Brainstorming the Wound in Your Character's Backstory

Tips for How to Choose the Right Sentences

Tips for How to Choose the Right SentencesWhat is writing but choosing the right words in the right sentences in the right paragraphs in the right pages in the right chapters? But even though words and sentences are the smallest of integers within our storytelling, they’re actually one of the most complex. How do you choose the right sentences? Is it a process with a rhyme and reason? How can something so small and instinctive be guided by conscious decisions? How do you learn to choose the right sentences in a way that makes you a better writer with every book you write?

It’s a common axiom among writers that “every sentence has to count.” Sounds good in theory. But how do you actually make sure each sentence counts? How do you judge a sentence’s worth and decide whether it’s so meaningful that the entire story couldn’t exist without it? I mean, that’s a lot of pressure for one dinky little sentence.

The best way to study this is to look at real-time examples. That’s why, today, I want to share with you part of a chapter from my portal fantasy work-in-progress Dreambreaker and show you how and why I’ve chosen each of the sentences.

Getting Ready to Choose the Right Sentences for Your Story

But, first, housekeeping…

Caveat: Now, of course, this is a work-in-progress, which means the sentences you see here may not be the ones I end up with in the final draft. But I’m not as interested in showing you how to edit your way to the perfect sentence, but rather how to recognize what your narrative needs, sentence by sentence, as you’re writing the first draft.

Choice of Chapter: I’ve chosen a chapter from the middle of the book (the First Pinch Point at the 37% mark), because I wanted to highlight an “ordinary” chapter. Chapters that open the book or introduce new POV characters are unique in their responsibilities (which we’ll talk about another day).

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

As a result, on the one hand, you won’t understand everything that’s going on, and, on the other, there may be some spoilers. Dreambreaker is the sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander (which you can grab for free). To help orient you a little bit, here’s the premise:

As the veil between our world and the world of dreams begins to rupture, the former “Gifted” Chris Redston, now shorn of his abilities, must struggle back to his lost love, the fierce and conflicted Queen Allara, and help her overcome dangerous international intrigue and discover the impossible truth about their still intertwined destinies—before a mysterious heretic can commit the ultimate abomination of permanently fusing the worlds.

Context: The setup for this chapter is that the Cherazii (a reclusive warrior race) have requested Chris investigate one of the rifts (portals that lead between worlds and from place to place within the same world) through which their people keep disappearing.

Cast:

Chris–protagonist, a “Gifted,” the only one of his generation who can consciously travel between worlds.

Allara–Queen of Lael and Chris’s love interest.

Worick–Chris’s dream-world dad.

Axion–Cherazim surgeon who requested Chris’s help.

Quinnon–Allara’s bodyguard, captain in the Green Guard.

Rordin Soller–the dream-world counterpart of Chris’s real-world best friend, Mike.

Green Guard–the Queen’s soldiers.

Yellow Guard–the Royal Council’s soldiers.

Key: The original text from the book will be bold and indented. My commentary is in regular text beneath each pertinent section. You can read the full except, without my commentary, here.

Real-Time Examples of How to Choose the Right Sentences While Writing

Dreambreaker

Chapter 22

As it turned out, nothing about this new rift was so simple after all.

This first sentence ties in directly with the last sentence of the previous chapter (She smiled, wanly. “Sometimes things aren’t that simple.” / “But sometimes they are.”). With this book, I’m trying a new little challenge of trying to incorporate a word from the last sentence of the previous chapter into the first sentence of the next chapter. It’s just a subtle way to transition between chapters, tie things together, and keep the flow going.

I also like to open chapters with a hook that creates some kind of juxtaposition or dichotomy—some sense that something is amiss. I want readers to be curious about why this new rift isn’t simple.

Note, also, how I begin in medias res. The characters are already at the rift and recognizing its issues. After planting this brief hook, I can then jump backwards and expound on the context in the sentences immediately following.

The closer Axion assured them they were getting, the deeper Chris’s sense of uneasiness.

I immediately need to start establishing the setting and the supporting characters. I want to indicate Axion is present, but because I don’t want to just say “Axion was there,” I have to reference him in a way that advances the story, expounds upon the previous sentence, and deepens reader interest. Here, I do that by tying in Axion’s presence to Chris’s state of mind.

But not until their horses rounded a bend in the road and startled a small herd of shaggy zajele into scrambling up the black rocky hillside did he realize where he was.

