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April 4th, 2011
Finding Foster Homes for Orphan Sentences

Kat DuncanKat Duncan is my special guest today. Kat likes to write and teach. She also likes to write about teaching and teach about writing. Today she’s giving us a few hints about finding foster homes for orphan sentences.

Have you ever tried the writing technique called layering? It works like this: you draft out your basic scene with “he said” and “she said” or “he did” then “she did”. After you’ve got that bare bones framework you go back and add details such as where they are, what they look like, the weather, the room they are in, how they feel, etc.

The trouble with this technique is that it often results in disjointed scenes. Just when the dialogue gets going, the author throws in a scenery detail or stops to have the character focus on something other than the person she’s talking to. The worst blooper of this kind happens when one character asks a question and the other character goes off into a paragraph of thinking before answering.

So what’s the solution? You don’t want to skimp on these important details, so you really need to keep them. But you have to give these poor orphans a home. Make them feel part of the family. You will want to learn how to blend dialogue, action and scenery for best effect. One easy way to do this is to give your character a reason for observing the scenery, or for moving about in the scene. Linking the scene to the character’s emotions is the most direct way of doing this.

Let’s take an example and see the progression. Here’s a snippet of conversation:

“Say what you mean, Anna.”

“Okay, I will. You can’t just barge back into my life after so long and expect to pick up where you left off.”

“It hasn’t been that long.”

“It’s not about how long. It’s about assuming that you leaving had no effect on me.”

“So, you missed me?”

“I missed you, yes. And then I got over you.”

Now that I’ve got the basic dialogue, I want to add some dialogue tags and maybe some emotions, scenery and action. I’ll layer it on all at once:

“Say what you mean, Anna,” he said.

“Okay, I will. You can’t just barge back into my life after so long and expect to pick up where you left off.” She glanced out the window at a pigeon pecking crumbs on the windowsill.

“It hasn’t been that long.”

“It’s not about how long,” she said, lifting her head to stare into his dark eyes. “It’s about assuming that you leaving had no effect on me.”

“So, you missed me?” His voice dropped to that familiar seductiveness and he reached for her.

She stepped away from his outstretched hand. “I missed you. Yes. And then I got over you.”

Can you pick out the orphan sentence? It’s the one with the pigeon. I tried to give a sense of where they were while they were talking. Mentioning “out the window” tells you they are indoors. The pigeon on the windowsill tells you they are probably in an urban setting, perhaps a few stories above ground.
But…

It doesn’t fit the scene. It’s an orphan because it doesn’t connect properly with what came before it or after it. I also tried to give a sense of discomfort for Anna. Suddenly looking away at something ordinary during a conversation indicates unease and uncertainty. But the sentence isn’t working the way I intended. Let’s see if I can make this orphan sentence part of the scene’s family:

“Say what you mean, Anna,” he said.

“Okay, I will.” She edged away from him and faced the window. “You can’t just barge back into my life after so long and expect to pick up where you left off.”

“It hasn’t been that long.”

“It’s not about how long,” she said, waving a hand to shoo the pigeon pecking on the windowsill. “It’s about assuming that you leaving had no effect on me.”

“So, you missed me?” His voice dropped to that familiar seductiveness and he reached for her.

She folded her arms against her body and stared out at the cold cityscape. “I missed you. Yes. And then I got over you.”

Better, don’t you think?

Layering can work well. Just watch for those orphan sentences when you’re re-reading and be sure to give them a good home. For more examples of how to blend action, scenery and emotional details, check out my year-long novel writing course at Savvy Authors beginning in May, 2011. You can also find me on the web at http://www.katduncan.net

10 comments to “Finding Foster Homes for Orphan Sentences”

  1. Really good, Kat! I like that you showed us how to keep the orphan instead of replacing it all together.
    Great post!


  2. What a great post..Thank you for the info…


  3. Hi Jennifer! Yes, it’s a good way to keep what you’ve written by just smoothing it into the scene.

    Hi Savannah! Glad you stopped by!


  4. Great advice, Kat. My first draft is typically very sparse and I always need to go back and layer in color and emotion. This is definitely something to watch.


  5. Great post, Kat! Interesting because that’s just how I write. (hopefully not the orphan sentences part, LOL)

    But I write my first draft in dialogue. That’s it, just dialogue. Then I go back and add everything else.


  6. That was a very useful post. I certainly tend to write that way and it’s one of the things you have to be careful of when you edit.

    Thank you.


  7. Thanks for a great post. I’m learning new things every day! Thanks for sharing.


  8. I enjoyed reading about these orphans. Thanks for the interesting post.


  9. Hi Shelley. Thanks for hosting me. I’m glad you found the post useful. I think it’s best to find ways that work for you.

    Hi Sarah. I’m glad I’m not the only one who layers and then has to smooth over prose with a trowel… :)

    Hi Nas! I’m glad you stopped by. I’m always learning new things, too!

    Hi Leigh. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!


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