Novelists compose scads of unsuccessful sentences, and many stay that way. Hardly surprising, given decades of bad habits like thinking aloud, writing the way you talk, trying to sound “fancy,” avoiding confrontation via vagueness, or inflicting academic jargon.
Without pointing the finger at particular best sellers or prize winners, I’ll admit that rip-roaring scenarios or political correctness let many weakly written novels do extremely well. But. Would you rather compensate for lame sentence structure, or fix them? This checklist might help.
~ How many sentences (particularly at paragraph beginnings) start with a noun or pronoun?
Constant use of subject-verb-object (“Hortense bewitched him”) drags. Eyeball the page to check this. Does the left margin languish with repetition? Variety spices not only life, but prose. Seriously. Experiment with fragments. Combine sentences. Divide them. Possibilities abound, and perfecting sentences simultaneously thickens plot and deepens characters. Such a bonus..
~ What’s with the auxiliary verbs?
Not much, Avoid clutter with weak verbs like “is” or “had.” Action verbs deliver best: “strike,” “kiss,” “shred,” “blink,” “jump.” Exploit the rich heritage of English: whale road meant “ocean”; fire-hammer meant “sword.”
Electrify with symbolic verbs: “illuminate,” “decimate,” “infiltrate.” But follow the metaphor you introduced. Casual or not, it’s still a metaphor.
~ Do you write tight?
Why say “drew tighter” when you can simply “tighten”?
~ Are you descending into the many ways there are for passive voice to be used by you?
Characters can “buy” stuff or pass “by” train terminals, and “by” also describes time. Dangerously, though, “by” builds this structure: “The ball was hit by the cheerleader.” This is rarely a good way for “by” to be used by you! Why not perform a search for “by”? Innocuous as seems, passive voice enervates, while distancing readers from the characters they follow.
~ If it can be a verb, is it?
You emasculate prose with “Heraldo experienced fear of seagulls—even the small ones,” instead of “Heraldo feared seagulls—even the small ones.”
~ Do you overload the sentence opening?
Avoid constructions like “The reason that Mary can never get enough of lilac fragrance is that these flowers evoke happy childhood summers with Grandma.” Choose accessible openings, but without creating a new habit, like starting them all with a conjunction (“but,” “because,” etc.) or “ing” phrase.
Tip: While delighting readers, sleek sentences give writers what they never knew they lacked.