Now comes the setting. Instead of simply saying, “Chris was riding in the hills,” I want to describe via action. This also allows me to help readers envision the scene by indicating the characters are mounted. Since Chris has been in this place before, I use the word cues “black rocky hillside” to hark back to previous descriptions and help readers recall their previous mental image of this setting.

“No way.”

The earlier you can incorporate dialogue into a scene, the better. Dialogue is one of the easiest and best ways to enliven a scene. I also need to communicate Chris’s recognition of and uneasiness with this place, so other characters can respond to it—which, in turn, gives me the opportunity to indicate their presence and orientation in the scene.

Riding just behind him, his dad urged his borrowed horse into a trot. “What is it?”

Chris’s dad is a minor character in this story and hasn’t been present in many scenes up to this point. Therefore, I needed to indicate his presence as early as possible to keep from jarring readers. Choosing him to be the one to respond to Chris lets me do that while also further sketching the placement of all the characters in the scene.

Worick had showed up at the palace this morning just as Chris, Allara, and a Guardsmen squad were boarding the skycar that would take them the six hours to Virere Ford. One look at the sword on Chris’s hip and the Glock strapped across his chest, and Worick had paled beneath his swarthy tan. Grimly, he’d refused to be left behind.

Now that I’ve introduced Worick’s presence in the scene, via a little action, I have the opportunity to stick in a little exposition, indicating what happened in between chapters and why Worick is unexpectedly present. I make this paragraph pull extra weight by also explaining who else is present in this scene, how they got here from the setting in the previous chapter, how much time has passed, what Chris is wearing, and what Worick’s mindset and scene goals may be.

Now, he frowned. “What’s wrong?”

After the paragraph of exposition, I need to reorient readers in the present-time dialogue. I do this via Worick’s action beat and reiteration of his question.

Chris shook his head. “I’ve come through this rift before.”

Chris’s action beat reestablishes him as the second speaker. His dialogue reminds readers how he happened to be in this place before.

On his other side, Allara reined in a prancing Rihawn, and looked at him questioningly. “You had bones here?”

Allara enters the conversation at her earliest opportunity. She is introduced by an action beat that orients her position in relation to the overall setting and Chris in particular.

“No, I followed a friend from my world. His shadow lives here.”

This is necessary information for the other characters to know, but also for the readers to be reminded of, since the previous scene was relatively minor and happened some time back. It catches readers up to speed with what Chris has realized about this place.

Riding at the head of the column with a sullen Quinnon, Axion stiffened. He cocked his head, listening. “There is a gathering.”

Again, an action beat fulfills multiple duties by identifying the new speaker, orienting him within the setting, indicating the presence and position of yet another character (Quinnon), and advancing the plot by hinting something is about to happen.

Since there is no visual or auditory cue for Chris to access (Cherazii have better hearing than humans), the second sentence indicates how Axion realizes something is happening. His dialogue then sets up reader expectations for what is about to happen.

“Cherazii?” Allara asked.

Due to conversations in the previous chapter, readers might initially expect the gathering to be of Cherazii. Allara asks this question for them…

“I think not.”

…and Axion immediately dispels the misconception. This subtly sets readers up for what to expect by avoiding any unnecessary jarring or confusion when it turns out there will be no more Cherazii in this scene.

Chris strained his ears, but caught only the wind whistling amidst the crags. It took a full quarter of a mile more before he heard it too: an ominous murmur.

Readers may not remember that Cherazii have superior hearing and therefore may wonder why Axion is the only one to hear anything. Without blatantly telling readers this is so, I at least acknowledge that Chris can’t hear what Axion hears and hint at the range of Axion’s hearing by mentioning how long it takes until Chris picks up on the interesting sound.

The road took another curve around the hillside. To the left, farther down the slope, the rift’s metallic opacity glinted amongst the black boulders. As before, it hovered several feet above the ground. But now, it was three times larger.

Since the characters are moving, the setting needs to be advanced. The central interest in this setting is the rift, so I mention it immediately, with a few descriptors, to orient readers and give the rest of the description a central point around which to revolve. I also contrast the rift’s current appearance with how it looked the last time readers saw it—thus, advancing the plot in the subtlest of ways and foreshadowing events to come later in the chapter.

A hundred yards distant, where a few farmsteads came together to create a commune, two dozen villagers crowded the road. Mattocks and shepherd’s crooks over their shoulders, they shouted at the Yellow Guard platoon herding a line of chained outlanders through their midst.

