Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tips for Creating Sentences That Flow

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

In my book, Fire up Your Fiction, I give lots of tips with before-and-after examples on topics like avoiding style blunders, picking up the pace, fixing awkward phrasing, dodging info dumps, showing character reactions, and streamlining your writing. Another easy way to amp up your fiction-writing style is to simply look at the length, variety, and structure of your sentences.

In general, it’s best to vary your sentence types and lengths, not only to avoid monotony and amateurish writing, but also to enhance the impact, mood and effect you’re striving for in any given scene.

A few quick tips for adding oomph to your sentences and paragraphs:

~ Vary the length and structure of your sentences.

Within a paragraph, it’s usually best to combine short, long, and medium-length sentences of different forms.

In general, avoid too many short, choppy sentences. Several short subject-verb-object sentences in a row can often seem amateurish, like grade-school writing.

At the other extreme, break up long, convoluted sentences that force the reader to go back and reread the whole thing to get the meaning, like: “Inasmuch as I’d hoped for a reconciliation, circumstances dictated that other factors and other family members played a decisive role in the ongoing…” blah, blah.

For tense scenes, it’s usually more effective to use short, terse sentences, rather than long, meandering ones. And one- or two-word sentences, used judiciously, are excellent for emphasizing a point. A one-word sentence is like a stop sign for the reader. But don't overuse it, or it will lose its power.

(Some of the "before" examples below are exaggerated to get the point across quickly.)

~ Vary the beginnings of your sentences.

Don’t start several sentences in a row with “He” or “She,” or even alternating with a name, or “The man” or “The woman,” etc.:

Before:

The girl was wearing a short leather skirt and a tight tank top. She had long shapely legs that seemed to go on forever. She turned to him and brushed a few strands of blond hair away from her eyes. She flashed a smile, but didn’t walk toward him. She went the other way.

After:

The girl was wearing a short leather skirt and a tight tank top. Her long shapely legs seemed to go on forever. She turned to him and flashed a smile, brushing a few strands of blond hair away from her eyes. But instead of walking toward him, she went the other way.

Don’t start sentence after sentence with a gerund (ing verb):

Creeping to the office door, Eileen stood listening. Hearing nothing, she opened it and peeked out. Seeing no one in the hallway, she headed for the door near the entrance to the showroom. Entering the room, she turned on the light and closed the door behind her. Expecting to see a room filled with stolen artwork, Eileen was disappointed.

(Above example is exaggerated for effect.)

And for fiction, feel free to ignore that old rule about not starting a sentence with “And,” “But,” or “So.”

~ Rearrange the ideas for a more sophisticated feel:

Before:

His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He parked in the darkness. He closed the car door carefully after him. He drew his gun. He was relieved to see no lights in the windows. He walked quietly up the path to the back door.

After:

His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He drove around, then parked in the darkness. Closing the car door carefully after him, he drew his gun and crept forward. As he walked quietly up the path to the back deck, he was relieved to see no lights in the windows.

Change up “and” sentences, which can seem clunky and amateurish.

Before:

He was tall and thin with a long narrow face and looked exhausted.

After:

Tall and thin with a long narrow face, he looked exhausted.

Before:

The bag lady wore a ragged overcoat and she trudged along, pushing a shopping cart full of junk.

After:

The bag lady, who wore a ragged overcoat, trudged along, pushing a shopping cart full of junk.

Or:

Her ragged overcoat hanging on her thin frame, the bag lady trudged along, pushing a shopping cart overloaded with junk.

Combine sentences and reword for better flow:

Before:

Ben Cross was a top-notch investigator. He was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelley walked in.

After:

Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelly walked in.

Or: Shelly walked in the café and looked around. Ben Cross, a successful, well-connected security contractor, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut.

No run-ons:

Watch out for run-on sentences or comma splices, like “Her son was an athlete he played all sports.”Or “He doesn’t play football anymore, he injured his back." Fix these by inserting a period, dash, or semicolon, or a conjunction like and, or, nor, but, for, so, as, yet, since, because, etc. "He doesn't play football anymore because he injured his back."

~ To add emphasis, isolate the significant word, phrase or sentence on its own line:

For a critical idea you want readers to ponder, move the pivotal sentence down to a new line, with a space below it. This pause for significance alerts the reader to the full impact of the sentence.

Before:  

Sheryl was worried. If the coroner ruled the death suspicious, that would lead to a full-scale investigation. Detective O’Reilly would turn over every stone searching for answers. What he might find could put an end to all of Sheryl’s dreams.

The CSIs busied themselves around the body. Sheryl wished she were somewhere else.

After – Note how the last sentence below gains significance because it ends the paragraph and the chapter:  

Sheryl had difficulty breathing.

If the coroner ruled the death suspicious, that would lead to a full-scale investigation. Detective O’Reilly would turn over every stone searching for answers.

And what he found could put an end to all her dreams.

How the Experts do it:

Here’s an intriguing chapter ending by Harlan Coben in his bestselling thriller, Play Dead:


But of course, he could not tell Laura any of those things. She would never just accept his word. She would demand to know how he knew so much about David’s drowning.

And that was something he could never tell her.

Partial sentences can also be excellent for emphasis, especially at the end of a scene or chapter, as in this chapter ending from Robert Crais’ The Sentry:


...he told himself the violence in his life had cost him everything, but he knew that was not true. As lonely as he sometimes felt, he still had more to lose.

He could lose his best friend.

Or himself.

Also, see Successful Sentence Styles for Stories, Part I, on Crime Fiction Collective, which talks about incomplete sentences in fiction - those that work and those that don't really.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

7 comments:

  1. A lot of good information. Thank you for taking the time to post it.

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  2. You're welcome, Summer! Glad you find it useful. And thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

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  3. Great advice, and exactly what I was looking for. I really appreciate the examples, they make it much easier for me to recognize my own writing style and what I need to change. Thank you so much for your generosity.

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  4. Hi Jodie! This article was so helpful to me. I hope you don't mind, but I featured it on my blog: http://rainydaysandlattes.com/2016/03/02/editing-your-books-sentence-structure/

    Thanks again!

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  5. I'm so glad to know my writing is more like the 'after' examples! Thanks for helping me realize I'm on the right track. Cheers!

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