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I've realized that I always start sentences with (name of character), he, she, it, they, her, his, the, after (a moment/that), and then. I wonder if there's any useful exercise or tip to reduce this?

A sample of my writing:

Adele wondered where was everyone. It occurred to her that maybe they were in a safe place now. Maybe everyone knew about this, and I was the only one who didn’t, she thought. She stared at her hands, and thought about the things that had actually belonged to her in this world. She realized that nothing really had. All the material things she’d ever owned had turned into dust. Boys had possessed her, but they’d never been hers. Her friends had just been people who had accompanied her throughout her life. Adele sat down, and looked back to the moon. She’d been left alone in the world, waiting for the moon to fall from the sky.

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Oh this this is wonderful all of you have explained this in a way I can grasp immediately, thank you! I really love the last posting. Where you can make sentences shorter to move the pace along. Or longer to slow things down, wicked cool. ^_^ –  Jesica Jul 10 at 18:46
    
Somewhat related question: Alternative word for "she" –  Paul A. Clayton Jul 11 at 16:32

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Even though you notice the problem in the first words (in the subjects of the sentences), I think the problem is elsewhere: Each of the first five sentences has a verb that reminds that we're in Adele's head. But we already know we're in Adele's head, so these reminders are unnecessary, and they weaken the sentences.

Consider this edit, which removes all five reminders:

Adele wondered where was everyone. Maybe they were in a safe place now. Maybe everyone knew about this, and she was the only one who didn’t. She stared at her hands. What had actually belonged to her in this world? Nothing really had. All the material things she’d ever owned had turned into dust. Boys had possessed her, but they’d never been hers. Her friends had just been people who had accompanied her throughout her life. Adele sat down, and looked back to the moon. She’d been left alone in the world, waiting for the moon to fall from the sky.

I think this is an improvement, though it is perhaps too relentlessly staccato now.

If you want to explore the dangers and delights of sentence structures, try this exercise.

  1. Pick a scene you've already written, about 500 words long.
  2. Rewrite the entire scene using sentences no longer than 10 words. If this is too easy, try sentences no longer than 7 words.
  3. Rewrite the original scene using sentences no shorter than 25 words (or 35 if 25 is too easy).
  4. Read each version aloud.
  5. Make notes about:

    • the effects of sentence length
    • what different sentence structures you used
    • the effects of different sentence structures
    • the rhythms created by different lengths and structures
    • which effects you liked and which you disliked
    • anything else you notice
  6. Rewrite the original scene, using everything you've learned about the effects sentence length.
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I love Dale's revision. What I also find useful and can help move the scene along is to start the sentence with the verb - it lends a feel of action:

... Sitting down, looking back at the moon, she now knew that she’d been left alone in the world, waiting for the moon to fall from the sky.

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  • Check out the book The Art of Styling Sentences. It's a bit formulaic way of forming dynamic sentences where they show you twenty sentence patterns and where and how to use them. To quote from the book description:

The authors review the fundamentals of good sentence structure and then go on to describe twenty basic sentence patterns that encompass virtually every effective way of writing sentences in English. They also draw on passages by current prominent writers, using these examples to show how varying rhythm and sentence patterns can result in elegant writing styles that keep their readers interested.

  • Also, there's another technique, I can't find it online right now, but it more or less goes like this: you make all your sentences simple sentences, like:

Adele wondered where was everyone. It occurred to her. Maybe they were in a safe place now. Maybe everyone knew about this. I was the only one who didn’t, she thought. She stared at her hands. She thought about the things that had actually belonged to her in this world.

Then see how you can combine them in different ways. For example:

Adele wondered where was everyone, and then it occurred to her. Maybe they were in a safe place now.


Adele wondered where was everyone. It occurred to her - maybe they were in a safe place now.


Adele wondered where was everyone, but it occurred to her that perhaps they were in a safe place now.


She stared at her hands, while thinking about the things that had actually belonged to her in this world.


Staring at her hands, she thought about the things that had actually belonged to her in this world.


She thought about the things that had actually belonged to her in this world as she stared at her hands.


She stared at her hands as she thought about the things that had actually belonged to her in this world.

And so on. Then you just vary the way you combine them - you use first example for one sentence, third for the next, second for the one after that... It's not the most brilliant example, but I hope you get the point.

  • One more thing: to get the whole text to feel dynamic, vary your sentence length. All short sentences in a paragraph imply fast action. Fight. Flight. Action. More action. Speed. All long sentences imply slow action, long, boring, slow action or can also serve to give the feeling of light-headedness or tiredness of the point of view character, on the count that the reader himself feels tired after reading such a long sentence. But by varying the short and long sentences, you get a general feel of dynamic - fast, slow, fast, slow, fast, fast, slow...
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