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The Only Kind of Sentence You Should Use in Your Fiction

People will advise you to write all sorts of sentences. Snappy sentences, lyrical sentences, Hemingway-esque short sentences, long Faulknerian sentences. But there’s really only one kind of sentence that actually works: a sentence that carries the reader forward from the previous sentence. This is harder than it sounds.

I don’t care what kind of fiction you’re writing. Introspective or action-packed, sprawling or tightly focused, character-driven or idea-driven — it doesn’t matter. You can write any kind of story you want, and this still applies. Each of your sentences has to build on the previous one, propelling the reader forward.

Usually, I’m a big fan of saying there are no rules in fiction-writing, just suggestions and lists of things that are hard to pull off. But I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately, and it feels pretty iron-clad: Your sentences should build on each other.

Part of the joy of reading, especially fiction, is the feeling of being swept forward by narrative, and following the chain of statements from A to B to C. We read to “find out what happens next,” but also just to follow the thread.

The Only Kind of Sentence You Should Use in Your Fiction

At this point, a lot of people are probably slapping their foreheads at the obviousness of what I’m saying here. Of course sentences should follow each other in some kind of narrative or logical progression. What else would they do?

But I feel like this is easier said than done, and I read a lot of fiction that fails to do this. You know that thing where you’re reading a book, and your eyes just slide off the page and you find yourself not reading further? It’s like you just can’t read any further, even if you want to?

Yeah, that’s probably due to sentences not building on each other.

I encounter this problem a lot in fiction, and I’ve noticed it in some stuff I’ve read lately. It can happen with well-written, beautiful sentences, or with clunky, stumbly sentences. And it’s one of the easiest problems to miss, when you’re revising your own work — because you either look at each sentence individually, to make sure it’s a good sentence on its own, or you skim the whole section. Plus you know where this is going, because you’re the author.

This is especially a big issue in science fiction and fantasy, because immersiveness is such a huge part of world-building. And your readers can’t get immersed if you don’t carry them from sentence to sentence.

It’s about Narrative Flow.

The more books I read and the more stuff I try to write, the more I’m convinced that story is everything. Telling a good story, in a way that engages people, is the best thing you can do, no matter what kind of story and how you tell it — and a huge, ineffable part of storytelling is momentum. Readers (or audiences) need to feel like they’re being carried along on a current of story.

Words might be the atoms of storytelling, but sentences are the molecules. Verb by verb, they propel.

The Only Kind of Sentence You Should Use in Your Fiction

Often the best works are the ones which feel like they’re sort of taking you by the hand — but this doesn’t have to be literal hand-holding. In fact, some of the most difficult, impenetrable works of fiction are the ones which do the best job of having sentence lead to sentence — even if they’re challenging you along the way. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissaand David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are both 1,000-plus-page tomes, which challenge contemporary reading sensibilities in different ways — but they’re both ferociously propulsive on a sentence level.

Here’s an example of a reasonably well written paragraph where the sentences don’t really seem to follow on from each other:

The Captain was in another one of his stygian moods, as if sensing that mutiny was a subject of conversation below decks, in the radiation-drenched catwalks close to the engine core. Babies have an innate awareness of motion, but they can’t distinguish shapes very well, and it’s part of why they don’t know other people as separate individuals. The spaceship was swan-shaped, but Nestor often thought it was more like a big ugly goose, that honked and shat at the same time. Anti-matter is not stuff you want to be juggling when you’re drunk.

Okay, so that’s sort of an extreme example — those sentences are all literally non-sequiturs — because this is often a subtle problem and it’s hard to dramatize. The point is, just reading the above four sentences is exhausting, because there’s no thread carrying you from one to the next. After the sentence about the captain’s bad mood, you want the next sentence to tell you more about either the mood, or the mutiny. Maybe a description of the captain’s grumpy mannerisms, or the noises on the catwalks.

I feel like I see a less extreme version of the above example pretty often — sentences that are perfectly okay in their own right, but don’t build on each other, or create any sense of momentum.

Types of non-building sentences

The Only Kind of Sentence You Should Use in Your FictionAt least in my own writing, I see this happening a few different ways:

1) The gorgeous sentence that gums up the works.

Sometimes you write a sentence that you really, really like. Even though it doesn’t actually add anything to the surrounding sentences, or make any sense with the flow of the other stuff going on in this section. It’s just such a nice sentence that it’s hard to let go of it. But sometimes you find that one particularly beautiful sentence messes up your whole flow, and you have to sacrifice it for the good of the herd.

2) Saying the same thing over and over.

Sometimes, you write three sentences in a row that basically just say the same thing in slightly different ways. Put another way, you sometimes have sentences that just restate the same or piece of information, with only minor variation. Or think about it this way: sometimes, you fail to notice that you’ve written three sentence, which only dispense a single nugget of description, action or emotion.

