6 Tips for Sentence Creation in Your Novel -- Part 1 of 2
Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 3 “The Sentence”
Click here for Part 2 (file size was too large)
“I rearrange a sentence many times before moving on to the next one. For me, that editing process feels like a form of play, like a puzzle that needs solving, and it's one of the most satisfying parts of writing.”
-Karen Thompson Walker
Once you have placed emphasis in studying, designing, and formatting your plot-points, chapters, paragraphs, the next unit on your list is the sentence. The composition and arrangement of a sentence is a tricky skill to master because there is no objectively best way of doing it and because there are so many possibilities for how you can say the exact same thing. Consider the following simple statement and how many ways it can be stated: the dog crossed the road, the dog walked across the road; walking, the dog crossed the road; the road was crossed by the walking dog; across the road the dog walked. You could probably think of about twenty more ways of saying the exact same thing, even without using synonyms for the words above. So then, what do we look at when creating the best sentence for our novel? We start by knowing the possibilities at our disposal, learning the rules in place for making sentences that function well, and then finding a way to make our sentences work together to form paragraphs with the best possible flow. Note that you can write many if not all drafts of a novel without a comprehensive knowledge of fine technical grammar. However, if you want to have a complete mastery over the language, to be able to efficiently edit your own work, and to have a working vocabulary to discuss grammatical flaws, strategies, and concepts with other writers, then these elements are essential. I'm actually in this late stage of editing for my own novel, and am finding that the more time I spend in research and in teaching these concepts, the more professional my current draft is becoming.
Tip 1: Know all the types of words that form a sentence.
Wait a minute now, you may or may not be saying to yourself (we'll pretend you did so that I can feel encouraged in my presumptuous tone); this is beginning to sound like a grammar class. Maybe, but we're going to pretend like it's not. See? Problem solved! Okay, I'll admit that there are going to be some grammar lessons here, but only because they will become so tremendously important later on in the editing process. To start, let's think of a sentence as a machine—in that it is an object which performs an action (subject and verb)—and lets think of words as the little bits, bolts, screws, and individual pieces that make that machine work. We're going to start with those most basic building blocks for sentences, so we can see how our machines work. So lets get our hands dirty and try to have some fun with this bad boy.
A noun (as you probably know) is any person, place, or thing. We use these constantly in writing—in any correctly formatted sentence.
A driver (person) from Alabama (place) drove his truck (thing).
Nouns can be split into three subcategories: proper, improper, and gerunds. Proper nouns are the official names of people, places and, things—you know, the sort that carry capitol letters (like the proper “Spot” instead of the improper “dog”. In novel writing, we use proper nouns to give more information and emphasis to whatever we're trying to show.
Blake (proper noun) had decided that his cover in Mississipi (proper noun) was blown, so he was going to drive his Ford F350 (proper noun) out of there. (Note that by using proper nouns, instead of the improper equivalents, we give the audience a lot more information. Based on their familiarity with these three proper nouns, they can visualize the scene with more accuracy—particularly if they already know what Blake, Mississippi, and a Ford F350 look like.)
We may not always want to bring this level of attention to every noun that we are writing. For example, our Narrator/POV character may not know that specific of information; we may want to preserve mystery; or we don't want to add unimportant information that could steal attention away from our story. For example, some writers don't use brand names like “Ford” because it might date the novel, open them to lawsuits, or give the brand unwanted attention. Also, by using a proper noun, we are reinforcing a specific image, which is fine if creating a specific image is what you want but problematic if you want to leave something completely up to the reader's imagination.
A mysterious man (improper person) pulled onto an unknown highway (improper place), keeping the speed of his pickup-truck (improper thing) under the limit to avoid unwanted attention. (Note that by using only improper nouns and leaving the sentence more vague, we make the sentence a little more magical and mysterious. Our imaginations can take this sentence and turn it into whatever we, personally, find most cool and impressive. However, it gives a lot less information about the scene and breaks ties with reality a bit. Either way of dealing with nouns can be done correctly; it's just up to you and what effect you are trying to create.)
