Sentence Salads in Fiction Writing

Until you are a verbal artist with your own style, there are a few strategies you can use to make your storytelling more enjoyable for your readers. The sentence strategies presented here are related to each other, however, that relationship is not necessarily sequential. So, we’ll dive in and explore the following and then put them together.

Sentence Types

Before you can create a fictional sentence salad (i.e., a paragraph), you need to know your ingredients. In this case, the various purposes a sentence serves. Keeping it simple, we’ll review five purposes in no particular order.

Dialogue Sentence

A dialogue typically happens between two or more characters. However, the tempo and feel of story delivery can be improved at times by adding dialogue, even if the character is talking to himself.

There are three aspects of dialogue composition to consider when using this type of sentence in a story. The first two are more about the formula of dialogue sentences.

  • How to convey who is talking
  • When to convey who is talking 
  • What is the purpose on the dialogue

How to Convey Who is Talking

To “said” or not to “said.” As the storyteller, it’s easy for you to know who is speaking as you stack your dialogue sentences one on top of the other. However, a reader might lose track. I use two strategies to ensure the reader knows who is speaking. Below are two examples.

  • “I told you to take out the trash an hour ago,” Milly said. “Get up and do it now.”
  • “I told you to take out the trash an hour ago.” Milly inhaled deeply. “Get up and do it now.”

My preference is the second example for two reasons: movement and flow.

  • Movement – The ability for me to add a form of movement to the interaction. A reader might infer, by combining her words and the timing of her deep breath, that Milly is angry but is trying to curb her reaction to being ignored.
  • Flow – I feel that the use of “said” in the first example might jar the reader just a bit. At times, the reader will welcome this because it offers a breath or emphasis in the reading process. However, they will not like it if you have a long conservation and “said” shows up on every line.

When to Convey Who is Talking

The difference between who and when is subtle but important. As the storyteller, you have three options, two are preferred.

  • Preferred
    • In the middle – “The room is on the left,” Mike said. “I’ll see you there.”
    • At the end – “The room is on the left. I’ll see you there,” Mike said.
  • Not preferred
    • At the start – Mike said, “The room is on the left. I’ll see you there.”

Read any best seller and you will not see them place the dialogue tag at the start. However, there are occasions when the natural flow of the storytelling lends itself to the occasional up-front dialogue tag placement. 

  • First person narrative – I’ve done everything my dad has asked of me, but when he said, “You have to finish your homework before you can have the car,” I realized I wasn’t going anywhere.
  • Third person narrative – The wind whipped through the tunnel just when Mary said, “Get down!” Cathy missed the warning and was hit by flying debris.

What is the Purpose of the Dialogue

The two most frequent purpose of a dialogue is to request or deliver information. Vague, right? The key to requesting or delivering information is to not say it as if you are reading a well written email. Even if it means speaking in broken sentences, dialogue needs to sound real.

Before we consider a couple of examples, another purpose of dialogue is to replace the narrator of the story. The rule of “share, don’t tell” can be assisted by giving a character the role of narrator.

Example: Dialogue to Convey Description

The following are inspired by actual dialogues I have read. In this scenario, characters are replacing the narrator. 

  • Unnatural speech – “The library has four walls filled with books on shelves. The rug is worn and threadbare.”
  • More natural speech – “Careful when you enter the library. The rug has seen better days. You’re liable to snag your boot and land on your face. And!” He rolled his eyes. “Heaven forbid you fall into the book shelves and disturb the master’s collection.”

In both instances, the reader knows the room has a threadbare rug, shelves, and books. Although the first example states that there are four walls with shelves, the second example implies that might be the case by referring to the room as a library.

If it is critical that the reader know that all four walls have shelves and books, you can allow another character to add it. Or, you can weave it in as the story progresses. 

Example: Dialogue to Convey Action
  • Unnatural speech – “Billy ran up the stairs and into the bathroom. When he slammed the door, the vibrations shook a painting from the wall.”
  • More natural speech – “Billy’s in the bathroom. Is something wrong? If he’d slammed the door any harder, my new painting almost hit the floor.”

The second example doesn’t tell the reader that the bathroom is upstairs, but it does convey emotion: door slamming. People slam doors for different reasons. Neither example conveys which emotion, but the stage is set for further dialogue.

Reflection Sentence

When a storyteller isn’t using dialogue, she’s using narrative, defined as “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.” Reflection is one type of narrative but there are different types of reflections. For example, feelings and memories.

Reflection can be delivered as a paragraph or interjected into a dialogue.

  • Paragraph – When Carman wore my mother’s hat, I wanted to scream. I wanted to rip it from her head. She is not my mother. How dare she?
  • Dialogue interjection – “No, of course not.” I tried to smile as my blood boiled. “Of course! I don’t mind Carman wearing Mom’s hat.” The smile I forced was well practiced.