Now that the characters are technically in a new setting, I need to take a moment to reorient everyone and describe the new features. The second sentence expounds on the first by including descriptors that work double time to indicate the villagers’ unsettled mood. I also indicate the presence of the Yellow Guard and why they’re there: because of their prisoners.

“Return them home!” a villager shouted.

Now that the orienting details are out of the way, it’s time to bring in the dialogue once again. By sharing snippets from the villagers, I’m able to do all of the following: hint at the raucous sounds of a shouting crowd, give the villagers some general characterization, and provide context for their altercation with the Yellow Guard—setting things up for Chris’s interaction with both groups later on.

“’Tisn’t right for them to be here at all, I tell you!”

This lets me indicate the villagers dislike the outlanders’ presence.

“Lord Virere may tax the food from our mouths, and that’s one thing. But forcing us to provide for outlanders who should not even be here?”

This establishes their discontent with the nobility. Chris and the readers already know this, but Allara still needed to hear it.

A man’s deep voice boomed above them all: “I’ll be no man’s jailer, I won’t.”

Now, it’s time to characterize one villager in particular. Chris doesn’t see him yet, just hears him. He’s a country shepherd, with a slight dialect, which I want to be subtly evident right away—“showing” why Chris recognizes his voice, rather than simply telling.

Chris flinched.

An action beat from Chris immediately indicates his discomfiting recognition of the voice.

The voice was Mike’s. Or, rather, Rordin Soller’s.

To catch readers up to speed with Chris’s realization, I simply tell them what he hears. Since Rordin was a minor character introduced way back in the First Act, I reiterate his full name and tie him back in to Mike, to help readers remember Chris’s encounter with him.

“I will not,” Rordin continued. “No matter what Virere says. Tax us how he may.”

One more line of dialogue lets me cement Rordin’s characterization in this scene, now that readers know who he is.

Chris’s gut tightened. At least, Allara was getting a show made to order.

An action beat indicates how Chris feels about this information. The brief internal narrative reminds readers this is new information to Allara.

She looked straight ahead, her face tight. “Quinnon.”

An action beat from Allara hints at her internal reaction without needing any explanation from Chris. She moves the plot through purposefully ambiguous dialogue.

With a nod, he moved the column forward at a canter.

Quinnon’s action beat does double duty by moving both himself and the entire main body of characters in response to Allara.

As they  reached the rear of the quickstepping prisoners, two Yellow Guardsmen reined up to salute Quinnon. Then, recognizing Allara, they dismounted to bow.

Again, the setting is changing slightly, as Chris’s group moves forward to meet the new characters. This means the new characters need to be referenced in spatial relation to Chris’s group. Quick actions on the part of the new characters briefly characterize them, separate them from the larger group, and indicate they will be the new actors.

“Let’s see your commander,” Quinnon said.

Logic within the scene requires the queen speak only to the commanding officer—who would not be in the rear. Therefore, a quick exchange is necessary to bring the right character to the right place at the right time.

The senior Guardsman, a sergeant, looked Quinnon over with an almost insubordinate smirk on his scarred face. “Aye, Captain.” He vaulted into his saddle and galloped up the line of prisoners, which was being hurried toward the next curve around the hill.

Because this Guardsman will be an important character later in the chapter, he needed to be introduced more fully, with both a physical characteristic (“scarred face”) and a little bit of personality (“insubordinate smirk”). The second sentence indicates his necessary response to Quinnon’s command, as well as showing that the prisoners are moving out of the immediate scene.

4 Ways to Know How to Choose the Right Sentences

And… we could go on and on with the above commentary. Every sentence has its own unique role to play, depending on the needs of the scene. But hopefully, you can see from these examples how each sentence:

1. Bridges into the next sentence with cause and effect.

2. Does double and even triple duty, where possible, to indicate multiple aspects of the story.

3. Juggles the dissemination of information in the most linear way possible to smooth readers’ understanding and visualization of the scene.

4. Provides a balance of setting, dialogue, action, and internal reaction.

Creating this kind of weft and weave within your narrative is partly instinct and partly experience. Whether you’re analyzing your sentences as you’re writing them or as editing them, always be aware of each sentence’s purpose within the narrative, what’s it’s bringing, and how it might bring even more to the story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you choose the right sentences when writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Robert Billing says:

    I have two techniques here that seem to work. One is speeding up the pace by using shorter sentences, then slowing it down by going longer. The other is to choose the last word of a chapter carefully as it will hang in the reader’s mind while turning the page.

