Voice Friday: Sentences

Recap: We’ve spent three weeks talking about how words affect voice.

Voice Friday: Word Choices
Voice Friday: Word Connotations
Voice Friday: Word Sounds

Today, in discussing voice, I want to return to the two examples with which we started the discussion of words.  But now, we’ll look at sentences.

Voice Friday: Sentences
Voice Friday: Sentence Control

FromboggartThe Boggart by Susan Cooper:

The little boat crept closer, over the grey-green water of the loch. Tommy could hear the slow creaking of the oarlocks, and see the white hair of the lean old man bent over the oars. His father said the MacDevon was one hundred years old, but Tommy had never had the courage to ask if it were true. The MacDevon was a clan chief, the last of his line, and you didn?t ask a clan chief a question like that. ?Good day, Mr. MacDevon.? He caught the bow of the dinghy as it crunched into the small stones of the beach. This was a weekly ritual: the old man?s shopping trip from the island of Castle Keep.

From despereaux
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread

This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive. ?

“Where are my babies?” said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. “Show to me my babies.”

The father mouse held the one small mouse up high. “There is only this one,” he said. “The others are dead.”

“Mon dieu, just the one mouse baby?”

“Just the one. Will you name him?”

“All of that work for nothing,” said the mother. She sighed. “It is so sad. It is such the disappointment.” She was a French mouse who had arrived at the castle long ago in the luggage of a visiting French diplomat. “Disappointment” was one of her favorite words. She used it often.


After a consideration of words, the next level is sentences. Studying sentence patterns is one of the best things I/ve done to improve my writing. Look at our examples. Boggart has only three short sentences and two simple sentences. Despereaux has 24 short sentences, 21 simple sentences.

We can start to describe the differences in the voices of these two pieces when we say that Boggart has a more complicated sentence structure, but simpler diction. Despereaux has a more difficult diction, but very simple sentence structures. In other words, either option can work, depending on the voice demanded by a story. In fact, even within severe restrictions, a strong voice can carry a piece.

Dona Hickey, writing teacher and author of Developing A Written Voice, gives the assignment that writers do a piece using only single syllable words and sentences ten words or less. Given such restrictions, what kind of writing would you expect? Easy readers. Primers. What type of subject matter would you expect to find? Simple subjects. Topics with little emotion.

When I give speeches, I read an example from Hickey?s book entitled, “Pink Old Girls” by Winston Garland. Garland talks about the upcoming death of the “pink old girl” from lung cancer, the “black that preys on pink.” This emotional piece follows the rules of single syllable words and sentences of ten words or less, but tugs at my heart each time I read it.

What I find fascinating is Garland’s ability to vocalize what she attempted to do in creating this voice: “I tried to alternate hard consonant and soft sounds at the end of words placed at the end of sentences. Most of my shortest sentences ended in hard consonants. This adds emphasis.” (Hickey 40).

In other words, Garland is using words to their maximum impact, while concentrating on sentences. In other words, Garland had control of the voice of her piece. It wasn’t a mystical experience of trying to “find” her voice!

Next week, we’ll look at sentences in more detail. For this week , try writing something with only single syllable words and sentences of ten words or less. Try to pack in as much emotion as possible. It doesn’t have to be long–just a couple paragraphs. Post it here–if you want–so we can all see what the exercise produces!

Voice Friday: Sentences
Voice Friday: Sentence Control

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