Gerunds serve for when you want to magically turn a verb (an action word) into a noun, such as for when you want to turn an action into an object of discussion. You probably do this automatically, when writing, without even realizing that you are turning a verb into a noun. The reason it's necessary to bring up is so that we have vocabulary to describe this action and discuss it in later sections.
Driving (gerund noun) was more inconspicuous than flying (gerund noun), and Blake wanted that.
(Col, Enchanted Learning)
When we first teach verbs, we tell children that they are “action words,” that they make a noun do something. On an elementary level, that's true but verbs do a lot more than that, depending on what type and sub-type that you are using. There are three primary types: Action, Linking, and Helping. The commonly taught Action Verbs are the ones we will start off with.
The Narrator had threatened (transitive action verb) to do terrible things to Blake. (Note that this is an action verb because it causes the subject of the sentence, “Narrator” to actually do something. We'll talk about what “transitive” means in the next paragraph)
Action Verbs are further divided into two subcategories: transitive and intransitive. Transitive verbs (like threatened in the example above) are verbs where the action is performed to something. Since the Narrator is threatening (performing a verb action) to another noun (the object of the action, Blake) it becomes transitive. However, you can also create intransitive verbs that are simply actions performed with no target noun.
For that reason, Blake drove (intransitive verb). (Note that there is no target for the action, “drove”. The verb simply happens and is lost to a vacuum.)
Note that a verb is still intransitive if there is text afterwards, but still no direct object that the action is being performed to.
For that reason, Blake drove (intransitive verb) aimlessly. (Note that while there is a word that describes how Blake drove, it is not an object that Blake is driving into. Now, if Blake drove “into a brick wall” the sentence would suddenly become transitive, as the brick wall became the thing receiving the action).
We'll discuss more about practical application of transitive and intransitive verbs further down in the tutorial. The next verb type is the Linking Verb. Think of a Linking Verb as the word equivalent to the equal sign: “=”. These verbs usually include common and passive verbs such as: are, is, was, will be. However, they can be a little more tricky when we use words that are generally reserves for action verbs. I'll show an example of both below. Just remember that if you can replace a given verb with “=” it is likely a linking verb.
The Narrator was (linking verb) a sociopath. (The Narrator = sociopath.)
The Narrator only looked (linking verb) content when Blake was suffering. (The Narrator only = content when Blake was suffering). (Note that “looked” can also be an active verb, depending on how it is being used in the sentence. “The Narrator looked at Blake with contentedness as he was suffering.” In this alternate sentence “looked” becomes an active verb because the Narrator is actually performing an action.)
The last type of verb is the Helping verb. Helping verbs are often innocuous and unnoticeable little verbs (like Linking Verbs) that can either give added meaning, change your verb to passive tense, or help to complete the main verb in a sentence. I'll give an example of each:
The Narrator could have (two helping verbs) killed (primary verb) Blake earlier via cats or black bears. (“Could have” modifies “killed” in order to give added meaning to the sentence. Without this helping verb, the sentence would have a different meaning altogether. Try rereading the sentence without the helping verb to see what I mean.)
The cats, Totodile and Ivysaur, would have (helping verbs) been (primary verb) the closest to accomplishing that mission. (In this case, “would have” completes the primary verb “been” so that the sentence makes sense. Try reading it without the helping verb and you'll be talking like a bumpkin.)
But they hadn't because the Narrator was (helping verb) biding (primary verb) his time. (The sentence could have been changed to: “the Narrator bid his time.” For the sake of slower pacing we change it to the passive tense by adding the helping verb “was” to the primary verb “bide” to change it to “was biding”. Generally, you want to do the opposite in novel writing. More often than not, there is too much of the passive tense and not enough active tense verbs. But every now and then, you may want to slow things down a notch by adding a helping verb.)
(UVU Writing Center)
Pronouns, simply put, are the shorter versions of nouns. These include he, she, they, it, them you, me, I, etc... They function in the exact same way as nouns. In writing a novel, pronouns are often used in the place of proper nouns, particularly when your paragraph mentions the same character over and over, and you do not want to keep naming them. The two keys to remember are to make sure that it is obvious which proper noun your pronoun is referring to, and to achieve a stylistic balance between proper nouns and pronouns.
