The prompt: A sentence with 100 words. Begin with a simple sentence, then add details, descriptions and modifiers to create a complex, detailed sentence.
The purpose of the prompt was an exercise in exploring sentence patterns and sentence lengths, based upon a presentation at Be Writing Conference in Eugene, Oregon, recently.
We often write consistent patterns. All short sentences. All long sentences. All noun, verb, object, noun, verb, object. Break the pattern by learning to write different types of sentences and sentence structures.
Exploring the Cumulative Sentence
A cumulative sentence begins with a base clause, a subject and verb and an object or just a subject and verb.
The woman sat down to write.
The woman fainted.
The man drove his car.
The child ran down the street.
The bird flew into the window.
She played the piano.
Uncle Edward leaned back in his recliner.
Her grandchild slipped on the ice.
A cumulative sentence adds the description of the action.
Here is an example by Muriel Spark in Memento Mori.
He went to speak to Mrs. Bean, tiny among the pillows, her small toothless mouth ppen like an “O,” her skin stretched thin and white over her bones, her huge eye-sockets and eyes in a fixed infant-like stare, and her sparse white hair short and straggling over her brow.
Add description of things that modify the subject. They clarify the character and move us into an emotional situation. We need the modifiers to describe the person, and their relationship. How does the character see the other person, the scene, the situation. What they see tells us more about the character as they interpret the scene.
Here is another example from William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”
His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, his voice still without heat or anger.
We see the action of the hand striking the head, and we could assume many different emotions, justifications, and reactions, but the modification of the action implies the emotionless nature of the action, and reveals much about the character of the father, that he treats his animals and children equally.
In the following example in Dan Delillo’s “The Names” (Russian to English translation), he describes the wind as a character itself, and how essential the wind is to the story, mood of the story, and the life of the people in the story.
Some nights the wind never stops, beginning in a clean shrill pitch that broadens and deepens to a careless and suspenseful force, rattling shutters, knocking things off the balconies, creating a pause in one’s mind, a waiting-for-the-full-force-to-hit. Inside the apartment, closet doors swing open, creak shut.
Consider how the sentence travels? Does it incorporate backstory, create emotion, rhythm, pace. Sometimes the force of a sentence’s pattern and rhythm takes you to an intense place or state of emotion. This is very useful to moving the story forward and pulling the reader along, consuming each word, eager for the next, feeling what the character is feeling.
Use a cumulative sentence pattern as you wish, or not, in your writing, but learn how to recognize them and work with them. They can break up your short sentence pattern, add more to the story, and describe a moment to bring the reader there with you and the character.
This prompt is meant to explore the boundaries of how we normally write.
The prompt assignment:
Write a modifying cumulative sentence. Start with a noun, verb, and object, then modify it to a minimum 75 to 100 words [pick one].
An alternative for those handwriting and not willing to count, write at least 10 lines handwritten on typical school notebook paper.
This typically takes about 10-15 minutes – most of us write 400 to 600 words in our prompts, some more.