3) Straight-up non-sequiturs.

Like the example above. Except that of course you could do that on purpose, as a stylistic thing, and I could see making it work. It’s more just that if you don’t intend to have all your sentences skipping from topic to topic, with no apparent order, you may have a problem.

4) Just a general lack of focus.

This is the most common problem, and the hardest to diagnose. Maybe the sentences are all following a topic, and they’re progressing to a large extent. But at the same time, things are just… gumming up. And part of this gummage is the fact that there’s no strong viewpoint or narrative voice in this section. Each sentence just feels slightly disconnected, or like it belongs in a different paragraph than the others.

How to diagnose this problem

The most obvious thing is just to re-read your work 1000 times, until things jump out at you, or claw at your subconscious while you’re in the bath. But once again, there’s the problem where you skate over some of the flaws in your own work because you know how it’s supposed to flow and you can’t really see past that.

The Only Kind of Sentence You Should Use in Your Fiction

But hopefully you’re getting feedback from other people on your work — either beta readers, or a writing group, or just random people on the subway. And you can often spot warning signs, when people say things like “This is where I started to bog down,” or “This part felt really slow to me,” or “This is where I wanted to skim.” Often what the reader perceives as “slowness” isn’t that nothing is happening — it’s that the sentences are not carrying the reader ahead.

But also, this is one reason why reading your work aloud is so important. There is no substitute to reading your own work aloud, either alone or to an audience. You can pretty much instantly tell if the sentences are not flowing right, because it’ll be hard to read aloud. You’ll find yourself stumbling or pausing more, because the sentences aren’t smoothly leading into each other.

The bottom line is that your prose doesn’t have to be breathless, or dynamic, or action-packed, or even particularly easy to read. But a lot of what makes a strong narrative comes down to the flow, from sentence to sentence, and if people are feeling as though there’s too much static in your signal, take a hard look at how your sentences are following each other.

Often, the best sentence isn’t the most clever or the most beautiful, but the sentence that picks up right where the previous sentence left off and moves the reader along.

Magazine cover images via Micky the PixelMcClavertyUK Vintagehorzeltoyranch andSFordScott

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Rob Bricken over at io9 has posted another letter and his response, this one about Batman and why we haven’t, and probably won’t ever, see another Batman tv series. I don’t really agree with him completely about the Superman Returns/Smallville thing but he raises some important points. See the post below in its entirety. (I also included another letter he posted about Yoda cause I could.)


Batshit Crazy

Paul C.: I was wondering why there haven’t been any live-action Batman TV series since the campy ‘60s Adam West Batman. There have been two versions of Superman (Lois & Clark and Smallville) which I assume require more special effects than a Batman show would. There is [Green] Arrow who is essentially Batman, but not the same. There was even that show “The Cape” which was a Batman rip-off and not nearly as interesting. With the success of the recent grittier Nolan Batman films, and our love for police procedurals, couldn’t there be a 60-minute time slot there for a Batman TV show?

There could, but there won’t. Batman is too big for TV. By which I mean that Batman is one of Warner Bros.’ biggest, most lucrative, most reliable movie franchises, and they are absolutely terrified at the idea of somehow screwing up the potential revenue of the Batman movies by making a Batman TV series — either by diluting the public’s desire for Bat-entertainment, confusing the public (two people playing Batmen? My mind cannot comprehend such a thing!), or somehow diminishing Batman’s appeal (by the TV series sucking, which, since it would likely end up being a show on The CW, is a very real possibility).

 I know what you’re going to say — Lois and Clark aired only six years after Superman IV, and Smallville was airing when Superman Returns hit theaters. But the truth is that the Superman movie franchise is not nearly as big as the Batman movies. WB felt okay taking those risks for Superman. The worst Superman movie, Superman IV, made $15 million; Batman and Robin still made $105. Which is why it took WB nearly 30 years to get around to relaunching Superman in theaters, but it only took them eight for Batman.

In reality, the public would like all the Batman it can get. I sincerely doubt anyone would cry foul if two different people played two different versions of Batman on TV and in the movies, and there would especially be no problem if the TV show was a Smallville-esque, Batman: Year One TV series and the movies featured an older, most standard, in-his-prime Batman. What can I say? Hollywood is dumb.


That Is Why They Fail

LM: Dear Mr. Postman, I’m a Star Wars fan, but I realized yesterday with the rumor one of the new Star Wars movie was going to be about Yoda is that I don’t want a Yoda movie. Does this make me a bad fan?

Not at all, you just have Yoda fatigue. Same thing as Boba Fett fatigue. It’s a problem many creators create, but that George Lucas is very susceptible to; he learns audiences find such-and-such cool, so he keeps bringing them back until they’ve lost all their appeal.