Consider the difference between this:
He (pronoun) had thought long and hard about how he was going to deal with him (Lots of confusion with these three pronouns. Curb the problem by starting paragraphs with proper nouns). Blake knew Blake's enemy would eventually kill Blake. Blake had to resolve the situation now; the only question was how Blake would do that (The many repetitions of the same proper noun “Blake” is stylistically abysmal and tiring. Fix it by mixing in pronouns).
Blake had thought long and hard about how he was going to deal with the Narrator. Blake knew his enemy would eventually kill him. He had to resolve the situation now; the only question was how he would do that (Probably not perfect but a lot cleaner and less confusing).
When describing a scene, a setting, a character, an object, or anything else in your novel, you are going to be using adjectives. Adjectives are words that describe nouns in the following ways: quantity, opinion, emotion, sound, taste,touch, size, smell, speed, temperature, age, distance, shape, brightness, color, time, location, material, purpose. Now, there is an order for how to use these (actually the order in which I listed them) if you use many adjectives in a row to describe a single noun, but the best guideline is just use them in whichever way gives the sentence the best flow. If in doubt, read the sentence out loud and pick the way that sounds best.
As a result of his thinking, Blake had come to a (number adjective) grim (opinion adjective) and heavy (size adjective) decision (noun that the adjectives are modifying).
While we use adjectives more for descriptions of the people, places, and things in our novel, we describe the actions using adverbs. Think of adverbs as descriptors for your verbs, in order to tell the audience how something is being done, where it is being done, how long it is being done, how often it is being done, to what degree it is being done, and how probable it will be that it is being done. These are often, but not only, words ending with “ly” (e.g badly, outwardly, daily, fully, likely, etc...).
Authors generally advise against a lot of adjectives and adverbs, and with three good reasons. First, beginning authors tend to replace creative verbs and nouns with generic ones accompanied by adjectives and adverbs. Secondly, writers tend to over-saturate their sentences with adjectives and adverbs that are completely unnecessary. Third, beginning authors tend to use adjectives and adverbs to tell the reader what is happening in the text instead of showing them (you've heard of “show, don't tell”). Here's an example of adjectives and verbs done badly:
Bad Adjectives and Adverbs
A frightened (adjective that is telling) but determined (adjective that is telling) Blake drove badly (generic adverb to make up for a poor choice in verbs) down the busy (adjective to make up for a poor choice in nouns) road.
He constantly (unnecessary adverb, people generally keep their eyes open when driving) kept his eyes wide (unnecessary, open is open, and the small amount of added emphasis is not worth it) open, in case scary (poor and generic adjective choice) bears with hitting (gerund being used as a bad adjective to replace not having a good enough word) sticks showed up.
However, there will always be adjectives and adverbs that are absolutely essential, either to the style or the meaning of the text. How can you tell the difference? Generally, if you can get rid of an adjective and replace it with a better verb or noun, then you should do it. Whatever is left and which absolutely cannot be removed without losing quality, should be kept; and you'll gain a better eye for these as you gain more writing experience.
Acceptable Adjectives and Adverbs
Sweat dripped from Blake's (necessary adjective describing ownership) forehead and his leg jittered, but his brown (this adjective actually tells us something that helps us paint a more vivid mental picture of the person in the scene) eyes remained focused. He swerved repeatedly (essential adverb that helps to show what is happening) on the congested (a more vivid adjective) interstate.
Ever (adverb used stylistically to give a comic-book tone) vigilant, Blake kept an eye out for bears with batons. (Note that I cleaned out almost all of the adjectives and adverbs in this sentence, and replaced them with more specific verbs and nouns. So all of the exact same visual information was given, but in a cleaner and more subtle way.)
Another way of describing both nouns and verbs is the preposition. These are words which show a relation of a word to a location, a place in time, or otherwise link two things without the use of a transitive verb. These words include: in, on, above, below, before, after, during, like, with, to, till, etc... These are generally used within “prepositional phrases” which we will discuss in the next section.
