S=Structures of Language (Feb 20)

Use words to make your characters all too real // Shutterstock

It takes a certain amount of hubris (and the craft mentioned in books like BURROWAY) to write on anything.  In doing so, certain truths become inescapable.  The most paramount truth is this: you don’t know much.

To write, you are trying to capture life as you know it.  Then you recreate it for someone else.  Writing is work, work done on a page and in your mind and in your heart.  We offer what we know to you.

First off, there is evidence that the structure of language shapes how you write (and how you think).  Let’s save the ‘thinking’ part for people who deal with language and the mind.  To begin, we will touch on how English moves to figure out language on the page.

Sentences in English go from ‘subject’ to ‘verb’ and, often, an ‘object’.   This is important because it tells you the underlying structure which holds English together.  Other languages work in different ways.  Japanese features a structure ordered in this way: ‘subject’-‘object’-‘verb’.  In essence, a Japanese reader has to get all the way to the end of a sentence – through its subject and all the situational conditions – before the verb tells you what happened and how. 

So what does this mean in English?  Readers expect to the subject (who did a thing) and the verb (what was done and how) as soon as possible.  This appears deceptively simple.    Start with the subject, right?  Got it!

Beyond this, though, a sentence needs more.  A phrase or clause must come first to put the subject and verb in a certain time or place, say the action happened in a particular manner.  Maybe it is a simple phrase like ‘On Tuesday’.  Or a clause like ‘When he returned to the boat’.  Sometimes many phrases or clauses are tied to the subject.

On the first page of Madame Bovary, writer Gustave Flaubert introduces a character as such:

Still standing well back, in the corner behind the door, so that he was almost invisible, the new boy was a country lad of about fifteen who towered over the rest of us.

Each piece of the situation is short, focused, and reveals one aspect of the ‘new boy’ and his situation.  The fact that it is grammatically correct will make your grizzled English teacher smile; the hidden fact is that each phrase or clause both ties to the subject and is no more than six words long.  

Readers in English look for the subject and the verb.  Anything that comes before has to be concise (no more than six words long) and tied to the subject of the sentence.  Keep it simple … and you are on your way.

LEARN Read seven examples of how to describe a character here. Study them well.

USE Now, pick out two types of examples. Use one to describe a person you see but have never met . . . then another to describe how that person might see you.


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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