Writing 101: Write good sentences. But what the hell does that even mean? Most beginning writers will load their sentences with vivid adjectives and adverbs and wildly imaginative verbs.
But this may not actually accomplish what you want—a sentence that punches right at the reader’s psyche. In romance, this is especially important because when you’re dealing with stories about sex and love, you want to bypass the logical forebrain and have the characters’ trials hit the reader as if they were their own.
In this scenario, our heroine is getting ready to have sex with the hero for the first time. We’re going to take the most basic sentence that summarizes her feelings, and looks at ways to take it from blah to punched up. Remember—not every sentence has to hit this level of precision, but this is a good way to selectively hit the reader in the face (or the heart, if you’re into that kind of romance) on occasion.
WHAT WE WANT TO EXPRESS: She felt excited.
This isn’t a bad sentence, per se. It’s just bland. You’re not giving the reader any access points, or ways to approximate what she’s feeling. Is she excited and nervous? How does she experience excitement--what does it feel like to her? “Felt” is what I like to call a nothing verb. You’re telling the reader she’s experiencing something, but in an empty way. Don’t get me wrong—feel is a great verb, and I use it in my writing. But when you’re going for a scene of high emotion or high intensity, every word counts.
IMPROVED SENTENCE: She thrilled at the excitement flooding rapidly through her body.
To me, this is a little heavy-handed, and it has three main issues. First, we have the same problem with “thrilled” as we did with “feel”—it’s kind of a nothing verb. We want to evoke a visceral, physical reaction in the reader.
Second, “rapidly” is an adverb that doesn’t do anything to the sentence that a stronger adjective than “flooding” couldn’t solve.Actually, the whole phrase “flooding rapidly through” could be replaced by a single, strong verb. You could use “flooded”—good enough by itself—or “swamped” or “deluged.” Technically, I don’t think deluged is a verb, but this is one area of creative license I’m passionate about—appropriating words in one part of speech and using it in another. For example: using the noun “mouse” as a verb, as in “The shy girl moused into the back of the classroom.” Vivid, right?
The other problem is that pesky “she”. If we’re trying to punch the reader, we need to be in deep point of view, which, as much as possible, closes the distance between the reader and the POV character. Instead of being told what she’s experiencing, we feel (see, nothing verbs are ok sometimes!) everything along with her. Here’s where we get super-tricky and all sexy grammatical. Right now, “She” is the subject of the sentence, “thrilled” is the verb, and “excitement” is the object. We’re going to invert this a little bit and say that “Excitement” is the main actor in this sentence.
EVEN BETTER SENTENCE: Excitement flooded her body.
So we’ve deepened POV by making “Excitement” the subject of the sentence. We’ve tightened the verb and have something action-y: “Flooded.” This is a pretty damn good sentence, especially since we started with “She felt excited.” This is leagues better. But how can we make it even more visceral? We have to show the reader how excitement feels to the heroine.
AMAZEBALLS SENTENCE: Excitement gripped her by the throat.
Punch to the face! We feel this along with our heroine. We know what kind of excitement she’s experiencing—part terrifying, mostly thrilling. Ka-pow!
Let me reiterate—not every sentence needs to be amazeballs. Not only does it not need to be this way, it shouldn’t. The moresentence you have that punch the reader, the more exhausted they’ll be by reading, and the less impact each punchy sentence will actually have. Pick and choose. String a few together for the turning points, or pepper them in your high emotion scenes. Use this power judiciously!
Pro tip: If you try to write like this your first draft, your head might explode. When you’re drafting (especially fast drafting) write those crappy-to-mediocre sentences. This is why we edit, my friends: to create a damn good story and to keep our heads from spewing pieces of brain matter onto our writing buddies. Edit your way to punchy sentences.