With his cats in the back seat, Blake was headed to where the Narrator lived. (The first preposition “with” describes the spacial relation between “Blake” and “cats”. The second preposition “in” describes the spacial relationships with “cats” and “seat”.)
“You can't seriously be thinking about killing the Narrator” said Ivysaur, after sitting in her kennel for several hours, though her speaking was likely in Blake's head. (“About” links “thinking” and “killing” as interconnected actions. “After” links “Ivysaur” and “sitting” through time. “In” links “sitting” and “kennel” through location. “For” links “sitting” and “several hours” through time. “In” links “speaking” and “head” through a loose definition of location.)
(Col, Enchanted Learning)
Conjunctions are non-prepositions that join words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. These are words like and, but, for, while, etc... These can be sometimes difficult to confuse with prepositions, as they share some common words like “until”. In these cases, remember that prepositions only link individual words groupings that do not contain a subject and a verb. If you are dealing with a clause—a grouping of words, within a sentence, that has a subject and verb—you need a conjunction. This seems needlessly complicated, especially since you can probably deal with constructing each of these without consciously knowing the differences. But for the sake of those who are studying for tests, for those who want to learn for mastery, and for kicks and giggles, I'll give some examples below.
Blake's plan was to take Ivysaur and (simple conjunction joining two nouns) Totodile to drive into the Narrator's heart but (a conjunction linking the core sentence that comes before it, and the clause that follows) he wasn't sure it would work (this underlined section is an example of a complete clause tagged onto the end of the core sentence).
Unfortunately, Blake soon had to make a rest stop that lasted until his cats used the restroom. (Note that this conjunction ties together the core sentence to a clause—a grouping of words with both a subject “cats” and a verb “used”).
That bathroom break lasted until noon. (Note that this is a preposition that ties “break” to only a single word, “noon”. I'll link you to a resource in the Work's Cited section at the bottom, in case you want to read more on it.)
(Weinhold The Tongue Untied)
Interjections are the last type of word we'll be discussing. These are used to convey some sort of emotion, like excitement, or confusion, or hesitance, and include words such as: uh, oh, wow, yay, etc... In writing a novel, interjections are not usually used in any of the text, except for character dialogue. The only exception to this rule is if you have an extremely present style of Narration—where your Narrator is a character with personality, a voice, and emotions of his/her own.
“Ugh, (interjection showing that the character is disgusted) I can't believe we are doing this,” Totodile said, climbing back into her kennel so that they could continue their journey. “Tell me, uh, (interjection showing confusion or just a verbal filler) what is the plan for destroying the Narrator's heart, eh? (interjection making my cat Canadian, I suppose)”
Blake's plan, as he explained it oh so dully to his cats, was to drive his pickup truck and travel trailed into my heart. I mean, wow, of all the convoluted plans. I mean, geez, what kind of convoluted plot contrivance would put my literal hear into the middle of Viginia! Oy. Anyways, Blake explained this to his cats and got back on the road. (Note that there is no concrete purpose for the interjections in this segment other than giving the text a little more flavor and personality. We could completely do away with all of it and the plot would not lose a thing. This is simply another stylistic decision for you to consider for your own particular work.)
(Col, Enchanted Learning)
Tip 2: Know the five essential parts of a sentence.
Once you know figure out how individual word types function independently in a sentence (which we are looking at as a basic machine which performs a basic action) it is time to look at how you can put them together. It's difficult to imagine in early drafts, when it is an accomplishment just to finish chapters, but later when you see that there is something off about a sentence—either it's not functioning like you want it to, there is something missing, or there is something that needs to be cut—learning the elements of a sentence will allow you to have a mental toolkit for immediately recognizing all of the possibilities you have to fine-tune your sentences. Not only that but, as a sort of machine, a sentence can be filled with fully customizable upgrades that you can use to make it completely your own.