    In one of my SF novels Alan has been hit by an explosive projectile which hasn’t gone off yet. Jane, with no medical qualifications to speak of, it attempting to operate and get it out before it explodes. There is a lot of quick fire talk between her and Dr Morris who is trying to help over “starline”. To complicate matters while she was trying to help him she discovers that he has brought a ring with him, he’d come to propose to her and she’d not realised.

    Then the thing explodes and does so much internal damage that Alan is dying.

    As he slows down to death the sentences get longer, reducing the pace into the silence of the grave.

    ‘The bloody thing’s gone off!’ said Morris, ‘Not your fault, that was the timer running out, seen it before. I’m sorry, that’s it, there’s absolutely nothing more we can do. I’ll let you say goodbye.’ He disconnected from starline.

    Alan looked at her, his lips moving as he tried to form words. Then for a moment he seemed to be at peace. ‘Green and gold,’ he whispered. Jane laid her cheek to his. ‘I know. I found the ring. I’m sorry.’ No, sorry wasn’t enough. ‘I’m utterly ashamed of what I said to you. What I did was wicked.’

    There must be something she could do, some way she could stop this, drag him back to life so that she could put everything right, unsay what she’d said, give him all the things he’d dreamed about. But there was nothing, and at twenty-five minutes past midnight, on a cold, wet morning, while Jane knelt beside him on the bloodstained deck plates of her ship, Alan slipped from her and died.

  2. I really appreciate this breakdown, and the fact that you provided the un-broken-down scene so I could concentrate on it. 🙂 I’m especially glad you talked about scene setting. That’s an area that I struggle with. I’ve found it’s often easier for me to write out the scene, then go back and work in the visuals. (Despite several art classes, I am NOT a very visual person.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Setting is tricky. It’s so easy to either overdo it or neglect it. As I’ve shown here, I find that the best balance is trying to weave it into the action.

  3. Eric Troyer says:

    Nice post! An excellent demonstration of the nitty-gritty of writing.

  4. Love the orchestration. Every word is playing its role. Thank you for this detailed lesson.

    Question: Can you offer a ‘rough’ guess of how much of this scene you prepared during outlining?

    Easier still, how many drafts did this take you?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The scene you’re seeing now is the first-draft with only a pass or two of light editing.

      The outline for this chapter was 600 words–most of which did *not* explicitly deal with the section here, but rather the later events that this is setting up.

  5. I really like the idea of using a word from the end of the last chapter as a `fade out/fade in.’ 🙂 I remember a `Darkwing Duck’ cartoon did exactly that once when a scene ended with Darkwing saying the city could finally sleep easy, while the next scene opened with him trying vainly to get his adopted daughter to go to bed. It was brilliant. And hilarious.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You can use it in so many ways. When it’s blatant, it can be funny or ironic. But it can also be much subtler with a more subconscious effect.

  6. Ms. Albina says:

    Once upon a time, there was a family of mer-gods who lived in the turquoise sea next to Maia’s island. Today was Lotus and her twin, Serena’s coming of age day turning 107 years old and the fact that her parents decided it was time for Lotus to marry.

    Since Lotus was the oldest she had to show good behavior to her siblings. Her family was going to swim to Maia’s island and transport magically to the palace of the heavens for the celebration.

    Lotus had raven hair with ringlets. She was the apple of her parent’s eye. Before dinner, she heard that she was going to get married or have an arranged marriage to someone she did not know.

    “I am getting married,” Lotus said. ” I don’t want to,”

    All of the mer-gods were six feet tall only the females and the male mer-god or Zane was 6’3″ tall.

    This is a rough draft.

  7. Robert Easterbrook says:

    Gee, you really know how to make a guy feel good about himself. 😉

    I have recently felt good about ‘mastering’ the ‘first scene of the next chapter connects with the last scene of the previous chapter’, even if only visually, e.g. second main character flies into a storm, third main character exists a tunnel. But now you suggest we use a word from the last sentence of the previous chapter! haha

    I have written 9 books in 3 years, because when I started this writing business I believed I had to play catch-up. I believed I had to climb Mt. Everest to achieve my goals. I had never written a novel before attempting the reach the summit (though I’m still not sure if I have), so my first novel was written by a pantser. And it shows.

