Topic Sentences: When You Don’t Want Them
by Laura Montgomery
You know what you don’t need when you’re writing fiction? Topic sentences. At least not for describing events. Maybe it’s ok to start out with “The walled garden was beautiful” and then provide detail proving your point. Don’t start with “He was glad to still be alive” if you are about to start a description of some harrowing, death-defying experience. I learned this lesson several years ago and am still trying to get myself to stop. I just deleted another one of these anticipation-killing topic sentences from the work in progress.
I can’t tell you how many times I have provided a nice, summarizing topic sentence at the start of a scene or chapter, thereby deflating all further interest. I’m a lawyer in my day job, and in legal writing it’s good to tell the reader what you want them to know and then provide detail to support what you claim. In fiction, it destroys all suspense and uncertainty.
In addition to killing suspense, a topic sentence can be confusing: when I write “he later realized he could have had a bidding war” and then go show how the character got to that thought, the reader (that being me) gets confused as to when the character is. Is he looking back at his process? Is he about to go through it? I wrote it. I should know. But I don’t, and if I don’t no one else will.
Writing fiction is a different kind of journey. After years of practicing law, I still have to deprogram my brain on a regular basis. When my dad worked for the State Department they assigned him a language on an as-needed basis. He learned Vietnamese, Spanish, and Thai. (My mom learned Thai, too, studying with a bunch of military personnel. I remember her complaining that she needed an entirely different vocabulary when she got to Thailand because, as a wife and mother, she was not involved in coordinating with the Thai military during Vietnam. But I digress.) Apparently, State will assign you conversion classes when the language you learned no longer applies. If you already know Spanish, Portuguese is a breeze. Maybe Italian, too. You just need to re-program your brain a little, not a lot.
I need one of those classes but for lawyers. I’m self taught on a lot of fiction fronts and I’ve learned all about scenes ending in disasters, sequels not being scenes, action and reaction, and on an on; but topic sentences seem embedded in my muscle memory. (Yes, I do hit the turn signal even when I’m alone on the road. That’s a good thing.) What is a very basic writing skill in one field doesn’t translate so well into another. I don’t know how widespread this problem is. I don’t notice it in other people’s work. If this is all blindingly obvious to the rest of you, so be it. Just to be clear, I don’t actually give away exciting endings. Instead, I confuse the time line with starting at one point and then describing what led up to it. It’s hard to make it work right, so I mostly just take it out when I spot it.
But, wait, you ask. What about the CW? Back when I watched it, the CW would start a lot of episodes showing our hero/ine in some awful situation, and then go back in time to show how he or she reached those dire straits. Isn’t that like a topic sentence but in video? Sure, but it’s a different kind of topic sentence. It’s not a topic sentence like I write, where I kill all suspense and sow confusion as to when we are. The CW creates a sense of foreboding or dread by showing you something awful. I seem to provide wrap ups of the scene before I write the rest of it. Then the trick is to remove the evil little buggers when I’m editing. I just wish I wouldn’t put them in to begin with.
Laura Montgomery began reading science fiction when she was thirteen, when the local U.S. Air Force base donated many amazing books to the school she attended in northern Thailand. Laura practices space law in Washington, D.C. She has worked on space tourism and launch safety regulations, which, honestly, are not science fiction. She lives outside Washington with her husband, children, and dogs.
To learn more about Laura and her writing, check out her website.
Laura’s latest novel is Out of the Dell (Waking Late Book 2)
On the planet Nwwwlf, in the lost colony of First Landing, the original settlers carved out one sylvan valley, a lone outpost where humans flourish. But their bright hopes and best intentions devolved over centuries into a rude replica of medieval feudalism.
Gilead Tan, who had been held captive for centuries in his sleeping cell, survived treachery and pain to free a small group of sleepers. But he and his friends now face the perils of life outside First Landing’s sanctuary–without their powered armor, their tools and technology, or anything else they need save for a few chickens.
Gilead must establish a safehold for his crew, but the alien environment does not welcome them and petty bickering threatens their meager resources. He hopes that a trace of smoke – spotted above a distant ridge – beckons them to a better place.