Friday, September 19, 2008

Goosebumps (and a music lesson)

I've always been curious about the appeal of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series so I picked Let's Get Invisible up on my last trip to the thrift store. I only got to page 11 before throwing in the towel. Unfortunately this leaves me with absolutely no opinion of the plot, but I know exactly what's troubling me about the book--the way the sentences sound.

When you open a book the words make music. Gary Provost, author of several books on effective writing, says in Making Words Work, writing is not a visual art, it's a symphony. "It's the shattering, not the glass. It's the ringing, not the bell"

I know I've harped a lot on the importance of an interesting story, but I bet another reason boys get bored with reading is simply because of the way the sentences sound. The way the words fall on their ears is no different than the rhythms of a song that hooks them. If an author wants to hook a reader, he's got to have rhythm.

Great writing employs a variety of both sentence lengths and structures. For instance, the following numbers are the length of each sentence on a single page in Dan Gutman's The Million Dollar Shot: 17, 10, 6, 16, 9, 7, 10, 17, 12, 11, 12, 16, 5, 9, 6, 10, 12, 14, 12 4, 9, 13, 10, 14, 6

Notice how the sentences crescend and descrescend, creating a dynamic tone.

Here are the sentence lengths from a page in Stine's Let's Get Invisible: 9, 6, 6, 10, 8, 17, 8, 7, 9, 6, 9, 8, 6, 6, 12, 9, 4, 4, 8, 13, 6, 7.

Most of the sentences are approximately the same length--short, creating a choppy tone.

An author might be able to get away with this if he varies his sentence construction, but Stine's sentences are frequently structured the same way, subject/predicate/object, creating a monotonous tone.

Listen for youself. The following is a string of examples, all taken from the beginning of sentences on a single page in Let's Get Invisible:

Dad says, I turned, I grabbed, I hit, Lefty and I held, I think, He said, He thought, I knew, I started, He and I raced, He handed, Lefty grabbed . . .

A little switch-a-roo of the object and the subject, (to vary the structure) and maybe combining a sentence or two (to vary the length) could do wonders.

Like this:

Here's a real sentence from Let's Get Invisible.

The door had a rusted latch about halfway up. It slid off easily, and the warped wooden door started to swing open before I even pulled at it. The door hinges squeaked as I pulled the door toward me, revealing solid darkness on the other side.

SIDE NOTE: The word door is repeated 4 times and the word pulled, twice. (Redundant).

Why not make this sentence easier on the ears? Like this:

The rusted latch, about halfway up the warped wooden door, slid off easily before I even touched it. Hinges creaked as I pulled the door open, revealing solid darkness on the other side.

Viola!

(Am I sounding like your annoying high school English teacher yet?)

2 comments:

Lisa (Funny Farmer) said...

EUREKA! Where has this blog been all my son's reading life?!

My problem is not that he hates reading; it is that he absorbs books via osmosis and I struggle to keep him in good supply of reading material.

I didn't even know there was a sequel to HOLES, for the Love of Pete.

Lu said...

This blog makes me miss my 7am English courses with you! :) I had a short period in my life (within the last year) where I'd gone a long time without reading a single book...that was the saddest time of my life!

Thank goodness I've made time to pick up some good reads! :) I would love recommendations though on what's good to read now days!