    I can see the fun factor in this, but my stomach tightens every time I think of doing a sentence by sentence analysis of 9 novels. I mean, I did, when I edited 8 of those books, the 9th is pending – even though it took a while to figure out that Microsoft Word has a built-in auto-correct: ‘Oh, it’s not American English, better correct that!’ Author sets editing language to British English to avoid this problem. Word accepts changes with fanfare, but secretly laughs at author as it doesn’t accept the change and covertly rejects edits and spell-corrects leaving author scratching his head in puzzlement.

    I don’t write humour … sorry, humor, so don’t get the joke.

    I’ve realised I’m a ‘big picture’ guy, rather than a ‘humour is in the details’ kind of guy. James Patterson would be pleased. 😉 John Grisham would furrow his brow. And this creates minor travesties in my story telling – they can be overcome, of course. If I trekked with you through the swamp (rather than take a plane), I’d probably be better off. Attracting buzzing bugs though I would.

    Thanks again for your fabulous insights into writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In all honesty, I *don’t* revise sentence by sentence in the intense way we’re looking at here. I just read and if something feels out of place, I deal with it–and usually find it’s because the sentence isn’t intrinsic enough. Scrutinizing deeply is a great learning technique, but it doesn’t always have to be that intense.

    • lol glad I’m not the only one who gets caught by the spellcheck feature – it annoys me no end sometime 😀 also I wonder if whoever created the ‘grammar-check’ feature even speaks English as the corrections they say to make, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

  8. I really love posts like this–deep in the weeds of writing, breaking down some of the often uncomfortable and difficult analyses of the job. I’m not sure my own sentences would survive such scrutiny! It’s instructive to see how granular you should be when analyzing your text. For me, this would be a really valuable exercise for a passage that isn’t flowing quite right, or a scene that feels off. I’m scared but I’m going to try it out. I predict a lot of deleted sentences. I would find this paralyzing if I tried to do it as I wrote. I suppose it’s a function of experience, and I simply don’t have enough yet. (If that is a lightly edited FIRST DRAFT of your book then wow, apparently it can be done. You should see my first drafts–ugh). It sure would make my writing more efficient, and editing much easier. Thank you for sharing from your book. It made the exercise very clear. And your story sounds so fun, I just downloaded DREAMLANDER so I can catch up!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t do this while I write. It’s mostly an instinctive process. I only became truly consciously aware of it while writing this WIP. It was like, “Wow, I know I’m choosing this sentence for this and this reason. I must actually know what I’m doing!” :p I think it’s great to analyze your stuff this way, but definitely don’t get bogged down on it in the first draft.

  9. Daeus Lamb says:

    This is the ONE post of yours I couldn’t read.

    HOW CAN I SPOIL THE EXPERIENCE OF READING DREAMBREAKER FOR THE FIRST TIME????????????

    WHEN WILL IT BE OUT!?!?!?!?!?!?!!!!! WWWWHHHHHEEEEEEEEEENNN?????

    *stagger and gasps*

    *turns white* *faints*

    (Just a little anxious, that’s all.)

  10. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Talk about concrete examples and their attendant explanations! This is amazing! I’m saving this one into my files. Thank you!

  11. DirectorNoah says:

    What an amazing post Katie! It’s great to see such a detailed in-depth study at part of a scene, broken down to show how each sentence is constructed. Some of this structure I know to do already through instinct, it just feels right, but there was a lot here I didn’t. I will usually read out my sentencing aloud before writing it, to get the flow right and refine until it feels spot on. I’m afraid I couldn’t analyse my sentencing that intensely as you have here, otherwise I’d probably be rewriting forever! I mostly have problems with ending chapters, where I think, ‘how on earth do I finish this without ending on a dull note?’
    Thank you for this brilliant look at sentence structure, this will guide me tremendously with word crafting in my first draft!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I realize now that I should have mentioned in the post is that I *don’t* analyze my sentences this intensely. I don’t revise like this at all. What I’m showing here is the reasoning behind each sentence as I wrote it. I edit very instinctively and don’t generally go this deep unless I can feel that something is off.

  12. Woah, I was so excited to see the Dreambreaker snippets! As a big fan of Dreamlander, I’m really excited.

    Your posts seem to hit really great timing for people, and now this one for me. 😉 I’ve been wondering how to improve my sentences as I write, and now I know how. This will really help me when I write my first draft in a few weeks. Thank you for another spectacular post!

    Madi

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  1. […] and editing help us make the most of the words on our page. K.M. Weiland shares tips for how to choose the right sentences, Janice Hardy examines raising the stakes: revising to keep readers reading, and William Ryan has […]

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