The other problem is that in the original trilogy Yoda was wise and mysterious, and we could only imagine his power. But in the prequels, he was just as big a doofus as all the other Jedi, and his power was being a green bouncy ball that could hold a lightsaber. Honestly, a little bit of Yoda goes a looong way.

I wouldn’t worry about it, though, because I don’t think it’s true. First of all, half the sites on the internet are claiming they know what Disney is doing, And while AICN certainly gets its scoops, but they’re hardly batting 1.000% rumor-wise. Honestly, I think the waters are so muddied at this point we can’t trust any Star Wars news until Disney genuinely announces it.

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Here is a reblog from i09, this author hits a lot of the right notes about Batman. He really is a boring character without his crew and his villains… but at the same time his villains would be nothing without him.

It also points out reasons why I’m having issues with Arrow right now. There is so much emphasis put on his ‘feelings’ and very little on the villains he’s fighting. When he wins it’s all a bit ‘meh’ cause you really don’t care. The secondary characters like Digby are much more interesting because they have a wider scope of reactions… but not to Arrow. The people writing that show should totally read this and have a think.

6 Reasons Why Batman is Both Perfect and Boring

A few months ago some friends and I were talking about characters who were boring on their own but had wonderful stories built around them. Among the characters discussed were Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter, and then I brought up Batman. This did not go over well, but I believe it to be true. And I’m going to give you a few reasons why.

Let’s start this out by saying I don’t hate Batman, or the comics about him. I have so many boxes full of Batman comics that I have literally made furniture out of them. Batverse comics are still the first things I scan the shelves for on Wednesdays. Bob Kane, with the help of subsequent creators, hit one out of the park. Batman is a character that has resonated powerfully with people through many different eras. He is, in many ways, perfect for comics readers. That’s the problem. I won’t say that the only way to make a character interesting is through flaws — that’s untrue — but I will say that perfection has a price. And that’s what I’ll be discussing.

1. Batman is a Reactive, Not Active Character

What’s the typical Batman intro? We all know it. A crime is being committed. Criminals menace the innocent, confident of their coming victory over the forces of good. Suddenly, just when things seem their darkest, a scuffle is heard from outside! Batman comes crashing through the window and saves the day! Alternately, in team books, the entire Justice League has fought for issues and issues against a terrible foe. They are about to be defeated, but will go down fighting. Suddenly, at the last second, Batman reveals his secret plan, the one that he’s been hatching all along. The enemies fall like dominoes. The day is, again, saved.

This stuff makes Batman seem active, and it’s true, he is. But generally we don’t spend most of our time watching him act, we see the criminals acting. (Exceptions to this are the Batman origin stories, and the villain origin stories — because each villain introduces new character aspects to Batman — which is why I think they’re such stand-out pieces and why they are so often retold.) Most of the time, we see Batman making the deciding play at the last second. We generally don’t see him struggling to achieve things, or fretfully planning what’s going to happen. We see the criminals doing that, and him stating what he’s already done to counter it all. I’m not saying that this isn’t a good story. This is the comics equivalent of the drawing-room seen at the end of a detective novel, where the hero reveals all to the stunned crowd. And Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective. It’s a nail-biting narrative, but it leaves the questions, the twists, and the breathless suspense to the villains, the bit players, and the sidekicks. It doesn’t make the actual detective interesting. We need more for that. Which brings us to . . .

2. This Extends to His Personal Life

Almost every Batman Christmas Special I’ve seen is side characters attempting to get Batman to have a bit of cheer and celebrate Christmas. Almost every team-up involves some other character making overtures to Batman, only to be rebuffed. Alfred tries to get Batman to do things like go to the hospital and see daylight. Women try to get Batman to go out with them. Sidekicks are foisted on him. Team-mates practically beg him to even talk to them. It’s a running joke that Batman, the famous loner of the DCU, has an entire family around him. It seems contradictory, but it’s not. (You see the same thing with Wolverine and other characters who are famous loners.) Superman and Wonder Woman go out and mingle with people voluntarily. They have social lives, professional lives, and romantic lives. Batman doesn’t. People have to crowd around him, and they have to be part of his family or indispensable to his work. If they didn’t force their company on him, he’d just be a guy alone on a rooftop muttering to himself for 800 issues. His default answer, to every question, is “no.” That, as a tough -guy archetype, works very well. But it’s boring as hell unless you staple that pestering secondary character to him despite his refusals.

3. He Has Superman Problems

Think about one of the major problems with Superman — the necessity of giving him ridiculously powerful enemies to fight. Now how many times has Batman, in comics, beaten Superman in a fight? The answer, and I’ve made an exact count, is so many times. There’s a reason why Batman, the guy who was inspired by his the murder of his parents to stop random street violence by small time crooks, has spent the last few issues of several of his own series, and all of his movies, fighting vast conspiratorial nets of high-powered criminals. Nothing less is any threat to him at all, and so it’s generally not interesting.

