Friday, January 8, 2010

A Sentence Exercise--Modifying Phrases

My local high school students recently had an assignment adapted from Brooks Landon's Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft. Learn more from my post here.

In this particular assignment they were to use modifying phrases to create a sentence with this structure:

They sat down at the table, he _________,
his _________, his ________,
she _______,
her ________, her ________,
the table _________,
its __________, its __________,
the overall scene suggesting ____________.

The real danger of this sentence form, which some have discovered, is falling into the temptation to make independent clauses out of the modifying phrases, like this:

They sat down at the table, he pulled out the chair for her so she could sit down, his eyes marvelling at her black silk dress, his cheeks reddening with cmbarrassment realizing that he had missed a button, she buttoned the button for him, her cheeks were reddening with a warmth of love, her eyes glancing him over, the table set before them, its layout perfect, its craftwork without flaw, the overall scene suggests that they are in love.

I really like the little story created in this scene, but those verbs need to be changed to "pulling," "buttoning," "reddening" (without the "were"), and "suggesting." For the remaining samples, I've made small grammatical corrections.

This student was hungry, I think:

They sat down at the table, he cutting the turkey, his face in solemn concentration, his hands working back and forth thoughtfully, she patiently waiting for him to be done, her plate covered with stuffing, her napkin in her lap, the table weighed down with food, its highly polished surface covered with an elaborate tablecloth, its size a little big for the two people, the overall scene suggesting Thanksgiving dinner.

Here's a very different atmosphere with the same setup:

They sat down at the table, he with his feet crossed on its top, his hands laced behind his head, his gray eyes glaring at her, she angry as a wet cat, her arms crossed over her chest, her black eyes returning his daggers, the table seemingly unaware of the tension, this candlelit dinner fitting a romantic occasion, its rich settings contrasting the duo's shabby clothes, the overall scene suggesting an ill-matched couple's nightmare.

And this one uses the scene to suggest a whole story:

They sat down at the table, he grinning mischievously, his boyish face lit up, his blue eyes twinkling, she patiently serving him food, her tired face lined with care, her heart loving her little boy, the table almost bare, its chipped surface holding only two slices of bread and some cooked vegetables, its marred carvings indicating past wealth, the overall scene suggesting a recent war.

This exercise is an example of how creativity can work within the strictures of formulaic writing, the structure exercising students' grammatical skills and resourcefulness. These sentences might not translate well into the context of a full paragraph or story, but each provides good material from which to work in editing to a better result. It is much easier to start with something than to start with nothing.

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