Building Blocks of a Novel: Sentences

Hi all, Julie here!

This is the second post in a series. If you want to read them in order, the first post was Building Blocks of a Novel: Word Choice.

The central analogy of this series compares writing a novel to constructing a city. If words are the bricks, then sentences are the walls. They provide support and structure, but they also control how a building is experienced. High ceilings, narrow passageways, walls of glass and steel–change these things and the whole building changes. In the same way, each sentence makes a difference, and each must be deliberately crafted.

Switching to a different metaphor for a moment, if we think of a novel as a living body, sentences create the heartbeat. Choices a writer makes about sentences can alter that heartbeat—make it speed up, slow down, pound harder, or even skip out of rhythm.

Here are some tips for creating great sentences:

Use sentence length deliberately. Long sentences can force the reader to linger, allowing an image to appear in the reader’s mind. Here’s an example from Truthwitch by Susan Dennard:

“As Iseult det Midenzi wriggled free from her sea-soaked tunic, boots, pants, and finally underclothes, everything hurt. Every peeled-off layer revealed ten new slices from the limestone and barnacles, and each burst of spindrift made her aware of ten more.

This ancient, crumbling lighthouse was effective for hiding, but it was inescapable until the tide went out. For now, the water outside was well above Iseult’s chest, and hopefully that depth—as well as the crashing waves between here and the marshy shoreline—would deter the Bloodwitch from following.”

Long sentences can also carry the narrative along, picking up speed as they go. Here’s an example from The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry:

“The walls and floor are aging now, the light still juddering through its phases like a movie from a projector, until the drywall starts crumbling, spiderwebbed with vines and weeds. From those vines, flowers blossom and wither and grow back and die again. Seasons stretch into years stretch into decades stretch into centuries, all in moments, while I can hear Beau’s breath, make out his edges through the millisecond of dark before another morning comes.”

By contrast, short sentences cut out all the window dressing. They ensure pauses. Short sentences change a rolling pace to a staccato rhythm. This can be effective at focusing attention on the plain meaning of the words. Here’s an example from The Martian by Andy Weir:

“I ache all over. And the shovels I have are made for taking samples, not heavy digging. My back is killing me. I foraged in the medical supplies and found some Vicodin. I took it about ten minutes ago. Should be kicking in soon.”

One thing I love about the above example is how a sentence starts with “And…” rather than continuing from the previous sentence. If those two sentences were joined into one, the resulting long sentence would ruin the effect that the shorter sentences create: a man in pain giving a spare description of his circumstances.

Vary the structure. This is important advice if you have a favorite sentence structure, because you may not realize how frequently you repeat it. Your reader will notice, though, and those wonderful sentences will lose their power. I personally love parenthetical phrases—especially when set off by dashes—but if I use too many on a page the sentences become muddled. Changing up the structure keeps the reader engaged. It combats boredom. Here’s an example of varied sentence structure, from Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard:

“He stares at me, scrutinizing everything from my face to my worn boots. It makes me squirm. After a long moment, he heaves a breath and lets me go. Stunned, I can only stare at him. When a silver coin spins through the air, I barely have the wits to catch it. A tetrarch. A silver tetrarch worth one whole crown. Far more than any of the stolen pennies in my pockets.”

One of the things I like best about the above example is the fact that the last three sentences are fragments. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore that red underline in Word that tells you the sentence isn’t grammatically correct. Here, it’s clear that those sentences are thoughts in the narrator’s head, and we rarely think in complete sentences.

Check for clarity. Sometimes we try so hard to create prose that stands out that we let communication suffer in the name of style. You can create lovely, lyrical, complex sentences, but your writing will suffer if clarity is sacrificed. Parallel structure, consistent tense, and clear pronouns are all the more important when sentences become more intricate. Here’s a made-up example of what I mean:

“The trail was blanketed in snow and shadows, creating a patchwork design that climbed into the mountains. The hikers paused. Their feet ache in their damp boots, memories of so many miles imprinted on their soles. It’s terrifying, Megan thought. Terrifying, yet beautiful. Her freezing toes wiggle inside her boots as they press forward, leaning into the wind.”

This example is loaded with clarity issues. The first line seems to say that the trail was creating a patchwork design, when it’s actually the snow and shadows. There are multiple tense changes, and it’s unclear what Megan finds terrifying yet beautiful. The view, or her aching feet? The last line seems to say that her toes are pressing forward, leaning into the wind.

How’s this instead?

“Snow and shadows blanketed the trail, creating a patchwork design that climbed into the mountains. The hikers paused. Their feet ached in their damp boots, memories of so many miles imprinted on their soles. It’s terrifying, Megan thought, her gaze taking in the view. Terrifying, yet beautiful. Her freezing toes wiggled inside her boots as she and the others pressed forward, leaning into the wind.”

Still not great prose, but the sentences are clearer! They make more sense and better support the story.

What are your thoughts on sentences? Do you have any advice to add? Please share your ideas in the comments!


5 Responses to Building Blocks of a Novel: Sentences

  1. Virginia Anderson Feb 26 2016 at 10:07 am #

    What I’ve had to work on most has been sacrificing clarity for rhythm. I struggle to find the precise words that will express what readers need to know while giving me some control over the flow and beat. What I admire most about great writers is their ability to find the kinds of words that Mark Twain called “lightning” as opposed to the “lightning bug.” In my latest edit of my WIP, I simplified a lot of my metaphors, sometimes even those I loved, to opt for clarity and directness. One trick that makes it possible to see these wandering, muddy patches is to set the manuscript aside for as long as you can manage. You see so much you can never see the first time around.

    • Julie Feb 26 2016 at 10:35 am #

      Hi Virginia! Such a great comment–thanks for adding your thoughts. Hearing about your struggle for clarity helps me feel less alone! I love to manipulate the rhythm and beat of my prose too, but sometimes I have to let go and just state things plainly. CPs have pointed out places I repeat phrasing (just because I like it!) or describe things in a contradictory way (just because I like the sound of those words!) And I agree with you about setting writing aside! The longer the better. 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting!

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  3. Jay Lemming Mar 6 2016 at 10:00 pm #

    Hey Julie, I haven’t yet read Part I of this series but I’ll have to check it out. I really appreciate how you break down the different kinds of sentences and articulate what they accomplish. I love music. I love listening to it while I’m writing and doing pretty much everything else besides. Many writing coaches will tell writers to read their drafts out loud to listen for any clunkiness. I always believe there is a kind of music in well-flowing sentences strung together, and that you have the chance to create narrative magic by mixing the flow of longer and shorter sentences. I think your post comes at the same idea from a different angle but says pretty much the same thing. Yes, clarity is crucial and the most important thing. I always feel as though the music of language can create an even more visceral kind of engagement with the reader. Jay

    • Julie Mar 7 2016 at 7:20 pm #

      Hi Jay! I love what you say about the “music in well-flowing sentences.” So true! Sentences definitely create the music of a piece of writing, and I think we’re the same in our appreciation of that aspect. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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