If your sentences are too similar, your paragraphs will feel weird and clunky. But when writing fiction, it’s surprisingly easy to end up with this:
She walked through the tavern’s back door. She found a seat in a dark corner. She had to wait until the sigil appeared. She nursed a martini for the next hour.
Fiction is made of people doing things, and the standard “protagonist verb object” is a strong way to write that. But if you structure all your sentences that way, you’ll have a monotonous mess on your hands. When that happens, it can be a struggle to inject some life into stale phrasing. To keep your head from hitting the desk, I have some quick ideas you can use.
1. Inject Description
Take a break from your active character to describe something nearby. This gives you a reason to start a sentence with something other than a pronoun or name.
- She walked through the tavern’s back door. A trace of smoked curled in the musky air.
- She found a seat in a dark corner. The crusted cushions crunched beneath her.
You can also inject description into a sentence to break up the rhythm.
- She found a seat in a dark corner, its cushions cracked but clean.
- She nursed a martini, a drink mixed with as much love as swill, for the next hour.
That last example adds an interruption to the middle of the sentence. While mid-sentence interruptions have their place, if you overuse them I will show up at your workspace and take away your keyboard.*
2. Use Transitions
When you need a quick way to add a pause or change the start of a sentence, a transition phrase can do the trick.
- Despite all of that, she walked through the tavern’s back door.
- Then, yet again, she had to wait until the sigil appeared.
- To add insult to injury, she had to drink rough swill for the next hour.
Some transitions are very clinical. Don’t use transitions like “additionally” unless your narrator is a bureaucrat. Look for casual transitions that add personality. For example, “yet again” suggests your character is fed up.
3. Add Simultaneous Action
Narrate two actions happening at the same time. You can do that using a present participle (a verb with “ing”) or by using “as” or “while.”
- Waving the smoke aside, she walked through the tavern’s back door.
- As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she found a seat in the darkest corner.
- While she nursed her martini, she readied her wand.
Keep in mind that the action paired with “as,” “while,” or the participle will have lower emphasis. It looks weird if I do this:
- While she readied her wand, she nursed her martini.
It’s weird because readying the wand is clearly more important than sipping at a martini. I can change that by making the martini more impactful:
- While she readied her wand, she nursed some rough swill they called a martini.
Participles are also frequently abused. Don’t use one with every sentence.
4. Start With a Preposition
Prepositional phrases that end a sentence keep the reader from slowing down. Normally, that’s good. But if you need to switch things up, start your sentences with them.
- For the next hour, she nursed a martini.
- In a dark corner, she found a seat.
Because doing this creates shorter phrasing, both parts now have more emphasis than if the preposition was last.
If you are adding a new preposition, use it to give readers a better idea of what’s happening.
- Before the servers had time to lock up, she walked through the tavern’s back door.
- To her left past the smokey bar, she spotted a seat in a dark corner.
This gives readers a better sense of the time or of the layout of the bar. Depending on the story, that could be valuable.
5. Insert Comparisons
Comparing an item or action in your story to something else will force you to add more content. That will alter the rhythm and give you an opportunity to add interesting details.
- She slinked through the tavern’s back door like a panther on the prowl.
- She found a seat in a dark corner, far back enough to be protected yet close enough to exit quickly.
- Instead of charming some free drinks off the patrons, she found a seat in a lonely corner.
While the order of comparisons is flexible, changing it won’t always produce good results.
- Far back enough to be protected yet close enough to leave quickly, she found a seat in a dark corner.
This requires too much reading before the audience knows what they’re reading about.
6. Create a List
A list of three or more items changes the rhythm while encouraging more of those interesting details. Your list can be comprised of anything: objects, adjectives, or actions.*
- In a dark, cramped, and empty corner, she found her seat.
- Until the sigil appeared, she had to wait: drinking, fidgeting, wishing they’d arrest the so-called band.
- With wand, crystal, and runes at the ready, she nursed her martini.
Lists also make it easy to add jokes. Just make one of those things not like the others.
7. Interrupt With a Character Thought
Pause the narration to let your character reminisce about what’s happening. That will help readers understand your character, and since characters don’t usually narrate their own actions, you’ll also automatically bypass the “character-verb-object” trap.
- She walked through the tavern’s back door. Why was this always her job? It was tedium incarnate. She found a seat in a dark corner. Time to get it over with.
- She walked through the tavern’s back door. Blech! What a stench.
Thoughts come in many shapes and sizes that you won’t find in regular narration. Questions, fragments, and exclamations can all make an appearance.
8. Put the Object First
This is niche, but when done right, it can add a lot of flavor. Just take a normal sentence, and then make the object into the subject.
- It was the tavern she walked into an hour after dusk.
- A martini kept her company for the next hour.
The tavern and the martini are now the center of attention. The trick is to make sure that’s appropriate. Look for places where the object deserves more emphasis than it’s getting. When in doubt, make the object more interesting.
- A martini mixed with love and swill kept her company.
That way if the martini isn’t technically important to the story, it will have enough flavor to make up for it.
9. Add a Conditional
Use “if,” “even if,” or “even though” to create a longer and more complex sentence.
- She walked through the tavern’s back door even though it called attention to her arrival.
- If she didn’t wait until the sigil appeared, she wouldn’t have enough strength to protect herself and the likely victim.
- She had to wait there until the sigil appeared, even if the band switched out their guitars for banjos.
If you put the conditional at the beginning, then you should end the phrase with a comma. That will add a pause to the sentence. When it’s at the end, only use a comma if the conditional phrase feels tangential.
10. Join Two Sentences
Take two existing sentences that are closely related and bring them together. You can replace a period with a semi-colon, creating a slightly shorter pause, or join them with a conjunction like “and,” “but,” or “so.”* Alternating how you join sentences allows you to join more without getting repetitive.
- She walked through the tavern’s back door and found a seat in a dark corner.
- She found a comfortable seat; she had to wait until the sigil appeared.
- She had to wait until the sigil appeared, so she nursed a martini for the next hour.
If you use a conjunction, you can choose to drop the subject for the second clause. Notice the first example doesn’t have a second “she” like the last one does. If you drop the subject, you don’t need a comma.
Semicolons should only be added when sentences are very closely related. I changed the seat to “comfortable” for the second example because her long wait explains why she might need a comfortable seat.
While it’s annoying to end up with repetitive prose, it creates a great opportunity to practice your wordcraft. By troubleshooting, you’ll experiment with structures you don’t normally use. You might even discover a new favorite.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?
The Penguin Cat