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Writing Your Story

Lesson 10 of 26

Diagramming the Sentence


Writing Your Story

Lesson 10 of 26

Diagramming the Sentence


Lesson Info

Diagramming the Sentence

This is one of my great thrills, when we get to this point. A few people in this room are old enough to remember diagramming sentences in english class. They don't do it anymore and more's the pity, is what I have to say. And this is not just about old fuddy-duddy grammar, this is actually about identifying whether or not you're accomplishing what you're trying to do in your writing. Whether your sentences are telling the story in the most powerful and dramatic way. And I'm gonna begin with a sentence, incidentally I asked everybody's permission to use their sentences and my students were very generous. Even when they didn't come across looking so great. With the money from my waitressing job I bought a new car that my brother sold me for $ When the car I used to drive burst into flames on the Pacific Coast Highway as I was driving to Los Angeles to escape my abusive husband, who came after me with a gun because I went to the movies with my girlfriend Caroline. Okay, if you've ever dia...

grammed a sentence before, you know that where you start is with the subject and the verb. What's the subject of this sentence? I. Verb? Bought. Bought how? With the money. That's an adverbial clause, I believe. Bought what? Car. What kind of a car? A new one. What kind of a car? That my brother sold me. We could diagram all that phrase, but we won't. Sold me how? For $500. I really wanna have neat writing, but I don't think it's gonna happen. Sold me when? When the car. What kind of car? I used to drive. Did what? Car burst into flames. I need a bigger white board. Where? On the Pacific Coast Highway. Oh my god, we've got a whole lot more. When? Burst into flames as I was driving. Where? To LA. Why? To escape, look how small the type is getting now. My husband, what kind of husband? Abusive. What kind of husband? Husband who came after me. Came after me how? With a gun. Why? Because I went, I'm getting desperate here, to the movies. And then with Caroline. Okay, I have to stand back and look at that. Instantly you see that and you know, there's trouble. (audience laughs) What's the big news in this sentence? My husband came after me with a gun! Is that reflected in I bought a car? I don't think so, big news way down here. It's actually kinda beautiful, I regard it as so beautiful, you know, I'm a words person, I'm not a science person. But this to me is like some kind of chemical equation. I just love, it's the closest I'm ever likely to come to something that's sort of an absolute. Diagramming a sentence. Okay, I have to do another one, 'cause this is just so much fun. This is what I do, you know, home alone at night. I just can't resist sometimes. Okay. This is shorter. I had been blissfully and by choice unemployed. Except for random writing and p.r. jobs for six years. Raising Irish twins born 18 months apart after four years of infertility. Okay, what's the sentence? I, I mean the subject, sorry. I. had been. Had been what? Unemployed. So far does this sentence tell us very much? No. Unemployed how? Blissfully. And also by choice. Unemployed except, prepositional phrase, for writing and PR jobs. How long? Unemployed for six years. Unemployed raising twins. What kinda twins? Irish, but what else about them? Born, this is a little bit redundant, that's what Irish twins are, keep that in mind. Born 18 months apart. Born when? Raising twins, born after four years. Four years of what? Of infertility. Big idea, way down there. I had been unemployed doesn't begin to tell you. Oh my gosh, I'm using my pointer. (audience laughs) I get very excited when I diagram. Calm down, okay, we have one more. It happens to the best of us, this kind of stuff, well not to me anymore. But I've been doing this a long time. My family wanted nothing to with my growing concern that remaining married to this man who once gloried in teaching me how to write in reality I was learning on my own, as reporters do was a nightmare. What's the subject of this sentence? Family. Verb is, wanted. Wanted what, nothing. What kind of nothing? To do with what? Concern. What kind of concern, growing. You young people, have you ever seen this before? I'm looking at you, no. It's like from another planet. Isn't it great? I think you should ask for your money back from high school. Growing, growing concern. Concern what? That that remaining married. That remaining married. Married how? To this man. What kind of a man? Who once gloried. Gloried in what? In teaching, I could make a joke about teaching to write, but actually she's a good writer, and this is why I wanna tell you, you can be a good writer and do this stuff. In teaching me to write. And then she's got something kinda weird. In reality I was learning on my own, as reporters do. That's just off in the clouds. In reality, dah, dah, dah, okay. Was man what? Man was a nightmare. Remaining married was a nightmare. Look at all this stuff in the middle, separating remaining married and was a nightmare. Need I say more, I don't think so. Probably once you've done this a little bit, you won't make these mistakes anymore. But every now and then, if you see a long sentence and you think it's not working, do this and you'll see why. And very likely, you have hidden the big news in some very subsidiary place.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Everyone’s got a story to tell. Some are funny. Some are inspiring. Others are tragic. But no matter how compelling your story might seem, it won’t resonate with readers unless you’re able to effectively translate your concept onto the page.

Celebrated journalist, novelist and memoirist Joyce Maynard will give you the tools you need to transform your brilliant idea into an absorbing memoir that readers won’t be able to put down.

Maynard will begin by walking you through the process of identifying your story and how best to tell it. She’ll then help you develop your story through language, story structure, dramatic tension, dialogue, description and editing. Finally, she’ll address the challenges of the writing life, such as how to create a productive practice, design a comfortable writing space, deal with rejection and find an audience.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Understand the difference between telling what happened and exploring your journey.
  • Figure out what to include in your story and what to cut out.
  • Decide on a point of view, a point of entry and a structure.
  • Get over your fears of revealing embarrassing truths about yourself.
  • Stop worrying about being judged.
  • Deal with loneliness and find your tribe.
  • Develop the arc of a sentence, a paragraph and a story.
  • Listen to the sound and rhythm of your sentences.


Annie Y

Joyce Maynard will meet her writing students exactly where many of us find ourselves stranded: at that point in the road where our creative impulse and need for expression begins to lose breath but our sense of story and good writing habits may falter. Her teaching is a glorious, energetic, engaged alchemy of encouragement, permission for wild creativity, and feet-on-the-ground, pencil-to-paper, lessons for organizing and writing your own story. I left this incredible day empowered to tell mine, and totally unafraid to let go of what does not fit into the narrative. She gives concrete examples of good writing, shows you exactly why it's good, as well as hilarious bits of not-so-good writing. Yes, this is a memoir class, but the lessons are simply excellent rules for good writing. The syllabus is ambitious, but Ms. Maynard's practical magic is her gift to render all of this utterly do-able. I loved every minute, left inspired by the entire experience, and profoundly grateful for her wisdom and humor. Thank you!

Diane Shipley

This was a wonderful class, the best I’ve taken, even though I wasn’t there in person! Joyce is an inspiring teacher who makes you feel like your stories matter and guides you toward identifying which narratives to tell and how best to tell them — very few writing classes delve into the mechanics in this way and I really appreciated it. I also appreciated some of her more unusual advice — like that it’s important to think about what you want to write, sometimes for a long time, before you start. By going through students’ stories and providing lots of examples of the principles she teaches, you can see how to adapt the lessons to your own work, and I’ve already started doing so. I also found Joyce very compassionate about issues around privacy and shame and everything that comes up when people share personal stories, and very generous in sharing her own experiences so it’s clear she knows what she’s talking about. I recommend this class wholeheartedly.


Thank you so much for your brilliant course, Joyce Maynard. I am blown away by how much I've learned from you, and how warmly and joyfully you've imparted your wisdom, your skills as a writer and your own beautiful humanity. I am so grateful for this experience. You are not only a gifted storyteller, but a truly gifted teacher, and a delightful, inspiring human being. I hope to learn from you in person in Lake Atitlan at some point in the future.