The Shape of Writing

wordsHere’s a writing exercise to try before this blog unfolds in earnest: write a scene in which your protagonist comes home and finds the corpse of their beloved partner lying in a pool of their own blood.

Try it.

See how you go.


As writers, we have a number of tools at our disposal to tell our story. Our primary tools are words. We find the right word to fit what we want to say. The right combination of words in a sentence conveys an idea. Sentences unfold in paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, pages into chapters – and on and on we go to create our world into which, if we do it right, we suck the reader.

But something we need to give thought to is how we shape our words, our, sentences, our paragraphs, etc. It’s easy to obey the laws of English as a guideline, but sometimes we need to manipulate it to serve our needs, and thus the needs of our story.

Again, let’s go back to the original premise: your protagonist finds their partner dead.

You may try something like this:

    He came into the kitchen, then stopped. Gloria lay on the floor, her body twisted unnaturally, blood pooling from a wound to her head, her temple indented like her skull had collapsed.

That would be the simplest way of writing a scene like this, but is this scene in any way distinguished from the rest of the narrative? Presumably, it flows as normal, even though our character is now in an extraordinary and shocking situation. Imagine you were in this situation. Would your digestion of what’s going on flow normally, like all you were doing was going out to pick up the morning paper from the veranda?

In all likelihood, you’d be in shock. Your mind would be overwhelmed, unable to process what’s happening the way it might normally. With this being the case we need to convey a similar disconnectedness in our narrative.

    He came into the kitchen. Stopped. Gloria. Lay on the floor. Body twisted. Blood. So much blood. Pooling from her temple.

Note the difference – now, we’re using short, sharp sentences to illustrate the way the protagonist takes in the scene. Even the word choice is important. Do you go for something fancy? Or something simple, if not blunt? The choices you make here determine the impact your writing makes in this situation.

Here (in our example), everything jars. He sees specifics, like flashes of cognition. Through this, we get that his perception has changed, and it demonstrates the shock of what’s occurring, as well as provides a contrast from the rest of the narrative.

Good narrative takes the reader on a ride through the story. If it’s done well, the reader won’t know they’re on a ride. They’ll just follow the prompts unthinkingly, and in following the prompts unthinkingly you’ll create for them the world of your story.

Every now and again, though, the ride may need to change its course or pacing – like a rollercoaster. A rollercoaster that kept going up, or only went down, or only ran straight, would soon get boring. So you have peaks and troughs, which helps build anticipation or provides a burst of excitement.

Think about how you shape your narrative, as it controls the ride you’re taking your reader on. Life isn’t a singular-paced ride. Sometimes, it’s nothing but fragments. Other times it might run long and uninterrupted. Just as life has ups, downs, and rhythms, you can impress the same cadences into your narrative just by the way you shape your words and sentences.


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