Varying Sentence Beginnings for Fiction Writers

If your sentences start out the same way too often in a row, you may need to vary your sentence patterns.

NOTE:  Starting out the same way does not necessarily mean the same word; rather, it means the same part of speech.

Example of Bad Sentence Fluency: I love shopping. My friend and I will go shopping all the time. We love to buy clothes. She likes buying jeans. I like buying shoes best.

Commentary: The problem with this example is it sounds choppy and amateurish, as every sentence starts out with the subject. The paragraph doesn’t flow together.

Before I start discussing when you need to vary your pattern versus when it is ok, let’s take a look at the various ways to start a sentence.

Sentence Patterns


Sentence pattern 1: Begin with the subject

The subject is what the sentence is about (the doer of the action or what is being described).

  • My daughter loves to spin in circles. (My daughter is the one loving to spin; she is the subject.)
  • That girl is driving me nuts. (That girl is what is driving the character nuts, so “that girl” is the subject.)
  • She yanks her coat from the rack and storms outside. (She is the one yanking and storming, so “she” is the subject.)

Sentence pattern 2: Begin with a prepositional phrase

A preposition shows direction, location, time, or introduces the noun.

  • Over on the other side of the bridge, I saw a lone man walking toward me.
  • Along the way, we learned a lot of great life lessons.
  • “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby)

Sentence pattern 3: Begin with a participle or participial phraseh

A participle is a verb that ends in –ing or –ed.

  • Feeling a little tired, I put my tablet aside and started to doze off when my cat jumped on me, reminding me to get to work.
  • Hacking into Fortune’s computer system, he found a trail of drugs, guns, and female trafficking. (From Steve Feins’s The Sacred Foot Murders)

Past Participial Phrase (uses an “ed” word):

  • Wracked with sorrow, I left without saying a word.
  • Depressed by the amount of homework, she collapsed into tears.

 

Sentence pattern 4: Begin with a dependent clause

A dependent clause starts with subordinating conjunctions.

  • Because it rained, we had to cancel the party.
  • While I was taking the test, my pen ran out of ink.
  • As he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (From Gabriel Marcia Marguez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Sentence pattern 5: Begin with an appositive

An appositive is a noun phrase used to describe another noun.

  • A well-respected Mayor, Bill knew he could run for president.
  • A struggling magician, Tom wandered from street to street.

 

Sentence pattern 6: Begin with an infinitive phrase

 An infinitive is the word “to” plus a verb.

  • To do it correctly, I had to ensure I hacked into the server at the exact time Sheila made the announcement.
  • To reduce my social media time, I blocked Facebook messages from showing up on my phone.
  • “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” (From John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath)

 

Sentence pattern 7: Begin with a single word modifier

A single-word modifier is one word that modifies the meaning of a word, clause, or phrase.

  • “Finally, the tunnel widened and the darkness gave way to the light.” (From Kelly McIntire’s Time Twisted)
  • Happily, she skipped to her room.

 


When to Vary Your Pattern

 

When I taught English, my students wanted some hard-and-fast rule, but we all know there isn’t one. As a guideline, I told them if they had more than three sentences in a row that started with the same pattern, they should look closer to see if they need to make an adjustment.

Notice this doesn’t mean you cannot have more than three in a row that start the same way. It isn’t about numbers; it is about the effect it has on your writing and the flow of the sentences. I just used that guideline as a signal for my students to look closely at the passage.

With fiction, you are going to have several in a row beginning the same way, and it will be just fine. Look for if the passage sounds monotonous, choppy, “off” in some way, and/or doesn’t seem to flow, then varying the sentence pattern could help.

The example at the start was obvious that a rewrite was in order. Let’s look at some less exaggerated examples.

Examples needing a rewrite

These examples come from my clients’ manuscripts before I edited them.

EXAMPLE #1:

Original:
“[Marcos] again realized just how large of a man [Stavier] was. He must have been at least six feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds. [Stavier] was wearing what [Marcos] remembered as a “wifebeater” shirt—at least that’s what the high school kids had called them. He thought those shirts looked just as trashy now as they did back then.

[Stavier] was completely bald with some black daggers tattooed on both sides of his head. His pants were skin-tight and clearly custom sewn.

This guy has some massive thighs, and reminded Marcos of Zangief, from the old Street Fighter game.

[Stavier’s] rusty .45 caliber HK handgun was attached to his belt. It looked like a ten round clip. [Marcos’s] fixed his gaze on [Stavier’s] arms.

Holy massive meat cleavers.

[Stavier’s] right arm had a tattoo. It was a number—“1985.”  [Marcos’s] eyes moved to [Stavier’s] chest. Someone has been juicing. Yeah, [Stavier] was an idiot, but not an idiot you would want to get in a fist fight with.

[Marcos] suddenly felt embarrassed about eyeballing Bolt so thoroughly.

Rewrite:
Man, [Stavier] was large. He must have been at least six feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds. He was wearing what [Marcos] remembered as a “wifebeater” shirt—at least that’s what the high school kids had called them. Those shirts looked just as trashy now as they did back then.