If we look at a sentence as a machine—a solid object that performs an action—then the subject of a sentence is the word or phrase that establishes what that solid object is. This solid object is usually a noun, or occasionally a gerund or clause that are disguised as a noun. This noun is the focus of the core sentence; it's the boss, the kahuna, the big cheese. Let's look at some examples:
Blake drove his pickup truck faster, sensing an oncoming presence.
Although there are three things in this sentence (Blake, truck, and presence), Blake is the subject because it is the word that is actually doing something and being scrutinized. However, the subject does not have to be singular. The following is a sentence with two subjects:
Blake and his pickup truck moved along the highway, hauling a travel trailer for the first time.
Note that while ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the subject will be a noun or a noun phrase filled with adjectives and other modifiers, it does not necessarily have to be. Watch as I use a verb, below, to fill the role of the subject by magically turning it to a “gerund” (a verb with “ing” added to it for the purpose of making it a noun).
Dying was not something that Blake wanted (particularly via travel trailer so that elderly people would laugh at him).
Once we have the solid object part of a machine, we need the element which causes it to perform an action. This element is called the Predicate—a mixture of verbs and adverbs that set the Subject into motion. First lets look at a simple predicate made out of a single action verb:
Blake clenched the wheel between his fists.
Like there can be multiple subjects in a single sentence, there can also be multiple predicates—just like a single machine which serves multiple functions. Note that below that are multiple verbs that fall within the various parts of the sentence, but there are only two verbs which modify the subject. These are the predicates.
He knew that the Narrator had it in for him and could only hope that misery would not befall him as he drove. (Note that you can have many verbs in a sentence, but only one predicate. What causes this sentence to have two predicates is that both individual verbs function independently and both are actions performed by the subject. Test it by removing either predicate and seeing that the remaining predicate still functions with grammatical correctness.)
Lastly, you can string together a series of adverbs behind your primary verb in order to create a full predicate.
Suddenly, two semi-trucks quickly (adverb) and (conjunction) methodically (adverb) trapped (action verb) Blake in the middle lane. (Note that while each of these words is a different type, they all work together as the predicate.)
We talked, earlier in the article, about transitive and intransitive verbs. Now, when you have a transitive verb—where the action of the verb is performed to something—it can carry up to two objects. Lets look at some examples below, starting with an intransitive verb that does not link the subject to any secondary object.
Intransitive Verb Sentence
Blake (subject-noun) screamed (predicate, intransitive verb). (Note that the subject performs an action to no object in particular. There is no object, no target. In a sense, the action just happens in a vacuum. These sorts of short sentence in novel writing are actually highly desired—particularly in action scenes. Not that there is anything wrong with transitive verbs, but beginning writers are often hesitant to write such a simple sentence. But if a two word sentence is all that is needed, and it carries the point with the right flow and emphasis, then use it with confidence.)
Once you know that you have a transitive verb, you need to decide if it has one object or multiple. If there is only one object, you are dealing with a “direct object”. The direct object is the target of whatever action the subject is performing. If you have multiple objects, you will likely find that you have an indirect object. The indirect object is the final destination of the direct object in that sentence. I know, it's getting a tad confusing; so lets think about a sentence with a transitive verb as a soccer game. The subject is the player, the predicate is the action of kicking, the direct object being kicked is the ball, and its indirect destination is to eventually reach the goal. The same goes for any other type of sentence.
The soccer player (subject) kicked (predicate) the ball (direct object).
Blake (subject-noun) screamed (predicate, transitive verb) a profanity (direct object, noun).
The soccer player (subject) kicked (predicate) the ball (direct object) into the goal (indirect object).
Blake (subject-noun) screamed (predicate, transitive verb) a profanity (direct object, noun) at the Narrator (indirect object, noun).
(My English Pages)
Remember that a clause is a grouping of words that have both a subject and a predicate; we discussed it in looking at the difference between a conjunction (which joins a word to an entire clause) vs a preposition (which joins words to other singular words or to a “phrase” of words that do not contain a subject and predicate). We use clauses when focusing a sentence on something more abstract than a simple noun. Let's take a look below at how a clause can be used as both a subject and a direct object.
