Good nonfiction needs both movement and description, says Francis Flaherty, author of The Elements of Story.
One technique he suggests for incorporating both is writing what he calls “right-branching sentences.” These are sentences that, as he writes, “offer up a big dose of action in the beginning so that the writer can branch out into static descriptions in the later, righthand clauses.”
Here’s his example of a right-branching sentence.
The boat smashed into the pier, both because San Francisco’s famous fog blinded the captain, and because the two night watchmen had decided to warm up with some rum below decks.
Let’s test Flaherty’s hypothesis by rearranging his sample sentence to put the static descriptions first. How easy is the following sentence to understand?
San Francisco’s famous fog blinded the captain and the two night watchmen had decided to warm up with some rum below decks, so, as a result, the boat smashed into the pier.
I find Flaherty’s example much easier to understand. Because it quickly tells me that the sentence is about a crash, I interpret the fog and the rum-drinking watchmen in light of that result. In the second example, I don’t know where the sentence is heading. I don’t know why the writer is telling me about those things until the very end of the sentence. At that point, I might have to re-read the sentence to figure out how the whole sentence hangs together.
NOTE: This article was originally published in February 2010. I’ve expanded and republished it because it’s still relevant.