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.
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.
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- Develop the arc of a sentence, a paragraph and a story.
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