09 September 2019
Sentences are the basic building blocks of any writing, so it’s a good investment to learn how to write them so they tell your story effectively
Books are made up of chapters, which are made up of paragraphs, which are made up of sentences. This means every sentence you write has to serve a purpose, as it is a building block for your story. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, each sentence you write should in some way move your narrative forward: impart a new piece of information, or convey something to the reader that adds to what they already know about the story.
That’s the basic function of a sentence in writing. But sentences do more than that. If we go back to our ‘brick’ analogy, you need to choose the right bricks for a particular project. All bricks build walls, but what would be best for the job in hand? Stone bricks? Red bricks? Textured bricks? Making the right choice of bricks is vital to the structural development of the project – if you use a cheap job-lot of shoddy bricks the wall might collapse before it’s been completed. It’s exactly the same with the sentences in your writing. They need to be the best possible sentences for the job.
What makes a good sentence?
We could go on about crafting beautiful sentences, being grammatically correct and making ideal word choices. And of course all these things matter. But the most important aspect of a good sentence is that it engages the reader. It makes them want to read on. This means every sentence you write needs to be the best sentence it can be. It sounds as if the pressure’s on, but for a writer, why wouldn’t you want every sentence you write to be as good as you can make it to entice your reader to carry on to your next sentence?
Here are two sentences that tell us the same thing in slightly different ways.
• Jake went downstairs in the middle of the night and got some food from the fridge.
• Jake’s growling stomach sends him creeping downstairs to the fridge in the middle of the night.
There’s nothing wrong with the first sentence. It sets out the information it needs to convey clearly and concisely. It uses the right words in the right places. But it’s a little bit flat, and distinctly prosaic.
In our second sentence, the use of the present tense gives the sentence a sense of immediacy. Jake’s ‘growling stomach’ tells us he’s hungry and the verb ‘creeping’ coupled with ‘middle of the night’ suggests he doesn’t want to wake anyone up. The words have been carefully chosen to create a particular atmosphere: Jake wanting to make sure he doesn’t get caught on his fridge-raid. There’s nothing flowery or attention seeking about this sentence, but everything in it works to reveal something about Jake and his actions. Because of a few careful word choices, the reader of sentence two has been experiencing, on a micro-level, story. It’s an effective sentence.
Read more about the pros and cons of writing in the present tense here
How to write a good sentence. And then follow it with another one.
Good sentences contain facts, but that’s not all. ‘Marcus got a new car’ is a functional sentence. ‘Marcus’s new car is a Porsche’ tells us more. ‘Marcus upgraded to his first Porsche’ adds yet another layer of story. These are very simple sentences – but good sentences don’t need to be complicated. They can be stripped down to the bare essentials and still convey layers of meaning if the writer makes skilled word choices instead of using nuts-and-bolts vocabulary.
The next sentence should build on the impression generated by the first one: Marcus upgraded to his first Porsche. Now Lin’s clique would see he wasn’t just another loser.
As a reader, what impression do you have of Marcus? Socially aspirant, materalistic? That’s certainly the impression the first sentence gives. A good sentence allows the writer to control not just what the reader knows, but how they feel about it.
Read on to sentence two, and might you add insecure, anxious about social status to your impressions? You might not initially like Marcus (‘upgraded to his first Porsche’ is not the hallmark of a sympathetic character) but by sentence two you are likely to be interested in him and curious to know the reasons for his anxiety around Lin and not being a ‘loser’.
Good sentences create impressions and generate emotions
A good sentence appeals on visual levels (by making the reader ‘see’ a thing) and on emotional levels (by making them ‘feel’ a thing). Take this one: Be the writer you always wanted to be. The reader, in their mind’s eye, can picture exactly who that writer is and what the success is that they’re aiming to reach. And on an emotional level, it’s charged with feelings relating to achieving your goal and living your dream.
Look at these sentences. What can you ‘see’? What do they make you feel?
• From the cliff top, they watched the sun set over a tranquil jade sea.
• Mia was the only one who ever noticed that their mother always served herself last.
• Her clothes and hair were too neat.
• I’ve tried not caring but I can’t do that.
How to construct good sentences
• Remember craftmanship. Writing good sentences, like any aspect of writing, takes practice. Write lots of sentences. Look at them. Take them apart. Write some more. Practice may not make perfect, but it does help.
• Get in the habit of remembering that each sentence has at least one job to do, and probably more.
• Shape each sentence as if it were a mini creative writing project in its own right.
• Make sure every word in your sentence is earning its place there. Cut out any ‘padding’ words that get in the way of your meaning.
• Make sure your sentences are well constructed. If they are, readers will not notice, but if they’re grammatically incorrect, or there are typos or words used wrongly, readers will notice immediately, and their attention will be diverted from what you are saying to the (failed) mechanics of your writing. No-one means to make mistakes, but when they’re spotted they take the reader out of your constructed world.
• We’re not discussing prose style here, but make sure that whatever prose style you write in, you write your sentences in your voice.
Good sentences can be any length.
Sentences don’t need to be long to be effective. No. and Yes. can be very effective sentences if they’re properly placed in your work. Be aware that the longer your sentences, the more material you need to be in control of. You don’t want your sentences running away with you. And your sentences definitely don’t all want to be the same length, because that creates a monotonous effect for the reader. Varying your sentence lengths is a good way to keep readers interested.
Basic grammar for good sentences
Using correct grammar in your sentences is like good manners: it makes it easy for a reader to follow what you’re saying. If readers have to unravel what you mean because you aren’t in control of your sentence structure, they won’t be able to concentrate on your story and you will lose their patience, and probably their interest.
• Make sure your sentences are clear and easy to comprehend. You might be writing something with a complicated meaning but your job as a writer is to ensure that a reader can understand what you have written.
• It’s better to use an active voice than a passive one (‘Marcus drove the Porsche’ rather than ‘The Porsche was driven by Marcus’).
• Use a consistent verb tense. ‘Marcus drives the Porsche to work and it was the first time he drove it’ mixes present and past tenses to confusing effect.
• Keep your clauses under control. If your sentence needs to contain additional information, like this, then be aware of how to set it out so the reader doesn’t get lost.
• Punctuate correctly. If in doubt, keep sentences short and punctuation simple. In a properly punctuated sentence, the punctuation will be invisible to readers, but they will spot immediately if you use a rogue semi-colon.
• Don’t use words unless you are sure of their meaning. Or words that you wouldn’t normally use in conversation. Or words that you think make you sound ‘writerly’. These words will destroy your sentences and reduce them to rubble.
• It’s OK to use sentence fragments in your writing. But complete sentences do require a subject, a verb and an object.
Unsure of when to use ‘a’ and ‘an in your sentences? Check out this back-to-basics grammar advice.
Now it’s your turn.
• Write a short sentence about a character called Greg that tells the reader what he wants.
• Write another sentence describing how the thing he wants could change his life.
• Now write a longer sentence telling the reader what is stopping Greg from getting what he wants.
• Write a fourth sentence describing how this makes Greg feel.
• Finally, write a sentence setting out what Greg is going to do about the situation you have put him in.
With a bit of luck, that’s five good sentences you’ve written! By now you should be inspired to do some more creative writing. Why not write more of Greg’s story? If you think it might be the start of a longer piece of fiction, read this guide to plotting your novel to help you (and Greg!) on the way.