To complete his intimidating ensemble, [Stavier] was completely bald with three black daggers tattooed on both sides of his head. His pants were skin-tight and clearly custom sewn, with large leather stitches running up the sides. The guy had some massive thighs and reminded [Marcos] of Zangief, from the old Street Fighter game. [Stavier’s] rusty .45 caliber HK handgun was attached to his belt. It looked like a ten-round clip. [Marcos] looked up, away from the gun. Staring at [Stavier’s] arms, he gulped.

Holy massive meat cleavers.

His right arm had a tattoo, number “1985.” [Marcos] looked to [Stavier’s] chest. Someone had been juicing. Yeah, [Stavier] was an idiot, but not an idiot you would want to get in a fistfight with.

[Marcos] let out a half-chuckle, half-grunt and turned away, stopping his intense observation of the man.

Commentary: The original contained fifteen sentences in a row beginning with the subject, then one sentence with a single-word modifier. The rewrite has a single-word modifier, three sentences beginning with a subject, an infinitive phrase, five sentences starting with the subject, a participle phrase, three sentences beginning with a subject, a single-word modifier, then subject.

I chose to rewrite this passage not because it had fifteen sentences in a row that started with the subject. I rewrote it because it sounded choppy and stilted.

EXAMPLE #2

Original:“[Craig] shifts uncomfortably as he tries to understand the prickling on his scalp. It’s probably because Clint is visiting again, and he isn’t sure about him. [Clint] said they’re friends, but he doesn’t believe him. The one good thing about [Clint] is he’s not trying to tear him down like everyone else has been.

‘You’re just in time for some lukewarm tea and cold potatoes, [Clint]. Pull up a seat. There’s plenty.’

‘No thank you. I had lunch before coming over. He lifts the cover and peeks at the food sitting untouched. ‘How can you eat that stuff?’

‘It’s easy after you’ve been tricked into eating a playdoh cake by a three-year-old. Tastes about the same too,’ [Craig] says.”

Rewrite:[Craig] shifts uncomfortably as he tries to understand the prickling on his scalp. It’s probably just because [Clint] is visiting again. Sure, he said they’re friends, but are they really? At least [Clint] ain’t trying to tear him down like everyone else.

“Hey, [Clint], you’re just in time for some lukewarm tea and cold potatoes. Pull up a seat. There’s plenty.”

“Um, no thank you. I had lunch before coming over.” Lifting the cover, he peeks at the food. “Ugh. How can you eat that stuff?”

“It’s easy after you’ve been tricked into eating a playdoh cake by a three-year-old. Tastes about the same too.” [Craig] smiles.

Commentary: The original contained twelve sentences in a row that started off with the subject, then ended with a stylistic fragment. In the rewritten version, it goes: subject, subject, single-word modifier, adverbial phrase, interjection, subject, subject, interjection, subject, participial phrase, subject, subject, subject, stylistic fragment. And bonus with this rewrite, I was also helping the writer show instead of tell.

No rewrite needed

Now let’s look at an example that has several sentences in a row starting the same way, but the flow is fine. This example comes from What She Knew by Gilly Macmillian.

They (his gifts) certainly occupied us in the short term, but perhaps not as John intended. Ben appropriated the iPad and I spent hours standing under the umbrella in the garden, shivering, shocked, while the new Cath Kidston Christmas slippers my sister had sent me got rain-soaked and muddy, and the puppy worked relentlessly to pull up a clematis when I should have been encouraging it to pee.

Katrina lured John away from us just ten months before Ben disappeared. I thought of it as a master plan that she executed: The Seduction and Theft of My Husband. I didn’t know the detail of how they kindled their affair but to me it felt like a plot from a bad medical drama. He had the real-life role of consultant pediatric surgeon; she was a newly qualified nutritionist.

I imagined them meeting at a patient’s bedside, eyes locking, hands grazing, a flirtation that turned into something more serious, until she offered herself to him unconditionally, the way you can before you have a child to consider.

While we have seven sentences in a row starting off with the subject, this doesn’t hurt the flow. The ideas all connect and flow well together, and it doesn’t read monotonously or choppy.


Stylistic Choice

Sometimes it is a stylistic choice to start several sentences in a row in the same way, often with the exact same word. This is called an anaphora. Authors use it to emphasize something, show chaos, create rhythm, etc.

Example from The Catcher in the Rye: “It rained on his lousy tombstone. It rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.” (This is used to emphasize how miserable it was)

Example from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (This shows how divisive the time period was)


Conclusion

If you’re editing your piece and notice that you started several sentences in a row with the same part of speech (not on purpose), then stop and read that passage out loud to see if it sounds choppy or disjointed. If it sounds fine, then move on. If it doesn’t, try varying your sentence patterns to increase the flow.

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With a passion for words, collecting quotes, and reading books, I love all things writing related. I will admit to having a love-hate relationship with writing as I am constantly critical, but I feel a grand sense of accomplishment spending hours editing my own writing.

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