Making Powerful Sentences
November 24, 2007
No matter how amazing your story is, if your sentences are weak, nobody will want to read your amazing story because it will be too agonizing to get through a paragraph, so give your sentences some power.
Know Your Grammar and Style Basics
Subject. Predicate. Direct object. Conjunctions. Modifiers. Punctuation. Tense. All of these things are the basics, which you often learn in elementary school and introductory English classes. Learn the basics first, and then you can focus on adding power to those basics later.
Don't Hold Back...Initially
When you start writing, let yourself go crazy. After all, it's just a first draft, and you can fix all of the problems later.
If you want to spill your storyline out first in choppy sentences, do it. You can add the poetry later.
If you want to go on and on describing just the first little scene, do it. You can thin out the excess later.
Pick a Tone, Any Tone, and Stick with It
The tone of your work creates emotions in your readers. If you want your writing to feel unbiased, stick with a dry, scientific tone. If you want your writing to feel passionate, use an opinionated tone with lots of examples. To make your audience feel relaxed, use a casual tone. For a humorous mood, use a light-hearted tone. You can even make your audience feel that the narrator is arrogant, sophisticated, or unintelligent just by changing the tone of your work.
Decide the tone you want to use early on to save yourself time during revisions. When in doubt, be as plain as possible, and spice it up as needed later.
Rearrange Words for Clarity
Think about how the location of each word in a sentence affects the meaning of the sentence.
The bobcat trainer was fired from her job because the cat scratched the child two days later.
That sentence is confusing because words were placed in the wrong locations. Did the cat scratch the child two days after the trainer was fired or before?
It would be less confusing to write, The bobcat trainer was fired from her job two days after the cat scratched the child.
Get to the Point ... or Don't
Imagine that you run to the emergency room after finding out that a family member was in an car accident. Would you want the doctor to first tell you about the details of the test results or whether or not your loved one is expected to live? Most of us would want to hear the doctor say "He wasn't seriously injured" long before we want to hear that his blood pressure is a little high.
Likewise, your readers want you to get to the point, so most of the time you'll want to get right to it.
There are exceptions to this rule, though. If you are trying to build suspense, you won't want to give away the point immediately. You need to decide how much suspense you want to force on your reader.
Notice how each of the following sentences conveys a different sense of urgency.
Blood covered the child's shirt, but she wasn't seriously hurt.
The child wasn't seriously hurt even though blood covered her shirt.
The beginning of the sentence tends to stand out in your mind more than the end, so if you want to grab the reader's attention, save the less exciting details for the end.
Someone left the front door open, and nobody was in the room with the child, so it was easy for the ferocious cat to wander into the house and attack the toddler.
It was easy for the ferocious cat to wander into the house and attack the toddler because somebody had left the front door open, and nobody was in the room with the child.
Move Emphasized Words Out of the Middle
Readers usually remember the first and last words of a sentence while words in the middle fade away.
Blood covered the child's shirt, but she wasn't seriously hurt. In this sentence, blood and hurt are emphasized, but the image of the shirt and the child may fade away.
The child wasn't seriously hurt even though blood covered her shirt. In this sentence the child and shirt are emphasized, but the shocking part of the scene, the blood, isn't prominent.
We could change the previous sentences to emphasize the child and blood by writing, The child wasn't seriously hurt even though her shirt was covered in blood.
Prune Away Useless Words and Phrases
Look at your sentence and think about how useful each word is within it. Does it really convey the meaning you intend? Is it necessary? Did you add it because it makes the sentence sound more important and official because you were worried that it would sound uneducated otherwise?
Here are some examples.
- in nature
This cat is aggressive in nature.
Are you trying to say that the cat is naturally aggressive? Then you should write, This cat is naturally aggressive. Are you saying that it is aggressive when in the wild? Then write, This cat is aggressive when in the wild. Are you just saying that the cat has an aggressive character? Then write, This cat is aggressive.
The cat scratched the child in an aggressive manner.
The word manner is unnecessary and even makes the aggression seem less aggressive. The cat scratched the child aggressively is enough.
- type of / sort of
That cat was a type of lynx.
If you're trying to say that it is a specific species of the Lynx genus, then just say what it is, That cat was a Lynx rufus, a bobcat.
- like / seemed / as if / as though
The cat hissed as though it were angry and scared the child.
