Vary Sentences to Make Your Writing Interesting
(guest post by M.R. Anglin)
When I submitted my new book, Prince of the Sun, Princess of the Moon, to the publisher, I had already written the second book in the series and had a rough draft of the third ready. My release day came and went, and I set down to prepare the second book to send to my publisher. But when I read the draft, I noticed something odd. The first few chapters felt . . . dry. Normally, I like to use the first few chapters as an introduction to the point of view characters (those characters whose POV I’ll be telling the story from). But this time, it felt like I was tossing the characters at the reader saying, “Here. This is so-and-so. Let’s get the intros out of the way so we can get to the story.” To be frank, it was boring.
And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The content of the chapters themselves were interesting; the characters felt compelling to me; but the presentation was off. Then it hit me. It was the structure of my opening sentences. In the first five chapters, four of them started in roughly the same manner. That made the text come off as stale.
I had known for a long time that the first sentence in a story will draw your reader in or will put them off. But now I’m realizing that the first few sentences in your early chapters could just as easily color your story in a negative way.
For an example, I’d like to share with you the first sentences of the first five chapters in the sequel while in revision:
1. The human world had a saying that always made Plandte smile: “Great things come in small packages.”
2. Alandri lifted her hair and examined herself in the mirror.
3. Lumina alighted on the sun and blinked in its brilliance.
4. Marcos tapped his fingers on the desk in his apartment, listening to the hold music on the other end of the phone.
5. Shielle narrowed her eyes at her computer and continued to type.
Do you see it? After the first chapter, there is no variation in sentence structure. They follow the pattern “character, verb, object/prepositional phrase.” Having the same type of sentence over and over again gets monotonous and boring. The solution: vary the sentences.
There are several ways to change up the sentence structures so that your old standbys don’t get stale. Here are some examples:
- Start with dialogue. Some writers don’t like this technique because it sort of throws the reader in with no context, but I am a fan. I just try to explain what’s happening quickly and smoothly without an infodump.
- Start with a gerund. For example, “Looking in the mirror never gave Amber an accurate view of herself.” In this case, the phrase “Looking in the mirror” is the subject of the sentence even though it contains the verb “looking.”
- Start with some background descriptions. I don’t like doing this unless I tie it into a character. For example, “The setting sun sparkled off the lake water, dazzling Kevin’s eyes.”
There are other ways to vary your sentences to make your writing interesting. So don’t settle for just one. Find different and interesting ways to give your sentences a punch and see if it doesn’t make your story that much more interesting.
-*heart* M.R. Anglin
M.R. Anglin has always had a fascination with space—particularly the moon and stars. She also has three amazing nephews, two adorable “near-nephews” (with another one on the way), and one brilliant niece, so it’s no wonder she eventually wrote a story that combines these loves into one. You can often find her gazing up at the Florida sky at night or hunching over her notebook/computer by day.
She is the author of several books, including the self-published, ongoing Silver Foxes series and Lucas, Guardian of Truth (LampPost 2012). She has also has stories included in anthologies and posted online.
Social Media Links:
Purchase Link for referenced book title: https://www.amazon.com/Prince-Princess-Moon-Rulers-Galaxy-ebook/dp/B078T6KJSN
Should you use flashbacks?
Expert Harvey Chapman says, “…if you can tell the story without them then so much the better.”
Author K.M. Weiland says, “Don’t let unnecessary flashbacks take over and rob the forward momentum from your story’s main conflict.”
Author Nancy Kress says, “Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over.”
Author Joëlle Anthony says, “Flashbacks inevitably go on too long and aren’t usually the best way to tell a story. A flashback is only effective if it moves the story forwards and it’s the only way to tell that part of the story.”
Screenwriter Jenna Milly says, “It’s better to see your character react to the information the writer wants to get out there in the here and now rather than have it explained in flashback.”
Personally, a recent professional critique made me realize I shouldn’t use a flashback in an opening scene. Making the story chronological gives the reader a chance to be grounded in the present. Author Bharti Kirchner says, “Don’t use flashback immediately after the opening, when the story hasn’t yet gotten off the ground.”
Another editor pointed out where a flashback scene in my novel wasn’t necessary. I read the story without the flashback and it made sense, so I totally cut it. Maybe writing the flashback was necessary for me to know what the characters were doing, but it wasn’t necessary for my reader.
But how do I get the information from the past into my story without a flashback?
First off, during a life and death situation, you don’t. A main character hanging by their fingertips doesn’t have time or energy to spend on memories—they’re trying to figure out how to survive!
