In the summer of 2015, I wrote the first draft of my first novel.
Like the thousands all over the world, I wanted to see whether I could churn out 50,000 words in one month while participating in NaNoWriMo.
But it was not a novel—just words.
Then began the laborious process of turning those words into a novel. Over the years, I converted that first draft into a compelling story with a strong protagonist and an engaging opening scene.
But there was still one problem with it. My story sounded terrible. It was failing the sentence level.
I had never written fiction before, not even short stories. Embarking straight onto writing a novel meant I made every single mistake I shouldn’t.
The worst thing you can do is to write the sloppy first draft. If you write the sloppy first drafts you will be spending much more time in revision. — M. L. Ronn
I had two options — throw it in the bin and start the next one or fix it.
I chose the latter.
With that started my learning of how to write a novel — at the sentence level.
There are thousands of books, articles, and blog posts on how to write a novel, and most of them are very helpful, but none of them addressed how to write a novel at the sentence level.
But why at the sentence level?
Because sentences are the building blocks of writing.
Whether it is fiction or non-fiction writing, you construct it by laying a block over a block. Just like a stonemason does or children do with their Leggo blocks.
A group of words forms a sentence, a group of sentences forms a paragraph, and a group of paragraphs forms a piece. Simple as that.
But it is not that simple.
Not any group of words can form a sentence. A good sentence has a structure. A good sentence is grammatically correct. A good sentence sings.
Good sentences make good writing. The more shapely and elegant one’s sentences are, the sounder they are structurally, the better one’s writing is.
Besides being the building blocks of a piece, sentences perform another essential function.
Sentences are the conduit to carry information.
In its basic form, storytelling provides information — a sequence of events that happened at a particular time and space to a set of characters, their response, and the conclusion.
Sentences answer questions that arise in a reader’s mind. What happened? Why did it happen? Who did it? Why? How? In a seasoned writer’s hands, sentences are like a string of beads, each providing a little bit of information. Each sentence answers a question much before it arises in the readers’ minds.
Each sentence is there for a reason. It has a special function to perform. If it doesn’t do that, it is superfluous.
In fiction writing, a story is told by writing five types of sentences over and over again.
I didn’t know that until I stumbled upon a video by Michael La Ronn, a science-fiction and fantasy writer.
Michael makes the case that is what the bestselling authors do, all that time.
He urges that if you want to excel at writing fiction, you must master these.
I decided to check Michael’s theory with my own research. I took three novels from my bookshelf, picked random sentences from each one of them, and tried to see if they fit in one of five sentence types.
All of them.
In fact, most of the sentences were simple sentences. They didn’t draw attention to them by being overly smart and complicated. They were practical technical, and functional sentences. Sentences that were doing their job.
Fiction writers such as Nora Roberts or Michael Crichton don’t write convoluted, complex sentences. Instead, they write sentences that do their job.
What are the five fictional sentence types?
Fiction writing needs to convey a lot of information. That information needs to be conveyed in such a way that the reader feels what the protagonist is feeling. The story should unfold rather than be told after the incident has already taken place.
According to Michael La Ronn, there are the following five types of sentences:
- Character’s opinion about a setting or the situation
- The backstory of the character
- Sensory Details
If you look at any fiction piece, you will find that most of the sentences fit in one of these categories to some degree.
Let’s take them one by one.
Character’s opinion about a setting or situation
Often, the first few sentences in a novel fall in this category. A setting is the description of the time and the place where the story is occurring and is usually written from the main character’s perspective.
Have a look at the following example:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. — Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
A situation is what is happening at a particular point in the story. Mostly a situation arises through dialogue or action. But sometimes, a situation is revealed through a character’s monologue, as it is in the following example:
It was midnight in Grinder’s Alley. The gas lamp flickered in the darkness. Somewhere in those shadows lurked the larrikins of the Push, with their hot breath and cold knives. — Jackie French, A Waltz For Matilda.
The first two lines describe the setting. The third line describes the situation where the protagonist is worried about the danger lurking in the background.
You should write sentences that describe the setting in your story. Every time you introduce a new place or location, you should describe it in a few sentences so that the readers can see it clearly in their minds.