Unless you're suggesting that the narrator is unsure about whether the cat is angry or playing, instead write, The angry cat's hiss scared the child. Have the courage to say it rather than suggest it.
- more or less
The cat was more or less ferocious.
Well, which was it? Was it more ferocious or less ferocious, and what was it more or less ferocious than? Just write, The cat was ferocious.
- basically / essentially / primarily
The cat was basically mean.
If you're not trying to show how everything in the cat's personality was based on meanness, then omit the word.
The cat walked inside of the house.
It would save time and space by just writing, The cat walked inside the house.
There was a wild cat that scratched a child.
Remove the there since it doesn't add anything to the sentence except boredom: A wild cat scratched a child.
The cat suddenly leapt into the air.
You can usually omit suddenly if an action wouldn't normally happen slowly, and since I haven't seen many leaps happening in slow motion, I would write, The cat leapt into the air. If you need to use suddenly to describe an action then you probably need to choose words with a stronger impact.
Consolidate Excess Words
We often speak with clichés and phrases that are longer than necessary, but we don't realize it, so it often ends up in our writing. Sometimes our lengthy descriptions make a story more colorful, and they can add to a character's personality, but they can also make our stories tiring to read. Unless you are using such a phrase to achieve a desired effect, try to find shorter ways to convey the same meaning.
- due to the fact that = because
- in order to = to
- fleeting glance = glance
- disappear from sight = disappear
- future outlook = future or outlook
Use Words Appropriate for Your Audience
I know you want to use that big vocabulary word you just learned, but if your readers don't know the word, they're either going to ignore it or stop reading, so they can look up its definition. If you must use such words, be sure to define it, preferably creatively, earlier on in the writing.
Maintain Parallel Structure Among Equal Clauses
The structure of one clause in a sentence should match the structure of other clauses in the same sentence if all clauses are equal in status or importance. Subordinate clauses do not need to be parallel.
If one clause is passive, the other should be passive and vice versa. If the focus of one clause is a noun, then the focus of the other should be a noun. The same goes for focusing on actions or descriptions.
Running from the bobcat was difficult, and fighting it off was impossible for the child.
In the above sentence, the focuses in the clause running from the bobcat was difficult are the words running (an action) and difficult (a description of the action). Likewise, the focuses of the clause fighting it off was impossible for the child are fighting it off (an action) and impossible (a description of the action). The actions and the descriptions of the actions are presented in the same manner: action first, the word was, and description last. Using parallel structure in this sentence helps the reader transition from one idea to the other and recognize how the ideas relate to each other.
Notice how fighting it off is emphasized in the second clause in above sentence compared to Running from the bobcat was difficult, and it was impossible for the child to fight it off.
Every sentence should either lead the reader to the next sentence or lead the reader from the previous sentence.
The bobcat attacked the frightened toddler without warning. The child's parents found her and rushed her to the hospital, hoping her injuries were minor.
The above sentences are related, but there is nothing in the first sentence that makes you want to go on to read the second, and there is nothing in the second sentence that lets you know that it's tied to the previous sentence. The pair of sentences lacks a transition.
Adding the transition, only minutes later, to the second sentence helps the sentences flow together by referring to the attack in the second sentence. (The attack is referred to without actually being mentioned. Only minutes later infers that something happened just minutes before, so the reader is compelled to recall the previous sentence to find out that the attack was the previous event.)
The bobcat attacked the frightened toddler without warning. Only minutes later, the child's parents found her then rushed her to the hospital, hoping her injuries were minor.
Another way to transition is to reuse words or phrases in various ways. In the above example, we could add terrified to the second sentence to tell readers that the child is afraid of something. To find out what frightens her, they must recall the previous sentence.
The bobcat attacked the frightened toddler without warning. The terrified child's parents found her then rushed her to the hospital, hoping her injuries were minor.
We could also create suspense with our transition by letting the reader know in the first sentence that the child's parents are searching for her, and making the reader wonder if they will find her.
While her parents walked from room to room, searching for her, the bobcat attacked the frightened toddler without warning. The child's parents found her then rushed her to the hospital, hoping her injuries were minor.
The above examples, though, still sound like something you would hear in an evening news report rather than a compelling piece of literature. You'll need to find your inner poet to draw out more emotion from the scene.
Transitions are also required on a larger scale, such as when connecting paragraphs, scenes, chapters, or even multiple volumes of a series, and you can connect such items using the same methods used to transition from sentence to sentence.