The weight of tiny details

A sentence I revised tonight got me reflecting on one of the tiny, subtle things about writing that’s really difficult to teach — mostly because it requires spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about something microscopic, and unpacking it with twenty or a hundred times the number of words involved. I almost never delve into this when I teach creative writing, just because it burns out my energy so fast.

Consider this line:

“I wouldn’t have invited you if all I wanted was a distraction.”

This is a completely ordinary sentence. Not super-memorable, but it’s doing what it needs to, and that’s fine. What I revised it to was this:

“If all I wanted was a distraction, I wouldn’t have invited you.”

Essentially the same sentence; I just swapped the order of the clauses.

Why? Because the important thing in that sentence is the implication that the invitation was issued for more than one reason. Putting the hypothetical after that dilutes the effect. So I rearranged the sentence to make the punch arrive at the end of the sentence.

Now, in reality a person might well choose the first phrasing. We often talk that way. But the job of dialogue is to create an effect, and while sometimes the desired effect is “the casual structures that mimic real speech,” in this case, that wasn’t the goal. There isn’t a clear-cut rule, though, that says “always put the most important thing at the end of the sentence” — sometimes you want it at the front instead. The actual rule is “pay attention to the rhythm of what you write, not just in aural terms, but in terms of where you’re placing the key elements, and make sure the arrangement directs the reader’s attention toward them, without less-critical elements getting in the way.”

Which is a lot more complicated and subjective. In fact, some of you may question the superiority of my second example over my first. Because it’s not just about the one sentence; it’s about the flow of the overall text. (Unfortunately, I can’t quote the surrounding material to you because SPOILERS AHOY.) And even when the whole is available, there can be disagreements over what works best. But when I read a story that’s competent but never quite comes to life, the problem is often (at least in part) at this level: the material is all there, but the sequencing undercuts its effect. Teaching that to someone, however, requires breaking out the red pen and rewriting sentence after sentence, with explanations for why. It’s a huge investment of time and effort, and in the end, the writer needs to develop their own instinct for how these rhythms work.

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