Analyzing your Sentence Starts

I went to a course on layered editing this past week given by an esteemed figure in literary fiction here in Canada. Although my writing tends more to genre fiction, I’m always looking to improve the depth of my prose so I thought the course might be fun. The instructor had us move from looking at our work at the micro (word and sentence) level to the more macro (paragraph and scene) level.

While some of the techniques we learned, like removing all (yes, all) of the punctuation from our pieces, were probably not applicable to my writing, others were quite useful. One of those was looking at how you start all of your sentences to see if you have sufficient variation and identify any bad habits. This involved going through three pages of text and underlining the first few words in each sentence and considering the sentence structure.

Photo Credit: Robin Hutton / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Robin Hutton / flickr / Creative Commons

Obviously, you should not start all of your sentences in a first person or third person narrative with “I” or “He” or you will drive your readers crazy.  Ensuring that we did not do so was part of the exercise, and it was a great exercise. But what is the ideal amount of variation in sentence starts? What should we be aiming for?

I wanted to take the exercise a step further and try to answer that question. So if you are not interested in graphs or geeking out on sentence structure, read no further my friend.

Types of Sentence Starts

After looking at my own work, I divided my sentence starts into seven broad categories. including sentences that start with:

  • The POV character pronoun followed by a verb (e.g. He walked…)
  • The POV character’s name followed by a verb (e.g. Samantha played…)
  • Another character’s name, or a pronoun referring to another character or group of characters followed by a verb (e.g. He jumped… They disliked…)
  • Another character’s name/pronoun and the POV character’s name/pronoun followed by a verb (e.g. He and Fred went…)
  • A proper noun referring to a thing or place followed by a verb (e.g. The mountains jutted…)
  • A pronoun such as it, there or that, followed by a verb (e.g. It was…)
  • A prepositional phrase (e.g. On Sunday, … When the cars finished racing, …)

I also created a category called fragments for sentence fragments as they can start with a wide variety of words and so therefore don’t really count, but should probably be acknowledged.

After going through the first forty-five sentences in my piece and counting the number of times each type of sentence start appeared, I had a frequency table for my own work and knew that I varied my sentence starts to a reasonable degree. But while interesting, this was somewhat meaningless (to me) without knowing how it compared to the writing of others, and in particular the writing of those who are considered to be great writers. I also wanted to know if there are differences between genre and literary fiction.

Sentence Starts in Other Books

I pulled three books off my shelves—one by one of the most famous genre fiction writers in the world, one by a well-known writer of literary/genre fiction, and a beautifully written piece of literary fiction that also happens to be an international bestseller. I reviewed the first forty-five sentences in each (skipping all dialogue as it is too all over the face of the map) and prepared frequency tables. Then I graphed the sentence starts of the three books next to mine. Yep…geeking out to the max.

Here is my nifty graph. I am in the purple, while the literary fiction novel is green, the literary/genre fiction novel is red, and the genre fiction novel is blue.

Lessons Learned

So what did I discover? Not surprisingly, the beautiful lyrical literary fiction writer seemed to favor the use of prepositional phrases, whereas the famous genre fiction writer preferred more straightforward sentences and sentences starting with the POV character pronoun—in fact, interestingly, she did not use his proper name once. My use of prepositional phrases seemed to be right in line with the literary/genre fiction book and so was my use of sentences with the POV character pronoun and name. Because I have some literary fiction aspirations, my writing, like the literary fiction novel tended to be a bit more descriptive and therefore had more proper noun (place or thing) sentence starts than the genre fiction or literary/genre fiction book.

Keep in mind though that these results are affected by the particular forty-five sentences chosen. In all cases, I attempted to choose a scene as close to the front of the book as possible without a lot of dialogue. In all but the literary/genre fiction novel, the POV character was alone, whereas in the literary/genre fiction novel, she was with one other person, which likely contributed to the fact that it contained more sentence starts with another character and a verb. In an active scene with a lot of characters, this particular type of sentence start would likely be much higher.

Overall, this was an interesting technique and one to keep in mind when you are editing. I am just relieved that I have a balance in my sentence starts and that my practices seem to reflect those of the greats.

I would be interested to hear what you find if you decide to take a look at your own sentence starts.

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