Thou Shalt make thy sentences strong.
Wow, finally a thou shalt instead of a thou shalt not. Okay, on to strong sentences.
When we read a sentence, what we read first and last stand out to us. The stuff in between kind of jumbles. Especially when we are reading quickly. That is not to say that what we choose to put in the middle doesn’t matter, because those of us who like to soak in every word will read EVERY word. But in order to make your sentence drive it’s point we often have to do a line edit to ensure that our sentences are conveying our true meaning.
#1. Ensure that your sentences are tight and well trained. By this, I mean, don’t use twenty words to express a twelve word or even an eight word thought. In my writing club, the professor (my amazing cousin) and the group would take one of our longer sentences and break them down to a third or half of what they had been, and try to break them in half again, just to practice tightening up our word selection. I found this exercise to be most educational and helpful in honing my ongoing skill set.
#2. When trying to strengthen sentences, use the word you want people to remember at the end. Words like, lied, dead, killed, elated, overjoyed. This will make your reader hang on that last image with regards to the subject of your sentence. And no, this is not possible for every sentence, because your thoughts would become disjointed and let’s face it, not every sentence is life or death. And if you try to make them so, your story will be melodramatic, and no one will take it seriously when something important does happen. Not everything can be the most amazing, or fantastic. (We probably all have that friend who won’t stop saying something like “Phenomenal.” Overuse of a word in everyday situations will lessen the word’s meaning. Like, phenomenal cake, or the phenomenal service, or the phenomenal bathroom. So be careful on this point.)
Example 1: John finally worked up the courage to walk to the front door so that he could finally ask Julie out on their very first date ever. (26 words)
What are the problems with that sentence? First, so many “extra words” -to, so that, finally etc. Second, the sentence is really laying the experience on too thick. Show your readers, don’t tell or talk at them. (We’ll have a section on show not tell soon) Third, my ending word is not the word I want my readers to hang on to. (Case in point, my previous sentence.) My ending word for my example should be date, courage, or even knock to drive home the feeling.
So, lets do a cut.
First cut: John’s courage was high as he knocked on Julies door to ask her on their first date. (17 words)
I managed to cut this sentence to nearly half of what it was. (And yes there are dozens of ways to cut down a sentence and that is up to the voice of the writer and his/her character.) But I am still not pleased with the sentence. It is still too wordy. It doesn’t give me the image I want. I will cut it again.
Second cut: John walked to Julie’s door, screwed up his courage and knocked. (11 words)
I like this sentence because it portrays more of what he was feeling. I also like the word knocked at the end because it leaves us wondering, “Is she there?” “What will happen when she opens it and sees him?” We all know what it’s like to knock on the door of someone we like. It makes our hearts pound. But we can write the sentence again if the knocking is not what we should remember. What if it is the courage we need to remember?
Second cut part 2: John stood in front of Julie’s door and gathered his courage. (11 words)
This sentence works also, if courage is the thing we want our readers to remember. Maybe asking Julie out is a pivotal growth moment for our character. You must choose what is best for your story.
This type of sentence cutting works well for our most verbose sentences. The ones that just go on and on. Not running on in the technical sense, but the ones that seem to wander like Frodo trying to get to Mount Doom. We need to cut a straight path. And remember, after we cut we add in some of the character building words that will boost our story.
Second cut Finished: John walked to Julie’s door thinking only of his carefully chosen words as he screwed up his courage and knocked.
Second cut part 2 finished: John knew it all hinged on this moment in front of Julie’s door and he prayed for courage.