The dreaded staccato sentence!!!

As you pour out your heart you need to resist writing in short sentences…or “staccato sentences”, as I think of them because they tend to disrupt the flow, and can become tiring to read.  More importantly, if you intend to submit your work for publication, an editor will ask you to fix this style of writing.  So do it now, before you have to re-edit a big manuscript!

When we write erotic stories, there’s a tendency for us to become excited (if we don’t then maybe the story isn’t that great!), and that can lead to us writing in short, staccato sentences.  This was a major piece of feedback I received from Pink Flamingo Publications about my work when I first submitted a manuscript.  Here’s a trivial, non-erotic example (unless you happen to be turned on by hot beverages)…

I filled up the kettle with water.  Then I switched it on.  I waited for it to boil.  Then I poured the boiling hot water over the teabag.

Now don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for this kind of prose, but if every “action sequence” in the book was written that way it would soon become quite tiring to read, right?  What we need to do is make the words flow more smoothly by joining together actions or ideas that belong together – like this…

I filled up the kettle with water, switched it on, waited for it to boil and then poured the boiling hot water over the teabag.

It’s still not exactly great literature, but at least the words flow.

Here are a few more examples from the first draft of “Making Plans for Nigel”; the “Before” examples are taken from the versions I first posted on the web, and the “After” examples have been re-written for publication here on this site.

Before:

Nigel was in the kitchen when she came through the door.  He quickly took her case with one hand and slipped his other arm around her.  He kissed her fiercely on the lips.

After:

Nigel was in the kitchen when she came through the door, and he quickly took her case with one hand, slipped his other arm around her, and pulled her towards him before kissing her fiercely on the lips.

 

Before:

“I like it very much, yes,”  Andrea said, trying to stay calm,  “but I’m really, really desperate, Alex.  I was waiting for Nigel to be inside me all day!  I dreamed about it last night!  I couldn’t stop thinking of what he’d do to me when I got back.”

After:

“I like it very much, yes,”  Andrea said, trying to stay calm,  “but I’m really, really desperate, Alex!  I was waiting for Nigel to be inside me all day – I even dreamed about it last night; and I couldn’t stop thinking of what he’d do to me when I got back.”

 

Before:

“I love your bottom,” Nigel said quickly.  It was such a hurried reply that Andrea knew it must be true.  And he’d obviously been thinking about her bottom for a while!

After:

“I love your bottom,” Nigel said quickly – it was such a hurried reply that Andrea knew it must be true; and that he’d obviously been thinking about her bottom for a while!

In our heads when we’re thinking of what to write it’s natural that we “hear” the dramatic pauses in our narrative – but to always interpret these pauses as full stops is what leads to the staccato sentence.  So how do we fix that?

You’ll notice in my books I use three different types of punctuation that, I believe, help me to keep sentence flow going, but still convey the idea of an appropriate dramatic pause.  These are:

The semicolon

This is the most “conventional” of the three punctuations I use; but it’s the trickiest one to master, and it looks like modern authors and editors are not always happy with it.  Check out my three favorite articles on the use of the semicolon (by the way…is it just me, or is the fact that I actually have three favorite articles on the use of the semicolon rather scary?):

On About.com

Mellissa Donovan’s article on “Writing forward”

Incidentally, I’m not sure I fully agree with one of Mellissa’s final points; she writes:

“In many cases, semicolon use is appropriate or grammatically correct, but when a period will do the trick, go with two separate sentences. In other words, if you can choose between separating clauses by a semicolon or writing two separate sentences (using a period), write two separate sentences. This makes text easier to read.”

I agree in principle, but the point I’m making specifically about erotic writing is that, as writers, we’re seeing these things play out in our head, and as we transfer those thoughts to the page we tend to create the staccato sentences that I (and, more importantly, publishers) think we should try to avoid.  So by all means use a full stop (or “period”); but not if you end up with a collection of overly-short ideas!  And, yes, I did deliberately throw in a couple of semicolons in this paragraph!

A wonderfully illustrated post on TheOatmeal.

Anyone who goes to this much effort to illustrate a grammatical point can’t be all bad ;-)

 

The em space

You may know this as a “dash”, but my wife’s father is a former printer, and I’m well aware this is particular piece of punctuation has a real name — a name that can be particularly useful as a 2-letter word in Scrabble.  Notice that I used an em space in the previous sentence, in the sense of the second part of the sentence deliberately following on from the first part.  In my mind this is a subtly different use case from where I might use a semicolon, where I’m mentally pausing between two related ideas — especially where I’m trying to avoid staccato sentences (oops…there’s that em space again!).

Here’s a very nice article on em space use by Grammar Girl.

You can insert an em space in Word in at least two ways:

Type a word, a space, a minus sign, a space, the second word and then when you finish the second word you’ll see that Word converts the minus sign into an em space.

Alternatively you can type two minus signs (that’s what I needed to do to create an em space here in the WordPress editor).

 

The ellipsis (…)

There’s a lot of overlap between using the ellipsis or an em space, as this Wikipedia article suggests.  Personally I tend to use ellipsis in dialog, because it just “feels right” to me; and since I often write about submissive characters, the nervous hesitancy that ellipsis can imply works well for me.

 

Of course it’s a subjective judgment about whether one version of a sentence or another looks better, and it can be a huge challenge to compress these phrases together in a way that flows properly; but if you can do it then if will help you to raise the quality of your work well above the typical forum story post.

More importantly this kind of re-editing take a lot of time: so you need to become aware of this problem right now or you may be faced with a huge task of correcting a large quantity of badly-written material before a publisher will accept it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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