As writers we spend most of our time torn between needing to write and needing to market what we’ve written. Then, when we’re writing, our focus is often on improving our characters or the big picture story and characters’ arcs. But one of the fastest ways to improve your writing (and therefore your story) is to get jiggy with the nitty gritty, and by that, I mean honing your sentence level quality.
So here are five tips to help you improve your sentences.
Filtering is when you, the author, add in unnecessary narration, causing the reader to be removed one step from the character. For example:
- I heard
- They saw
- She felt
- He thought
Filtering words like these add in an extra layer, and instead of the reader looking through the eyes of the protagonist, they look at the protagonist. They’re observing the scene. For example:
I heard the owl hooting in the trees and saw the leaves rustle in the canopy.
The reader doesn’t need to read heard or saw because it’s implied in the description of the sound. Those words also put the reader at a distance, where they’re stuck watching what’s happening instead of experiencing it along with the character. Remove those filtering words to bring readers in closer to the scene, so they can hear and see things for themselves:
As the owl hooted in the trees, the leaves rustled in the canopy.
You don’t have to remove every instance of filtering, if, for example, removing it will affect the meaning. But where possible, remove these words to tighten your sentences.
One of my favourite quotes is a juxtaposition that pits perfection against failure.
“I think perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.” (Yohji Yamamoto)
Using a juxtaposition in your description can add depth to both your writing and your characters because they’re symbolic and often produce metaphors and similes, which create vivid imagery.
“The screams continue, some only a few feet away, some so distant and forlorn you could mistake them for something else, for owls, maybe, hooting peacefully in their trees.” (Delirium, Lauren Oliver)
Pitting the horror of screams in the night against the peaceful hooting of owls creates a vivid description that is unexpected for readers.
3) ‘Sense’-ational Sentences
Stories are often compared to pictures; you can produce a simple pen-and-ink drawing or a mixed media, full-color piece of art. If you want to produce the latter, one of the best things you can do is include the senses in your descriptions.
Pen-and-ink: As the night draws in, he puts his arms around me and kisses me.
Full-color: I lose myself in his arms, as the forest, the chirping of night insects, and the rustling of the undergrowth, disappear as his lips touch mine.
By reaching beyond the visual to incorporate sounds and textures, the description becomes more tactile, engaging the readers’ senses and pulling them more fully into the story.
4) Captain Obvious: Crutch Words, Wordiness, and Clichés
These are the words we habitually sprinkle throughout our text, and most of the time, they can be banished from the story without losing any meaning. Examples include words like but, just, then, so, shout, etc, but everyone’s crutches are different.
Next, rid yourself of unnecessary wordiness and adverbs. How? You can streamline your sentences by eliminating any word that, when removed, doesn’t impact the meaning of the sentence.
Bad habits: But then as he gritted his teeth, he realised whether he liked it or not, he really ought to rescue Analise.
Good habits: He gritted his teeth. Whether he liked it or not, he ought to rescue Analise.
Likewise, strengthen your verbs by swapping bland ones for words that help a reader to visualise the scene.
Bad habits: Even though his arms were weak, he held the baby and sang to her.
Good habits: Even though his arms were limp, he cradled the baby and whispered a dreamy lullaby.
Clichés are over-used describing phrases: fit as a fiddle, brave as a lion, head over heels. They’re wasted words in your sentences that readers have seen a million times.
She picked up the sword and sliced through his armor just in the nick of time.
The cliché can be removed to tighten the sentence without losing any meaning:
She picked up the sword and sliced through his armor.
5) First and Last Lines
I’m an obsessive sentence collector. When I see a sentence I love, I highlight it (on my kindle, I’m not committing sacrilege on physical books) or I copy it down into my notes. One of the best places to find amazing sentences is in a book’s first line:
“Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache.” (Six of Crows , Leigh Bardugo)
Why is this good? Because it’s unexpected, and using the unexpected in a sentence (especially your first sentence) surprises the reader and will hook them straight into your book.
Likewise, there are hundreds of famous last lines, often capturing the theme of the book or giving a teaser hook into the next book
Last line (book theme): “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” (Animal Farm, George Orwell)
The final part of the last sentence, showing that the animals can no longer discern between their original human rulers and their new ‘thought-to-be-better’ pig-rulers, is the essence of the book’s moral, political, and philosophical debate. Ending with this thought reminds readers of the idea that’s been reinforced throughout the story.
Last line (series hook): “But now our friendship is gone, replaced by the one thing we still have in common. Our hatred for Maven. I don’t need to be a whisper to know we share a thought. I will kill him.” (The Red Queen, Victoria Aveyard)
Why does this work? Because for one, two people who hate each other are now teaming up due to their mutual dislike of another. Mor importantly, the words I will kill are a statement of action. As the reader, you’re now desperate to know if she succeeds.
Final Quick Tips
Collecting sentences is a great way to deconstruct and learn from them. If you don’t want to wait until they pop up in the books you’re reading, try searching for them in other places, such as famous quotes, song lyrics, poetry, and moments of epiphany in films where the protagonist has a realization linked to the theme.
We have to get our story and character arcs right to hook our readers and create a tension-fuelled plot. But remember that it’s the sentences that get read and contribute to a reader falling in love with your characters. Next time you’re editing your manuscript, spend a little time focusing on the nitty gritty, and I promise you your readers will thank you for it.
Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy, and her first series, Keepers, is due out in November 2017.