Writing Better Sentences: The Dessert Principle

Writers talk a lot about the larger elements of a story building, but for today let’s zoom in on the building blocks: writing sentences. While some writers fuss over whether they are chopping off “ly” words or avoiding passive constructions, another tip is to save the best for last.

Writing Tip for Today: What is the Dessert Principle and how does it work?

Dessert Principle Defined

Whether it’s at the sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter level, writers almost always ought to save the most life-changing, shocking or revealing items for last. The Dessert Principle is why you save the climax scene for very near the end. It’s why writers create cliffhangers. And it can work for you at the sentence level too. Here’s an example: Hannah discovered her dad was gone the next morning. What is the shocking revelation here? That Dad’s gone. In my opinion, the stronger version of the same sentence is: The next morning, Hannah discovered her dad was gone. This is a simple example, but instead of requiring them to process more information (about when we are) after that news,  punch your readers’ guts as they exit the sentence. It’s the triple chocolate tiramisu after a delicious meal.

Who’s On First?

I almost always revise sentences with time transitions so the time and/or place orient the reader right away at the beginning of the sentence. The impact of Dad’s disappearance is made stronger when it’s the last bit readers process. If your reader is confused about where or when the character is acting, you risk losing that reader. I recommend stating the where/when at the opening of the scene with a very simple transition: The next day, One year later, By the day of her birthday. Don’t try to be fancy or creative, just state where/when your scene takes place to avoid confusion. The reader who has to stop and ask for directions may give up!

Sometimes, You Shock First!

 Pineapple Upside Down Cake takes what was once at the bottom or last and inverts it so the shocking stuff is at the front. Although Mom always said you must finish your dinner before you get dessert, sometimes it’s actually more effective to put the shocking stuff first and then explain. I think a great example of this is in Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Her first line reads: “I was on fire.” We don’t know who “I” is, or where or when, but anyone who’s on fire must be worthy of reading about. It’s up to you to decide whether your big news is at the beginning or end of your sentences, but a good way to test this is to move the “big deal” to the beginning or end and see if it doesn’t feel more powerful. And I’m giving you permission to feed the broccoli to the dog and let you enjoy your dessert anyway.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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