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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.

34 Comments
  1. c4c

    January 2, 2018
  2. Interesting. Sometimes I’ll see sentences like “It took them three weeks to get to Zenobar,” followed by a few pages pointlessly describing what happened along the way. In many cases, the right thing to do isn’t to delete the topic sentence; it’s to delete the pages of description.

    I’m not saying that that’s the usual case (it’s fairly uncommon, at least in the pro and semi-pro short fiction I review), but I’d suggest that people who find themselves thinking “maybe I should delete this topic sentence” should at least give a moment’s thought to keeping the sentence and deleting the text it summarizes.

    January 2, 2018
    • Yes, and and I’ve learned that the time words in “it took 3 weeks” or “it was 2 days before he saw her again” are markers for something needing to go. They tell the reader you are about to start talking of what comes next, not what happened in those time periods.

      January 2, 2018
    • The only reason to have a few pages of description following “It took them three weeks to get to Zenobar,” would be to build up to something like “they could already taste the water cool on their parched tongues. They straggled over the last ridge, and … Zenobar wasn’t there. Instead they beheld a glowing pit.”

      And even then, it better be relevant description of that trek, such as what’s chasing after them and why this is now a Bigger Problem Than We Already Had.

      January 2, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      The shorter the piece, the more you might need to use topic sentences to keep it lean. Sometimes its okay to skim over a part where nothing really happens.

      January 2, 2018
      • Think of topic sentences as “narrative summary.” Sometimes, you really want to show the scene that’s going to advance the character arc or the plot, or provide pacing. Sometimes, you just need to get the characters from place A to place B, and how they got there doesn’t matter.

        If the really important parts are the dame in the office, and then the first interview, it’s okay to skip the scenes showing the closing up the office and the drive over, and just say, “Three hours later, I pulled up in front of the house where she’d said he stashed his mistress. It was the wrong part of town for mistresses, and the wrong house, with the kid’s bicycles in the driveway and the sidewalks decorated with chalk.”

        If, on the other hand, he notes while closing up the office that the same rental van was still parked across the road from four hours earlier, and it pulls out and follow the PI until he loses it, that’s probably something you want in there, and you can just cut the topic sentence!

        January 2, 2018
      • Mary #

        I recommend Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction to all writers, and one point I remember was where he quotes someone saying that it ill behooves narrative, which can use Summary undisguised, to make use of Summary badly disguised as Scene.

        January 2, 2018
    • Mary #

      Much depends on what the POV character sees.

      January 2, 2018
      • Mary #

        Hmm. that’s a bit terse.

        One character might listen to the birdsong as interesting, another dismiss it by default; a birdwatcher listen for new songs to spot the birds; a soldier register that no hidden attackers had disturbed the birds.

        January 2, 2018
    • I don’t mind it too much as long as it gives me a reference for ‘how long time as passed’ / ‘they’ve been experiencing this thing for a x while’ – it helps build the scene in my head. But that’s a personal quirk of mine and I wouldn’t recommend it for all things.

      January 4, 2018
  3. I’m now wondering if I shouldn’t have admitted to watching the CW.

    January 2, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      We all have our vices.

      January 2, 2018
    • Never saw it. To me CW means something else entirely – (Interrupted) Continuous Wave… or as generally heard: Morse code.

      As for that “He was glad to be alive.” I could see something almost but not quite like that… “For a moment he wondered how he was still alive, but he couldn’t dwell on that and remain alive.”

      January 2, 2018
      • Yes, and then move forward from there. That would work.

        January 2, 2018
    • *shrugs* I don’t know what CW is, but you made the point perfectly clear by context. So it works!

      January 2, 2018
      • It is a cable netweork that someone, somewhere may once have referred to as cheesy. It does have The Flash, and had (ahem) Smallville back in the day. Smallville was where I saw the first manifestations of what has come to be known as waif-fu, where a small woman can take out a very large man. Large men might slug it out for minutes on end, but a waif would always prevail.

        January 2, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I watched it on broadcast back in the day. It and Fox were for a time the channels with the saturday morning cartoons and late night sci fi that I wanted to watch.

      January 2, 2018
      • It sounds so much more reasonable when someone else admits to it. Thank you.

        January 2, 2018
  4. Umm … topic sentences don’t have to be at the beginning. That’s the most common place (and a bad habit I’ve yet to overcome – see how one starts this paragraph). Yet they can be at middle, or at the end.

    It was ice again. An inch thick glaze that bent the trees and lines, with several inches of snow on top. Ice that knocked out the power twice, first when the trees and limbs slapped the lines going down, and again when they thawed, when they sprang back up. Ice that made your joints ache and harder to work each passing year. Ice that weighed heaviest when Bill realized the other linemen didn’t remember The Big One, because they hadn’t been born. Ice made him feel very cold, and very old.

    A poor example, but if I’ve done this right, the topic sentence should be at the end. What I’ve tried to do is to build up to the topic sentence, that ice made Bill feel old. Here the topic sentence (hopefully) functions as a punch line.

    January 2, 2018
  5. I’m hoping people have read the book. The movie was wonderful, but it leaves out most of the Goldman snark.
    “What with one thing and another, three years passed.” William Goldman, “The Princess Bride.”

    January 2, 2018
  6. I meant to add: I’ve cleared out my review queue. If anyone has something they want me to review, let me know.

    January 2, 2018
    • I will by next month — sorry, nothing until then.

      January 2, 2018
    • I will by the end of the month. I’m doing final proofreads of Mercenary Calling right now.

      January 2, 2018
    • Pat, although I always release my books into Kindle Unlimited, I don’t keep them there for longer than 6 months. Which means that when you read WINTER GLORY, the other Hammarleeding books were long out of KU. I’m wondering if you might like me to send you a free copy of SARVET’S WANDERYAR. It’s about Paiam’s and Ivvar’s daughter Sarvet.

      January 2, 2018
  7. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Any advice on a good introduction to legal writing?

    January 2, 2018
    • What kind are you doing? Briefs, regulations, contracts, opinions? I have a friend who’s got something she likes. Let me write her and get back to you.

      January 2, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        A few weeks ago I ran across some books on it in a waiting room, and I suspect understanding the principles might help me improve my non fiction writing skills. I think I’m pretty good at writing non fiction, but I learned haphazardly, and I should assume that I need to improve. As a layman in our society, I probably should learn more about how Lawyers think and what the documents really mean.

        January 2, 2018
        • I’ve written my friend and will post what she sends me. But, in short form, we are very literal creatures, or, at least, we’re supposed to be. We say what we mean and mean what we say. (I have a set of powerpoint charts where at this point in the discussion I insert a picture of a weasel.) We try to write in active voice, and we always use topic sentences. Always.

          January 2, 2018
        • Also, be anti-poetic: when you mean the same thing use the same word for that thing, even if you wind up using it over and over again. This reduces confusion. (We do this because courts think that if we use different words in laws or regulations we must mean different things.)

          But you don’t need my snippets. I’ll find that title.

          January 2, 2018
          • Mary #

            Of course, “elegant variation” is a danger in fiction, too, but you can use some, and there’s paraphrases to get around directly naming it.

            January 2, 2018
    • My friend’s favorite book for legal writing is Mightier Than the Sword by C. Edward Good.

      January 3, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        Thanks.

        January 3, 2018

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