How to Write Sentences Sharp Enough to Slice the Shadow Off The Moon
My goal has always been to have someone be able to open a book of mine and immediately recognize it as an Autumn Christian novel. Writers like Bukowski, Faulkner, Pahlanuik, and Poppy Z. Brite are immediately identifiable because of the way they structure their prose. I consider it the mark of a highly-skilled writer to write sentences that are impressed with their DNA. And although it takes years to achieve that mastery, there are definable steps you can take to right now to write better sentences on a structural level.
I’m a writer who enjoys the micro as well as the macro of the writing. I take great pleasure in the small universe that each word contains. I consider myself a stylist, and although I’m a genre writer my prose tends to lean more towards a literary affectation. Although the stories we tell are often universal stories that have been told thousands of times, it’s our words that really make us stand out as individual writers, because it’s our words that show our unique angle and perspective.
Speak the truth
As a writer what you can offer to the world is your unique perspective. A lot of people start off trying to imitate what they think a successful book should be written like, and end up sounding generic. And that’s not necessarily bad, most pianists will learn how to play chopsticks and then Chopin before they began composing their own unique work. You have to understand how prose in general works before you have the mastery to be able to manipulate it in your own image.
But some writers never escape that phase, and never end up really sounding like themselves. I think it’s because they’ve never examined their own truth. They don’t quite know what to say or how to say it.
This is high-level writing advice and the most difficult of these steps to properly execute, but if you don’t understand your truth and what you want to express, then the rest of this advice isn’t going to help your writing. If you don’t write the truth as you know it, all the little stylistic flourishes will fall flat.
If you’re unsure of exactly what you want to write, I’d recommend spending some time free writing, and reading works that spark your interest. If your mind is barren, you want to begin to sow seeds to cultivate a garden. We learn our truth through the integration of the stimulus around us, which is then filtered through our subjective perspective.
Cut out unnecessary words
When I first began writing and trying to develop my style, I loaded my sentences with words because I thought the weight equated to lusher, more powerful sentences.
But the better I get at writing, the more I lean out my sentences.
Think of each word like a bullet. More isn’t necessarily better. You need exactly as many as required for the job. Look through your work and see how many words you can remove while still retaining the same meaning. Oftentimes you’ll find that the meaning will even alter slightly, but it’ll often be more critical. More impactful.
A lean sentence becomes faster when it’s freed from unnecessary weight.
Force = mass X acceleration. When your sentence is allowed to move faster, it packs a harder punch.
Replace imprecise words with precise words
A word is a mind-painting.
Imagine that you want to use the precise color for the job. So when you go for the colors, you don’t think “Yellow,” you think “Honey yellow,” or “Bumblebee yellow.’ It’s the precision that allows you to have more control over the reader’s mind painting, and lead them through the emotional journey that you want to.
Instead of “Walk,” you might want say “Shuffled,” or “Trudged.”
Oftentimes a verb and an adverb can be replaced by a more precise verb. Like “Talked quietly,” can be replaced with “Whispered” or “mumbled.”
Of course, sometimes a simple “Walked” is the precise word that you want to use. And sometimes it’s much better to use a simple and invisible “Said” than a “Garbled Moan.” It depends on the situation.
The devil is in the details, but so is the color.
It’s in the details that we allow color to bleed into the reader’s world, and combined with precision, the effect of your sentences can be devastating.
Readers tend to remember details better than abstractions. You can implant your words into them like a virus.
Your protagonist doesn’t pick up a guitar. He picks up a cerulean Fender Limited Edition stratocaster.
Bob doesn’t eat a piece of fruit. He eats a soft pomegranate.
Maria doesn’t sigh and stare at an engagement ring on the dresser. She stares at a cracked quartz set in a warped band.
Details can allow us to penetrate deeper into the character’s lives without having to use any extra sentences, or go into deep and meandering asides. Every time we walk into a room, we’re subconsciously soaking in the story of that room through its details. We use visual data to create impressions. And we understand that shiny red baby shoes tells a different story than worn out baby shoes two sizes too small.
Each Sentence Should Serve the Purpose of The Story
Every time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “Is this sentence moving the story forward?” and “Does this sentence serve the theme and consistency of my narrative?”
If it doesn’t, cut it out.
Write only about the unordinary
A story starts at the beginning of when things go wrong. And a story cannot exist without conflict. Otherwise, it’s a diary entry. A grocery list.
That conflict should soak every sentence. It should permeate each moment that the reader is inside your story.
Your character is not allowed to take a shower where “rivulets of water run down his back.” That happens in every shower, and tells us nothing about how the moment is unique, or why we should at this moment be following this character. If your character must take a shower, something unusual has to happen. The water has to be too hot or cold. Maybe he can’t feel the water at all. Maybe there’s a ghost in the shower.
Just don’t tell us what we already know, and don’t let a moment slip past without using it as an opportunity to add conflict and intrigue.