Sentencing: Who Does What in “Writing Well”

Every sentence names something and says something about it.  This is the secret of the sentence — the short story it tells.  If that story is clearly told, the sentence will work; if not, it will not.  (from Writing Well by Mark Tredinnick)

I was chatting with a former theater professor this week about the prospect of turning my upcoming novella into a stage play.  He asked me,  “What makes you think it would work as a play?”

I replied, “Well, as it develops, it is about 90% dialogue.”

He cautioned me that plays need to be driven by action, that “talky” scripts make for boring theater.

I was at first discouraged, but as I went on to tell him about the story, I realized it has a lot of action –

In the very first chapter, the main character’s wife of 43 years leaves him for a lottery winner.

Soon thereafter, he goes to stay with his daughter’s family where his son-in-law tries to convince him of the curative value of positive thinking.

There is a worship scene at a trendy seeker-friendly mega-church recently renamed “Happiness Haven”.

He goes to work as a Walmart greeter where he has a confrontation with a runny-nosed 9-year old demanding a whole roll of stickers.

All this happens in the first 1/3 of the story.  Admittedly, there are no stabbings or sex scenes or vampires, but plenty happens.  It’s just described in dialogue – simple sentences spoken by one character to another.

Stories are built on sentences.  And, as Tredinnick points out, each sentence must tell a story in itself if it is to further the story as a whole.  Each sentence should explain “Who does what…” – in a clear enough fashion that the reader should not have to go back through the sentence several times to pick up its meaning.

In classic grammatical terms the “who” of the sentence is the “subject”, and the “does what” is the predicate.  Subjects and predicates may be single words – as in “Rain (subject) falls (predicate).”  Or, they may be complex phrases –  “The purpose of all good writing (subject) is to educate, inspire, and inform (predicate).

Tredinnick goes on to identify three moods – indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.  An indicative sentence is one that simply tells a fact – I wrote one chapter today.  An imperative sentence gives a command – Read this chapter I wrote.  A subjunctive sentence (more rare) suggests a hypothetical situation – If you read my chapter, you would understand what I mean.

Tredinnick offers a good summary as he writes –

Every sentence, no matter how long or short, how simple or convoluted, must do the basics soundly. No matter what else it attempts, a sentence must say plainly who does what…

When each sentence in a story plainly tells you who does what, you can move from one sentence to the other – like steps on a journey – and get to where the story winds up taking you.


Walk along the Glacier by @Doug88888


(“Walk along the Glacier” from @Doug88888, some rights reserved)

6 thoughts on “Sentencing: Who Does What in “Writing Well”

  1. An interesting, informative post with an apt and well-written title. An indicative sentence? I will tell others to read this excellent short post. An imperative sentence? If the former theatre professor were to read your novella, he would find it packed with action. Subjunctive?

  2. As each brush stroke serves a purpose in painting a beautiful portrait that inspires, so does each sentence in crafting a piece of prose that moves.

    I say don’t be discouraged, Tony. Rewrite your novella as a play and see what happens. What would your dialogue look/feel like with actors moving around a stage engaging in the scene? My guess is your story will come to life in a new way, but the core message and themes of the story will remain.

    Go for it! Have you written a play before?

    • Actually, my plot took a very unexpected twist yesterday and, from the looks of things, I am going to wind up with something that closely resembles the working draft of a screenplay in about a week. I’m getting in touch with a man who lives in Indy and works in the film industry.

      Thanks for your encouraging words. I do hope to one day adapt it for a stage play and expand it into a novel as well. I’ve really fallen in love with the characters and the story.

      To answer your question, I’ve never written a play before. I’m becoming a writer as a second career after 18 years in pastoral ministry. So, I’ve done a lot of writing, but I have a lot to learn.

      Thanks again for your encouraging words.

  3. Great post! I just started a Grammar class online, so this was great. It’s embarrassing how little I know about grammar; I guess I just assumed I knew more than I did.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing. It was very insightful.

    • I applaud your initiative in taking a Grammar class. Keep checking back, as I plan to post my way through this “Writing Well” book for some time. It should complement your work in class.

      Thanks for your comment.

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