Something from the past can be shared in brief dialogue or thoughts. And these thoughts or words could be inspired by a found object, sensory experience, or current event. In other words, something reminds the character of the past. For example, certain scents take me back to a vacation spot in the redwoods when I was a child.
Through conflict. Jenna Milly says, “Or better yet, another character notices how upset your protagonist is when he or she picks up the ring and then pushes for answers. This is how you get conflict – in the here and now – into a scene and also give us the information that would come out in the flashback.”
Use summaries. “One way to keep readers engaged with summaries is to keep them short and mix them between scenes,” Kyla Bagnall says. “You can also use a summary sentence or two as a transition between scenes.”
Tips for using flashbacks:
In her article “The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks,” K.M. Weilland shares two reasons to have flashbacks. First, “the character has an interesting backstory.” And second, “the backstory moves the plot.”
In her article “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” Nancy Kress talks about using a flashback after a strong scene, orienting the reader in time and space, and using verb tense conventions to guide the reader in and out of the flashback.
In his article “How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing,” Harvey Chapman has three points: 1. “Make It Clear You are Moving Back in Time.” 2. “Hook the Reader First.” 3. “Make the Flashbacks Natural.”
And I love what Kayla Bagnall says, “A flashback should significantly alter either how the reader perceives the present, or how the character does.” This is from her article: “5 Ways To Handle The Passing Of Time In Your Story.”
Flashbacks can be a useful tool in nonfiction, too. This article “Time Traveling: Writing Graceful Flashbacks” by Mason Inman has interesting examples and explanations.
Introspection by your main character is good, but it can also be too much of a good thing. I know I get annoyed when introspection does the following:
I like what novelist Gail Gaymer Martin says, “Too much can be boring since introspection is passive, and too little deprives the reader of getting to know the depth of a character’s needs, longings, and struggles.”
Check that your main character’s introspection serves a purpose. Does your character change because of his thoughts? Does she realize something new? Is a new action realized due to the internal monologue? “Introspection is one of the key elements of growing up and moving forward,” Kelly Rogers says. That works for our characters too.
Just like with description, mixing internal dialogue in with action helps avoid too much at once. “That new understanding or new goal or desire, and the size of it, may only become apparent in bits and pieces and stages, not necessarily one huge Moment.” – Emma Darwin
Introspection should also show something of the main character’s personality or beliefs. I love this quote I found in an absolutewrite forum, “Make sure it oozes personality: Is your character funny? Sarcastic? Morbidly dark? Hyperbolic? Adding bits of their personality to the introspection makes it more engaging.” – Raivnor
Keep on target. Elizabeth Grayson says, “While our thoughts sometimes come in stream of consciousness, a genre fiction character’s thoughts are relentlessly logical. They must segue from one to the next in a manner the reader can follow — even if the character you’re writing is a flake.”
What are your thoughts on introspection?
Sometimes we all need encouragement to keep writing. I have several things I do when I’m discouraged.
One, since I’m a quote junkie, is read or collect encouraging quotes. Here are some that either encouraged me or were reminders to press on:
“The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write.” – Gabriel Fielding
“It’s easy to think that you haven’t made any progress when you forget where you were when you started out. Be kind to yourself, you’ve come a long way and overcome a lot.” – Patricia Caldwell
“A book might not sell, but that doesn’t mean the writer wasted time on it, not as long as the writer is learning and growing.” – Laurel Gale
“Rejected pieces aren't failure; unwritten pieces are.” – Greg Daugherty
“The voice of the inner critic can shut the whole process down. I tell it to take a number.” – Barbara Taylor Brown
“Have faith in your art, even when others don't.” – Sean Qualls
“The best way to nurture your love of words and language is to be around words and language.” – Mary Kole
This last quote is a good segue into number two. Catch up on reading. This comes in two parts.
Today I’m reading some writing newsletters I’ve not gotten around to. I’m reassured by things I already know. I’m inspired or challenged by others. I learn something new. And I share some of these posts or articles with my tribe.
Part two is reading in and outside my genre(s). That’s always a good reminder of what I want to do. Plus, it gets me into the rhythm of those types of stories or makes me look at something in a new way. Read what Nicholas Sparks has to say on this topic, “By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it's possible to learn how things are done - the mechanics of writing, so to speak - and which genres and authors excel in various areas.” Yes, I learn by what others do and don’t do.
Three, spend time with your writing tribe.
It can be done online or in person. Online is a nice quick fix. I use Facebook groups, writing list serves, and Twitter.
Face to face takes more time, but in the end is more rewarding for me. I have a critique group and just knowing a meeting is coming up makes me want to have something ready for them to hear and comment on. But even if I don’t, I get encouragement from them.