For Blake (subject of clause) to die (predicate of clause) now, (this full clause, the concept of Blake dying, serves as the subject of the sentence) would mean (predicate of sentence) that the Narrator would live on (this is a second clause, using the subject “Narrator” and predicate “live”; this clause serves as the direct object).
Clauses can also be used as adjectives and adverbs. This is an essential tool for novelists, as it gives us an additional method by which to remove generic adjectives and adverbs and replace them with more vivid descriptions that we can weave into the plot of our story.
The Blackbear 4th Wall Boarder Patrol, whose practices (subject of adjectival clause) were (predicate of adjectival clause) as brutal as patrols of any sort of boarder, (This adjectival clause describes the BB4WBP) began to close in on Blake from either side.
But Blake revved the engine, until it (subject of adverbial clause) roared (predicate of adverbial clause) like a beast out of Hell. (This adverbial clause describes how the engine revved).
The phrase, like the clause, is a grouping of words that exists outside of the core sentence (the primary subject and primary predicate). Unlike the clause, however, the phrase does not have a subject and predicate of its own and so it functions a bit differently. There are a few types of phrases that we will discuss but the most common type that you will come across in writing is the prepositional phrase. These are very common and fairly simple to spot, once you are familiar with prepositions.
Giving its all, Blake's truck squeezed between (preposition) the two semi-trucks (prepositional phrase). (Note that while the underlined section did have a potential subject, “trucks”, it had no predicate, making it a phrase instead of a clause. The preposition “between” which links the phrase to the core sentence, is what makes it a “prepositional phrase”.)
Another common type of phrase is the infinitive phrase. The infinitive phrase functions a lot like a clause, in that it allows you to talk about a grouping of words abstractly but it does not carry a subject. You will be able to identify these because they begin with the word, “to” followed by a verb
Blake had to get rid of these bears if he wanted to live for much longer. (Here, the infinitive phrase serves as a direct object for the subject “he” and the predicate “wanted”.)
Here is where the phrase gets tricky on us. If we take a verb and add “ing” or “ed” (like “wanting” or “wanted”) but they serve the function of being and adjective or adverb instead making a subject do something, then we magically turn them into a word type called a participle, which we can use for both participle and absolute phrases. Using these participles, you can add even more phrase types that serve to describe and give optional information to a sentence, while still letting the sentence perform its original function. This is another vital tool for describing a scene while it occurs, instead of pausing the action in order to describe everything to the reader.
Pushing (participle) his speed to the max (participle phrase used to give additional information about what is going on), Blake used his travel trailer as a wrecking ball between the two semi-trucks. (Note that this is an effective way of condensing or combining two simple sentences into one complex one. I could have said, “Blake pushed his speed to the max. He then used his travel trailer as a wrecking ball between the two semi-trucks,”. However, if I already have a bunch of short sentences like that in my paragraph, I may want to condense them to the one complex sentence in order to create an array of different sentence types that will improve the flow of my story.)
Cars (noun) exploding (participle) all around, Blake saw the car-sizes heart of the Narrator located—by convoluted plot convenience—off the side of a highway overpass. He made a hard right and close his eyes. (This absolute phrase describes what is happening in the background while the focus of the sentence remains on the action.)
(story to be continued)
(Simmons, Grammar Bytes)
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ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
Wedding Planning Tips and Ideas - Reverent Wedding
The LAYERS of Fiction
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And they're the ones who can make the work that really shows its glow and sheen. Unfortunately I see academia do the complete reverse of that. The whole cart before the horse idea. Many people I shared a classroom with got so caught up in the recognition and understanding of these terms, that they started viewing the work with that same mentality - at the analytical level, rather than a creative one. They understood, or claimed they understood all of this garble, but produced soulless work as a result.
I'm only glad I viewed this when I did. As I am right now, with the knowledge I can truly garner, this actually helps in some polite ways. But I spent five years prior doing self-voluntary writing in a mindless mentality, before finding purchase for my brain to write in the measured and flowing style I adopt now, and actually have some inkling of the meaning of these terms. So thank you for an unexpected lesson.