Two ways to convey that the character is not happy about Carman wearing her mother’s hat. Remember, Long inner monologues about feelings can slow a story. Short, related reflections between actions provide timely character insight and help carry the reader forward.

Conclusion Sentence

Sentences that draw conclusions are common after a dialogue or an action scene. There are different reasons for using this type of sentence.

  • Summarize a series of events or lengthy dialogue.
    • Example – Three parties, four crashes, a broken leg, and one arrest. Definitely a busy day.
    •  Example – All Lisa could remember after the party was that her two best friends were getting married and one was having a baby.
  • Interpret a series of events, thus adding new information to carry a story forward.
    • Example – If Cathy is broke, where did she get that ring? She was standing next to the jewelry rack yesterday. Oh my gosh. Did she steal it?
    • Example – David went this way. I know it. There must be a secret door. 

Action Sentence

Action in a story narrative will keep the reader’s attention if done right. Imagine watching a movie where the characters are just standing there the entire time. Boring! There are degrees of action: macro and micro.

Macro Actions

Macro actions typically include multiple characters and can convey a multitude of attitudes and feeling and skills.

  • Blockbuster actions – For instance, a ground and air battle between super heroes and aliens in the heart of New York City.
  • Aggressive or passion interactions between two or more characters – For instance, two characters surrounded by five bad guys and someone isn’t walking away.

Writing macro actions take some planning. A lot of macro action detail can be too much and slow the story. Which of the following is better?

  • 51 Words – Cam lifted his sword to block the enemy’s strike. He spun around and sliced at the enemies left side but was blocked. He feigned left but went right, grabbing his dagger from his belt. He drove it up and into the enemy’s neck. The enemy died instantly, dropping to the ground.
  • 29 Words – Cam blocked a strike from above and missed his attempt to the left. Feigning left, he spun right, pulling his dagger and driving it up into the enemy’s neck.

Now imagine a longer battle scene where each interaction was conveyed with 51 words or more. For actions that by nature, fast, the sentences should be brief and concise to convey a fast pace.

For actions that are slow by nature, for instance, sneaking around a haunted house, multiple action sentences can help build tension.

  • 73 Words – The air was cool and damp. Light from the full moon, shining through the cobwebs covering the windows, only added to the feeling that eyes were watching Lucy from the dark corners of the living room. With each step, the decaying wooden floors creaked under her feet. Anyone in earshot would be able to find her. Something moved. A shadow? Lucy froze in place, her eyes wide and breath caught in her throat.
  • 22 Words – Lucy crept into the living room with only moon light to guide her way. Something moved in the shadows and she froze.

Which action scene builds the most tension?

Micro Actions

Micro actions tend to focus on one character and can convey inner thoughts or feelings not voiced. Micro action examples might include the following.

  • Carol pinched her eyes closed.
  • John’s lips formed a thin, straight line.
  • She shifted her attention and met his gaze.
  • He crossed the room to the window.
  • She tapped her finger on the table.

Micro actions can break up dialogue and reflections. People don’t always speak without moving in some way, even if they are simply staring. Micro actions can add insight into the character in that scene.

However, not all micro actions will be interpreted the same way be your readers. If the action is intended to convey a specific meaning, you might need to add dialogue or reflection to steer the reader in the right direction.

Description Sentence

Last but not least, the description. What does a character look like? What does the room look like? There was a time, when there were no photos or motion pictures, at time when readers delighted in detailed descriptions. 

In today’s world, where information overload is a constant threat from media, work, society, and family, a reading escape needs to win out over other distractions. That means descriptions need to add value to the story, not weigh it down.

Follow two rules and you will be on your way.

  • No data dumps.
  • Subtle weaving.

No Data Dumps

A data dump, no matter how well crafted the sentences, is still be a data dump. A paragraph of description sentences, one after another, can bring story flow to a screeching halt.

Imagine being in the middle of a dining room fight scene that moves to the kitchen. Before the fight started, there’s a paragraph describing the table, chairs, windows, temperature, lighting and/or walls. Then, you get a run down on the kitchen cabinets, appliances, windows, and door before the fight continues.

That’s two paragraphs describing rooms all at once. Might be hard to believe someone would do this but it’s happened. 

How are data dumps avoided? 

  1. Write a detailed description of the character or room or whatever in a separate document.
  2. Identify the details that will move the story forward and those that won’t.
  3. Determine when the reader needs to know the important details.
  4. Write the scene without description details. For instance, She entered the room, where “room” will need a description at some point in the story.
  5. Weave in the important descriptions. See the next section for more details.

Subtle Weaving

We saw earlier where a character weaved a description into the dialogue while also conveying action. In the following example, there is a lot of data being delivered but it’s not being dumped on the reader.

“Careful when you enter the library. The rug has seen better days. You’re liable to snag your boot and land on your face. And!” He rolled his eyes. “Heaven forbid you fall into the book shelves and disturb the master’s collection.”

If you don’t have a dialogue option and you need the character to see the room for the reader,  you can try delivering with reflection or action sentences.