In the same way, you should write sentences to describe a character’s monologue so that readers know what is going on in the character’s head. That takes the readers inside the story world rather than observing it from outside.
The backstory of a character
There is a whole category of sentences that tell the backstory of the character. All novels have the backstory spilled here and there and dispersed throughout the novel. They give us insights into who the character is and why they are the way they are. As it is in the following excerpt:
Matilda put her chin out. The jam factory was only three streets away from Mrs Dawkins’s.She’d managed to escape the Push before. She’d make it tonight too. — Jackie French’s novel, A Waltz For Matilda.
The third bolded line tells that Matilda has encountered the Push before and has escaped them. That background information is important as it implies she might be able to escape this time too.
Sprinkle enough background information in your stories so that the readers are informed enough about the main character’s reasons and motives.
Action is straightforward. It is what a character is doing. It is best written as showing. Not telling. Make sure you write it in such a way that it unfolds rather than reported a moment after it has already occurred. The action that unfolds is gripping and engaging. See the example below:
She hurled herself over the fence, landing hard, heard boots thud onto the ground next to her. ‘Got yer, yer little-’
Todger screamed. It was a good sound. Matilda stood, trying to get her breath, as Bruiser tugged and tore at the young man’s arm. Blodd dripping onto the gravel. — Jackie French, A Waltz For Matilda.
Most of the sentences in a novel other than dialogue are written action sentences. They are active sentences with appropriate verbs describing the action. You should master them. They make your write come alive.
We all know what dialogue is. I will not go too much in detail here as most fiction writer knows what a dialogue sentence is like. Here is an example:
‘Matilda…’ Her eyes darkened. ‘Rabbit, what’s wrong?’
How could she think she’d hide the truth from Mum? The tears that wouldn’t come before erupted in a giant choke. ‘Tommy. There was an accident at the factory. He’s burned.’
Mum’s voice was just a thread; there was no breath behind it. One thin hand touched hers its fingers long and soft. The nails had grown since she’d stopped sewing.
‘I don’t know. He’s at the hospital. They said they think he’ll live…
‘Oh, my little rabbit.’ Matilda could feel Mum’s warmth as she lay next to her, the comfort of her arms. ‘Come, lie down. He’s strong, little rabiit. He’ll pull through.’ — Jackie French’s novel, A Waltz For Matilda.
Notice how there are monologues, and action types of sentences are strewn with dialogue in the above example.
Sentences belonging to the dialogue category occupies most of the real estate in a novel. Get good at writing dialogues as they are the bread and butter of fiction writing.
This is one category of fiction sentences where most of the new writers fail. Perhaps because we rely too much on our eyes than other senses, other than eyes, we have four more senses — taste, touch, smell, and audio. If you want your fiction to work and want your reader to experience what the character in your story is experiencing, you need to describe the places, things, and people using all five senses.
The sensory detail is a great tool to turn your writing from telling to showing.
Have a look at the examples below.
Ah, Ching’s smile changed: became deeper, gentler, rich in understanding. He picked out a second peach, then held it out to her, bowing.
She looked at him, speechless, then unwrapped it slowly, letting the smell seep into her nose. The first bite was like slipping into the waves at the beach or clean white sheets. The juice exploded down her chin. She wiped it. embarrassed.— Jackie French’s novel, A Waltz For Matilda.
Including sensory details in your description is one area where you can turn ordinary sentences into evocative sentences. It is not hard to master skills. Once you become aware of it, you will describe a place, person, or thing each time you start engaging all your senses.
Fiction writing consists of just five types of sentences.
- Character’s opinion about a setting or the situation
- The backstory of the character
- Dialogue and
- Sensory Details
You win half the battle when you become aware of them.
Rest is won when you master writing them.
Next time when you read a novel, pay attention to sentences. See which category they belong to. It will help you in more than one way — you will see how established writers convey so much information in so few sentence types and how they make those sentences work.
Next time you go ‘wow’ while reading a sentence, ask what caught your attention. What element made you go wow. And what you can learn from it.