This, to a certain extent, is a problem with any long-running heroic character. Buffy the Vampire Slayer only made it to her fifth season before the show had to insert an episode — Fool for Love — meant to remind viewers that fighting super-powered monsters to the death every night was still dangerous, and by the end of that season she was successfully fighting gods. Batman has been around a lot longer than that, and fought a lot more gods. We don’t even expect him to have trouble fighting powered supervillains like Poison Ivy or Clayface. It would take superhuman effort (no pun intended) on the part of DC to make Batman fighting muggers a compelling story again. Not even Nolan did that.

4. His Group Dynamic is Frozen

Hey, quick — what does this Robin look like? How about the last one? How about the one before that? Yes, we all know about Stephanie Brown, but aside from about six issues, all the Robins look the same. (Technically, the best argument against this would be the pre-Crisis Jason Todd, who was merrier than post-Crisis Jason and was a strawberry-blond. When you look at his back-story, though, you find he’s an acrobat at a circus, and Bruce adopted him when his two acrobat parents were murdered. Sound familiar? I think there must be something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle For Robins. The farther you stray in backstory from the original Robin, the more the new Robin has to look like him. The closer you get in backstory, the farther you can get in looks. The bottom line is, some things have to stay the same.) Has Batman ever married, even for a time like Superman and Spider-man? Has he changed jobs? How about Alfred? Has he been away for more than a few issues at a time?

There’s a problem with getting an archetype right. Once it’s there, it’s incredibly tough to mess with. The few things that have been messed with successfully — like Alfred turning from a bumbling comic-relief butler to a smart and resourceful ally in his own right — get clicked into place and become inviolate, just like the rest of the series.

5. He Can Only Recognize One Level of Tragedy

One of the major attractions of the Batman legend is its purity. Bruce Wayne never lets go of the tragedy he experienced as a child. He uses his will and clarity of focus to make himself into an instrument that can prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. He lives in that tragic moment, perpetually, to make himself what he needs to be. Which makes him immune to things like the disappointment most of us experience when we can’t get movie tickets, when we miss the call from our friend who was only in town for a while, or when we burn our tongue on some soup. Almost all superheroes have some tragedy in their background, but they also have normal lives and normal emotional ranges. Superman and Spider-Man and Wonder Woman can have bad days and bad break-ups. Batman has corpses. Nothing short of holding the dead body of a loved one in his arms will get Batman to be “sad.” There’s almost nothing that will get him to happy. And that’s not really a huge problem. If I want to see someone have a long series of awkward dates or a fun day doing silly superhero things, I can pick up another comic. It takes, as I said, a purity of focus to make a character that much of an archetype, but it does mean that the character loses some narrative range and emotional plasticity. After a while, the loss does become a problem.

6. His Stories Have Been Told Thousands of Times

Well, it’s the last entry on the list, so it’s time to get some serious weaseling done. I have no doubt that there are multiple counter-examples of every item on this list. In part, this is because Batman has been placed in different universes, some unquestionably dark and adult, and some light-hearted and fun for kids. (In my defense, I’ll say that within these frameworks Batman is still the grimmest, the most resistant to starting social relationships, the least emotional, and the most powerful character.) There are also multiple stories of Batman dying. There are multiple stories of Batman going crazy. Hell, there are multiple stories that center around Batman’s relationship to contemporary music — Batman: Fortunate Son and Batman: Jazz. Batman is about as old as other major DC characters, but his extraordinary popularity has spawned so many elseworlds, team-ups, leagues, and imaginary tales that the sheer mass of pulp he’s starred in means there isn’t much new to say about him. Go to any scanned image or any discussion of a story and people will say, “This is like X story, a few years ago,” or, “I prefer this other author’s version of that.” It’s all been done. Any creator’s ability to say something new about Batman diminishes as the reader’s memory increases. We’re past the point where we can do anything new with the character.

We can only do something new with the era. Batman will always be vengeance, and will always be the night, and those things will always endure, in new ways as the years go by. This is why Batman has also endured so long. He’s gone from gun-toting killer noir hero in the 1930s and early 1940s, to comics-code and kid friendly crime fighter for justice in the late 1940s an 1950s, to the groovy camp hero of the 1960s, to the street-crime detective of the 1970s, to the embodiment of and reaction to the youthful anarchy movement of the 1980s, to the isolation-is-cool raging loner of the 1990s, and has emerged, in the 2000s, as a slightly-mad Morrison-y genius who can face the end of the universe. Batman doesn’t change and grow as a dynamic character, the era is dynamic and he’s refitted to it. But because the archetype is eternal, but because he is an archetype, he can’t really be a character. We need everyone else for that.

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