Reflection + Description
The last time I was in my grandfather’s library, I remember books. On every wall, stacks of them, all waiting to be read. The smell of old paper and glue burned my nose. He made me sit in the center of the room at the big stone table if I wanted to read. Two things made the experience bearable: the cushioned chairs and a desk lamp of my own.
Action + Description
Someone’s coming. I slip inside the library and freeze. It’s dark. Footsteps draw near. There has to be another way out. My foot catches on a wrinkle in the rug and I stumble. A thickly padded chair breaks my fall. I crawl until I reach a wall of shelves. I feel my way, my hands sliding over the spines of books. It takes two turns before I feel glass. A window. No, a door. I try the handle and slip into the night, safe. 

Word Repeats

If readers experience the same word repeatedly in a short span of sentences, they will feel it. The rhythm of your words will break. Below is an extreme example.

The door at the end of the hall reached to the ceiling. The door was made of wood and looked heavy. I knocked on the door and waited. When the door opened, I stepped inside.

The word “door” appears four times. Can the scene be written with one “door?”

The heavy wooden door at the end of the hall reached to the ceiling. I knocked and waited. When it opened, I stepped inside.

Simplistic? Yes. Easy mistake to make? Also, yes. In this example, the word “door” is removed to fix the issue. In other instances, synonyms can be used, as long as the synonym doesn’t change the meaning of what is being said. Or, words that relate can be used. 

Emily slowly removes her hand from her mouth and holds it up. "I had him pinned against a tree." She turns her hand and her fingers curl around something only she can see. "He tried to kill me with a knife. He cut me open." She drops her hand into her other hand, squeezing to stop the trembling.

Can we remove a “hand” or two?

Emily slowly removes her hand from her mouth and holds it up. "I had him pinned against a tree." She turns her wrist and her fingers curl around something only she can see. "He tried to kill me with a knife. He cut me open." She pushes down on the table as her body trembles with rage.

Remember, if one or more of the actions chosen for the scene aren’t critical, you can choose a different action. In the above example, the trembling conveys emotion. In the first, she presses her hand into her other hand. In the second, she presses it to the table — where the hand is implied.

Another place where word repeats surface is sentence sequencing.  

Sentence Sequences

Now that we know the basics about our sentence salad ingredients, let’s look at how they get mixed up.  There are three strategies for sentence sequences that will give your writing a boost.

  • Mix sentence types
  • Avoid first-word repeats
  • Flip sentences around

Dialogue paragraphs are notorious for word repeats. By using two strategies, you can limit this issue. Consider the following example.

“Have you seen the gardener today? I’ll need you to ensure he does his job.” She crossed to the window. She was concerned that the roses might not get their regular feeding. She pulled a list of garden requirements and handed them to Ron.

To improve this sentence salad, start by mixing up the sentence types by weaving action and dialogue.

She crossed to the window. “Have you seen the gardener today?” She was concerned that the roses might not get their regular feeding. “I’ll need to ensure he does his job.” She pulled a list of garden requirements and handed them to Ron.

Next, avoid first-word repeats. Start by removing one of the “she” words.

Margie crossed to the window. “Have you seen the gardener today?” She was concerned that the roses might not get their regular feeding. “I’ll need you to ensure he does his job.” She pulled a list of garden requirements and handed them to Ron.

Last, flip a sentence around to soften the use of a second “she.”

Margie crossed to the window. “Have you seen the gardener today?” She was concerned that the roses might not get their regular feeding. “I’ll need you to ensure he does his job.” Pulling her list of garden requirements from her pocket, she handed them to Ron.

“She” is still used twice, however, the three narrative sentences start differently and the two “shes” are well separated. Does the flow of the final sentence sequencing example read better than the first? 

Shuffling sentences in a paragraph is a micro effort to tossing a good sentence salad. However, you can still run into issues when you stack paragraphs. Use the above strategies to keep your paragraphs from creating issues.

Consider the following process when assembling your paragraphs into chapters.

  • Reflection/description paragraph + Dialogue/Action paragraph + Conclusion paragraph.
  • Make sure that each paragraph starts with a different word.
  • Remember to apply sentence strategies within each paragraph.

Summary Exercise

To practice some of the above, start simple. Observe your surroundings. If you’re at home, use your imagination. Write down a bit of action you can see. For example, a guy walked down the street. Then add to it. Whatever you see, write it down. Then do the following.

  • Use a copy so you have something to compare to.
  • Label each sentence type.
  • Identify nouns that could use an adjective or two. Or even a full-blown description.
  • Add how an action made you feel or triggered a memory.
  • Address word repeats by using synonyms, rewording, and/or removal.
  • Shuffle the sentence type sequence and see if it feels better.

When you finish, read your first draft out loud. Then read your revision out loud. Did you stumble in the rhythm of the words? Does the second still need some edits? Don’t be afraid to throw something out and create new. 

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

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