Sentences are the writer’s stock-in-trade. Manipulating them should be as essential to us as manipulating algebraic equations is to a mathematician, or matching color swatches is to an interior designer.
Here are a few bits of knowledge that I’ve gleaned, or accidentally discovered, about how to write better sentences for fiction in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
By the way, I usually write anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 words per year, and this is what seems to work.
A phrase is better than a clause
Whenever possible, avoid using extra clauses. Try to replace them with participle, gerund, prepositional, or appositive phrases.
There’s no law stating that you can’t open a sentence with a dependent clause, but it’s becoming more modern not to do so.
Here’s an example:
When she was a child, Ariella discovered her superhuman powers.
As a child, Ariella discovered her superhuman powers.
Which one is better? Arguably the second. The first sentence begins with a dependent clause. Again, this is not wrong, but it is less efficient. To make matters worse, however, this particular dependent clause uses a ‘be’ verb, which is inexcusable. Stick with action verbs.
The primary reason to limit dependent clauses is that a subject-verb combination is very powerful and should be reserved for true action. In modern fiction, we generally restrict clauses to one, maybe two, in each sentence, so that the action is clear, direct, and simple. Any more than that, and you run the risk of writing like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Check out this sentence from The Scarlet Letter:
“It (Hester’s face) was like a mask; or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.”
Ugh. Four verbs in that sentence. Plus two confused similes. Hawthorne is notorious for his ADD regarding similes. Just read that sentence again, and you can see him changing his mind about which comparison he wanted to use. Red rover, red rover, send an editor on over.
Still, his storytelling was tight. I’ve always said that The Scarlet Letter would be a massive hit today if someone would just rewrite it in a modern American style.
Metaphorical language has to fit the theme
Let’s say you’re writing a horror story about a herd of vampire kittens who descend upon and terrorize a small town.
(You like that idea? It’s all yours. My gift to you. Run with it.)
Here are two variations on the same sentence:
Its fangs bared, the vicious little feline leapt on the old woman’s horrified face like a spurt of blood out of a vein.
Its fangs bared, the vicious little feline leapt on the old woman’s horrified face like an Olympic track-and-field gold medalist.
Which one reads better? The first one, obviously. But why? Because spurt of blood is more closely aligned with horror than Olympic track-and-field gold medalist is.
There you go—I just saved you the cost of an MFA. You’re welcome. Seriously, that’s a huge part of writing traditional storytelling fiction. Choosing every word carefully, particularly in metaphorical language. It’s important in creating an overall effect.
In some of my books, I’ve gone so far as to write down a single “deep image” that I want every book to reflect. They’re one-word themes, such as competition or meat. Then, when I drop bits of metaphorical color into the book, I make sure that each figure of speech is oriented to that deep image. It’s a technique borrowed from poetry.
I’m not going to lie, though: doing so does slow down the words-per-hour rate. Thinking of a thematically-aligned metaphor can be hard. Sometimes I just skip it altogether.
Put the subject and verb next to one another
Which sentence is better?
Karina, who found herself paralyzed with fear beneath the furry blood-soaked predator, the way her dead mother had undoubtedly felt a few minutes earlier, screamed.
Paralyzed with fear beneath the furry blood-soaked predator, the way her dead mother had undoubtedly felt a few minutes earlier, Karina screamed.
The second one is better. Why? The subject and verb, Karina and screamed, are next to one another, with zero words separating them.
In the first sentence, however, Karina and screamed are literally at opposite ends of the sentence, with 20 words separating them.
The second sentence is waaay more modern.
The first sentence is a nineteenth-century structure known as a periodic sentence, which is defined as any sentence that saves its independent clause until the end. In other words, the verb arrives dead last in the sentence. This was Hawthorne’s favorite tool, the go-to structure for Henry James, and the preferred syntax for a lot of other Victorian-era writers whom nobody reads anymore… mostly because there’s too much freaking space between the subjects and the verbs.
Compare sentences with music. Minimalist songs tend to last longer because they don’t have a lot of instrumental parts to sound dated. Take the song Rock On, by David Essex, or even Ben E. King’s Stand By Me. Both sound modern as a result, especially “Rock On”, even though it’s almost half a century old.
Sentences are like that too. Subjects and verbs are like the rhythm section.
Fun fact: In German, this old syntactic model is still common. Germans typically hold their verbs back until the very last moment. This denies people the meaning of the sentence until the very end, forcing them to read or listen closely to the entire phrasing. It’s possible that this explains why Germans are famously meticulous—because their language demands it.
Maybe you prefer to read this longer, ornate style. Maybe you like to lose yourself in a long labyrinth of clauses. That’s fine. You can find boatloads of old books in any library or at digital repositories of history such as Hathitrust. Just be sure to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind you, and let your loved ones know how long you’ll be gone. It can get dangerous in that dark forest of clauses.
Me, I live in 2019, and I like to sell books. So I’ll continue working in the modern style.
Use Interior Monologue and Information
This is not specifically about sentence structure, but I can’t resist mentioning this.
Why those two things? Because they’re the only two things that books do better than filmed entertainment.
Written words help us get inside characters’ heads much more easily than any other medium. For interior monologue, filmed content has to rely on voiceover, or direct address to the camera. Those are inferior methods of accomplishing what books do quite efficiently.
Here’s an example:
Samuel stared at the trembling, furry little animal in his hands. It had killed his grandmother, that much he knew. The smart thing would be to swing it around by its tail like a sock full of rocks and then dash its evil brains against the wall. But it was hard to reconcile this little tabby face with the same blood-drinking creature that had sucked the life out of his dear Mawmaw. In the end, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not since that afternoon at the farm. To this day, he still woke up in night sweats, dreaming of the bag of kittens he’d drowned in the pond under the stern tutelage of his grandfather. It didn’t matter how many humans it had killed—he couldn’t kill this animal. He’d never be able to sleep again.
Onscreen, you could accomplish this, in a limited way, with flashbacks. But during my time in Hollywood, every development exec I knew rolled eyeballs at flashback scenes in a script, and most writers avoided them as a result. Maybe you could have the character speaking his or her true thoughts under his breath. That works, briefly—like in Die Hard, when John McClane mutters ruefully to himself as he crawls through the ventilation shaft: Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs. Or a really gifted actor can even express some of that in his or her face.
But none of it works as well as a paragraph in a book.
The other thing that words do better than video is relay information. That’s why, in the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series (link: Amazon US), I occasionally will toss in paragraphs of historical or geographical or cultural background about the place where Ainsley finds herself. For people reading on tablets, I also provide links to stable, respected websites that provide even more background and context. Judging from the reviews, some readers really appreciate those links. Those who consider them a distraction can easily skip over them, so I see no downside to the practice.
Overall, written words convey information a thousand times better than filmed content. Using this advantage will make the best experience possible for the reader, hopefully compelling the person to put aside the newest episode of her favorite sitcom in favor of one more chapter. This is important, given that all of us can now read books and watch video on the same damn device. It’s a battle for attention.
Read Stephen King
I’m only half joking. He’s a terrific prose writer, and I marvel at the way his sentences manage to be propulsive and modern and stylish all at the same time. No doubt, we’ll still be reading him in a hundred years. If you want more specific language tips from King, check out On Writing, which is a bit of a Bible for a lot of us novelist types.
In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.