In Monday’s post, I introduced the topic of this series–building stories from the ground up observing a process–and provided some tips on words as the fundamental unit of stories.
Today, I’m going to provide a few sentences about sentences–for which words of different functionality are building blocks.
Before I continue, I wanted to give some credit where it’s due. The pointers in this series are culled from a variety of sources, but I should give special mention to three excellent books on writing craft: WRITING TOOLS by Roy Peter Clark, WRITER’S HELPER by James Smith, and STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks.
The most effective sentences are short and simple.
Short sentences are more likely to achieve comprehension. But you have to know your market. Know your audience, and write to them.
“Good prose is like a window pane.” —George Orwell
James Smith (WRITER’S HELPER) provides a rule of thumb that sentences should be an average of 12 words. He recommends a maximum of 20. Twenty-five for compound sentences.
Just as sentences should be short, they should also be simple.
Smith writes: “A sentence works best when it expresses a single idea, using no more words than necessary to express that idea. The effective simple sentence states a fact, portrays an act, or paints an image.”
The sentence should contain one subject and one verb. Try to start and end the sentence with a strong word.
“Hate burned in her heart.”
“John pointed the gun.”
Use sentence fragments sparingly and for good storytelling purpose.
In the end, this is what we’re trying to avoid:
But wait, that sounds like a recipe for boring.
Imagine a novel written in five-word sentences. It’d get monotonous pretty fast. Good writing features diversity and rhythm. Rhythm and variety make the reading experience a stimulating one and engage the reader’s brain. More complex sentences enrich the story but remain economical and focused on a singular idea.
A: “The knight extended his sword toward the wizard, who grinned back at him.” (dependent clause)
B: “The knight awoke and mounted her horse.” (dependent clause)
C: “The two knights swung, and their blades rang.” (compound sentence)
Besides keeping sentences short, simple and expressed with variety and rhythm, use active voice whenever possible. Use passive intentionally and sparingly.
subject | verb | object
A: “The wizard cast his spell.” (active)
B: “The spell was cast by the wizard.” (passive)
Here, passive voice results in softer impact and 40% more words to say same thing.
Microsoft Word allows you to check passive voice in your writing. Simply select a passage of text, click “Spelling and Grammar,” click the “Show Readability Statistics” box, and click OK. It’ll show you what percentage of your text is in passive voice. You can then plot this out by section, scene, chapter or however you’d like. Below is an example for my novel SEPARATION.
And that’s a few sentences on sentences. In my next post, we’re going to talk about paragraphs.