The One Sentence That Can Ruin Your Whole DayS

Your space-warping, mind-bending science fiction/fantasy novel isn't just action set pieces and breathtaking ideas — it's got character and atmosphere. And when you're developing those things, it's tempting to reach for that great tool, the Topic Sentence. But beware.

Yes, it's time for another outing of Free Advice for Struggling Writers, our semi-regular writing advice column, which I'm hoping to make more regular.

You remember the Topic Sentence — when you were an impressionable young scribble-ninja, your schoolteachers pounded it into you. It's the thing where you start (or occasionally end) a paragraph with a single pithy sentence that sums up the rest of the paragraph. It's the pastry shell into which the paragraph's meat is stuffed. This paragraph does not begin with a topic sentence, as such.

It's very tempting to use topic sentences in your fiction, and sometimes it may actually make sense. When you're doing a chunk of exposition, for example, the topic sentence may actually make the infoshovel go down more easily. You can start a paragraph by saying, "The Elysian Confederacy grew quickly in the outer rim of the galaxy, but then ran into trouble." And the rest of the paragraph explains how quickly the Confederacy grew, and what sort of trouble it encountered.

The One Sentence That Can Ruin Your Whole DayS

But when you get farther away from the essay format, the topic sentence becomes more and more of a treacherous friend. Take this paragraph:

Captain Samson was in a terrible mood. He stormed around the flight deck, barking semi-intelligible instructions at Navigator Ingalls and Second Gunnery Master Jordan. Samson nearly maimed Chief Petty Officer Jorgenson during weapons trials. And then, during a tactical session with the ship's five strategic telepaths, the Captain broadcast thoughts of such astounding belligerence, Senior Telepath Vonox actually fainted.

So what's wrong with that paragraph? Well, it's pretty badly written in general — sorry about that. Whenever I try to write "example" paragraphs from non-existent fiction, my writing gets much worse for some reason. But the main thing that's wrong with it is that the first sentence is completely redundant. If the rest of the paragraph is even remotely well written, you will already know that Captain Samson is in a terrible mood without needing to be told.

But the reverse is just as likely to happen. You can have a paragraph where the first sentence says everything that you need to say, and then the rest of the paragraph elaborates needlessly:

Every stomp of Jordan's boots on the crumbling shale announced that he wasn't going to let some ancient book tell him what to do with his life. He strode ahead of the rest of us, and his heavy gait was full of defiance in the face of prophecy. He kicked rocks out of his way and muttered under his breath about long-dead gods who should keep their opinions to themselves.

That first sentence can stand alone — or can be combined with other sentences which actually convey some new information. But trying to turn it into a topic sentence results in a dull, repetitive paragraph.

The One Sentence That Can Ruin Your Whole DayS

Another huge problem with topic sentences I've noticed, in my own writing and other people's, is the tendency to separate out "theme" and "action." Let's say you have a paragraph where the topic sentence contains meaningful context, and the following sentences all describe actions, or circumstances, that we need to know about, and which only make sense if you know the context. It still may make more sense to intersperse the "context" stuff with the "action" stuff a bit more, rather than maintaining some kind of artificial, ninth-grade-essay separation from "topic" and substance."

But for sure, there are some good uses of the topic sentence as well. Even at the best of times, it smacks of "telling" rather than "showing," but there's nothing wrong with a little telling if you do it with style. It can be fun to set up a theme with a clever opening sentence, and then provide variations and amplifications on it in the sentences that follow. And if you're especially sly, your topic sentence can set up an expectation, which the rest of the paragraph then subverts as much as it bears out.

My personal favorite, among topic sentences that actually do some heavy lifting, is the quote followed by the narrator's own observations that bear it out. Like so:

"The ghosts of Delta Prime do not need your pity, Earthling," Allura told me, and it was true. The ghosts were too busy going to their ghostly shopping malls, getting spectral manicures and pedicures, and playing undead bingo, to wonder what I thought of them. I saw them everywhere: holding remembrance services for the living, dancing on the planet's shifting air currents, and huffing the exhaust from my land cruiser, which seemed to affect them like really good sake.

I guess my main point about topic sentences is: Don't overuse them. It can be tempting, in prose fiction, to try and sound pithy, or to signpost for the reader what's going on at any given time. But too much of this sort of tour-guiding in your stories can bore and annoy the reader, even if he/she isn't consciously aware of the reason. A little bit of topic sentencing, here and there, can feel delightfully retro and whimsical. (Chosen at random, here's a lovely topic sentence from P.G. Wodehouse: "George Mackintosh did not, I am glad to say, carry out his mad project to the letter.") But too often, they come across as "telling you what I'm going to tell you, and then telling you what I'm telling you." Best to get the news out there straight away, without any harrumphing and prefacing, most of the time.

So that's this week's Free Advice for Struggling Writers. Next week, if I can bestir myself to finish it, you'll get my dissertation on "denoument versus picking at a scab." So what do you think about topic sentences?

Awesome pulp cover scans by Matthew Kirscht on Flickr.