Four, attend writing events.
These can be book signings, talks, workshops, conferences, intensives, retreats, writing times. I almost always get something out of them. Sometimes I get a whole lot. And, I'm with my tribe. But most importantly, they inspire me to write.
So, what helps you have the courage to get back to writing? Feel free to comment below.
Recently, I’ve seen some writers post this question, “What do I blog about?” One writer didn’t understand the difference between a blog and a website and how the two work together—I’m sure she’s not alone.
I’m going to talk about these in reverse order.
Blog versus website
First, you can have a blog that stands alone. Blogs let you talk about things that interest you. Like social media, blogs can let you interact with others. For blogs that’s usually done via comments. I like what Andrew Sullivan has to say, “Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”
Or you can have a blog that is a feature of your website. Blogs can give active content (changing content) on a website. If you want to only share links or funny videos, social media might be the best choice. However, a website can let you blog, and share links, etc.
Here’s a good resource for more info: Blogging - What is it and Why is it Popular?. I will offer a caveat—don’t blog with the intention of making money. To use a cliché “that ship has sailed.” “If you love writing or making music or blogging or any sort of performing art, then do it. Do it with everything you’ve got. Just don’t plan on using it as a shortcut to making a living.” – Seth Godin
What to blog
You can blog about anything you are interested in, but the most successful way to keep up with a blog is to blog about what you know, or are learning, and are passionate about. That’s why many writers blog about writing—myself included.
Penelope Trunk says, “A blog is a great way to figure out what you want to do with yourself because writing regularly is a path to self-discovery.” That’s one purpose of blogging. But here’s an interesting thought to keep in mind if you want followers, “People like to learn things, but they especially like to learn what they can do to improve their lives.” – Donna Merrill
When to blog
It’s up to you. But if you don’t continue to have content, your blog dies.
I like having a schedule. My goal on this blog is to blog once a week. Sometimes I miss my goal. But because I’m planning for it, I hit my goal more often. Neil Patel says, “If you want to continually grow your blog, you need to learn to blog on a consistent basis.” Amy Harrison says, “(Superheroes) can disappear for months or years and then burst back onto the scene with a climactic display of their impressive powers. Okay for superheroes, not okay for your content. It might feel boring and constraining, but publishing consistently brings results.”
How to publicize or promote your blog
You can share your blog on social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook. I find specific groups who are interested in a topic are good places to share.
Some bloggers have a newsletter email list. They send new content and old content to their subscribers.
Include a link to your blog in your email signature.
Answer questions with links to your blogs posts in forums and groups. (Of course, your post must really apply to the question.)
Thank those who reshare or tweet your posts. And if you quote others in your blog post, let them know.
Got more questions?
I know this hasn’t answered everything, so if you have further questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.
I thought I was done talking about this topic until I looked at the opening paragraphs of a book and found yet another blunder that stopped me reading--contradictory actions (blunder #6). I remember in high school a boy joking, “Some people can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.” Ha ha. Those are possible for most of us. But when actions don’t work at the same time it stops the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Here are a few examples where one character can’t do both at the same time:
The fixes include:
Blunder #7 – oxymorons
I should probably clarify and say “unintended” oxymorons or contradictions. Oxymorons are used with purpose and many have become accepted phrases in our culture. But those times where the words make a reader stop and think, that’s not possible, those are the ones to avoid.
Some examples – you can find many more online:
Blunder #8 – incorrect chronology
Remember cause and effect. I see writers put the effect before the cause. E.g. He opened his umbrella because it started to rain. The sentence is technically correct, but what happened first? The raindrops. Let the reader see and feel that instead of being told about it. E.g. A cold raindrop hit his nose, so he opened his umbrella.
Here are a few other examples with better chronology following:
What caused the character to react, should usually come first.
Blunder #9 – duplicate actions
This is when the character has already done an action and repeats it, but it’s not logical to repeat it. E.g. Jon scooted out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. Usually there’s some dialogue and then it appears the writer has forgotten that Jon already sat down. E.g. Jon plopped down in a chair at the kitchen table. Wait, what? He’d have to stand up first before he could sit down again.
Blunder #10 – obtrusive taglines
Instead of using the almost invisible said and asked, if a writer has characters growl, intrude, insert, exclaim, proclaim, cry, etc. it quickly becomes annoying. Sure, an occasional shout or yell or whisper is fine, but for the most part other words show the writer is trying too hard. It’s commonly the mark of a beginner.
It’s often hard to catch our own blunders. That’s why critiques and professional editing is necessary.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.