novel in November, starting the actual writing on November 1st.

I always begin with an idea for a plot. Usually, I can’t actually visualize how it works until I see who the protagonists are. So, I jot down the premise and start from there. I choose to create a plot with my cast of characters having their primary characteristics in place.

I hope the conflicts and roadblocks will appear to arise organically as if that is what would happen to those people. Up to the end, my MCs must feel uncertain about the outcome. They must fear that failure looms but can’t give up. They must have a well of determination to draw upon.

I must do a certain amount of prep work if I hope to have a coherent plot and believable situations on November 1st. I do this gradually, working on it whenever I’m at a standstill on the current work in progress.

Everyone has hiccups in life, things that take over temporarily and make creative thinking a bit tough. But my work moves ahead because I can always do the technical stuff like plotting and worldbuilding, even when I can’t figure out how to say what I mean.

Previous posts on this subject:

Verbs and Character Creation

Books I own and recommend for further research:

conflict thesaurusThe Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1) (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 8) by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

activateActivate: a thesaurus of actions & tactics for dynamic genre fiction by Damon Suede.


Filed under writing

#amwriting: The Garden Path

Plum Trees in Blossom, Pissaro 1894 via Wikimedia Commons

Plum Trees in Blossom, Pissaro 1894 via Wikimedia Commons

Today we are looking at the second of two creatively named structural errors that can introduce ambiguity to our work. On Monday we looked closely at “squinting modifiers” and today we are walking the “garden path sentence.”

Most of us are aware that many times a sentence is made stronger by the elimination of relative pronouns, such as that, which, and whom. Often, these words are understood and are therefore unneeded.

However, overzealous new authors recovering from a severe ego-bruising at the hands of a writing group sometimes get a little crazy and slash every instance of the “offending word” from their narrative. Such a knee-jerk reaction is ridiculous and can create the “garden-path sentence.”

Spring Hedges in Bauerngarten, Heinrich Vogeler 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

Spring Hedges in Bauerngarten, Heinrich Vogeler 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

“A garden path sentence, such as “The old man the boat,” is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or unintended.

“Garden path” refers to the saying “to be led down the garden path,” meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced.

After reading, the sentence seems ungrammatical and makes almost no sense, requiring rereading to fully understand its meaning after careful parsing.”

pac-man jpgIn this case, confusion arises because we read like Pac-Man eats: one word at a time, as fast as we can, following the line. We attempt to understand sentences as we are reading them. The “garden-path sentence” begins by taking you toward a particular destination, but midway through it takes a turn for the bizarre.

Disambiguation memeThere are two types of garden path sentences.  The first is “locally ambiguous,” meaning that it can be cleared up with minimal changes to the sentence. Many times the addition of a word or punctuation will resolve the issue:

  • “The raft floated down the river sank.”
  • “The raft that floated down the river sank.”
  •  “We told the man the dog bit a medic could help him.”
  • “We told the man whom the dog bit that a medic could help him.”

Wikipedia offers the sentence: “The old train the young fight.”

  • When you add a comma it reads: “The old train, the young fight.” The addition of the comma makes sense of the words.
  • One could also argue that the sentence means “The old train the young to fight.

ambiguityThe other type of garden path sentence is “globally ambiguous” because when it is taken out of context the meaning is still unclear no matter how many times you reread it . It requires a complete rewording.

A sentence should always be understandable. Context is extremely important to the meaning of an ambiguously phrased sentence. What happens to a sentence when you take it out of context? It has to stand alone, and still make sense.

Again, Wikipedia offers an example of confusion: “The cat was found by the shed by the gardener.”  This sentence is open to several interpretations. Perhaps the cat was by the shed, or the shed was by the gardener, or both the cat and the gardener were next to the shed. When this sentence is isolated from its paragraph and taken out of context, the meaning is unclear.

Consider a more active phrasing and reword the sentence to say “The gardener found the cat near the shed.”

The way to resolve the garden-path sentence is to

  • Insert a relative pronoun (such as “that”) for clarity.
  • Insert proper punctuation for clarity.
  • Reword the sentence to make the meaning clear.

 The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

Readers want to read without bumps and hiccups. Anytime they have to stop and reread something you risk losing them. Sentences that are ambiguous stop the eye.

We never want to introduce haziness into our work, and because we wrote it, we sometimes don’t see that it is confusing. If you have asked a beta reader to read a section of your work, and he flags a portion as being unclear, don’t just look at it and wonder why he can’t understand what seems so clear to you.

You must “parse” it. Tear that passage down to its component parts and find out what it is that the reader doesn’t understand. When you take the offending sentences out of their context, you can see if they will stand on their own. If they don’t, a simple rewording may be all that is needed.


Filed under Romance, writer, writing