Ciao, SEers! Yeah, I know “throwing shade” is an insult. I promise, that’s not what I mean. I just wanted to get your attention. Do I have it? Great!
When I was in school, we learned about the four types of sentences:
- declarative (statement)
- interrogative (question)
- imperative (command)
- exclamative (exclamation/shout of surprise)
Our teachers told us we could remember these by the first letters of the words: DIIE, or the elongating the word “die” as a mnemonic device. I didn’t think a mnemonic device was necessary for four simple concepts, especially one that didn’t really work, but it made them happy, so whatever.
Today, I think we all know those four sentence types about as well as we know our own names, without any memory tricks. (Especially ones that don’t quite work.) But I want to discuss five different sentence types that we use in our fiction, and I have a mnemonic device that actually does work to help you remember them.
It stands for sensory, history, action, dialogue, and exposition. Let’s look at each in more detail.
Sensory sentences deal with the senses. We tend to rely on what we see and lean heavily into the visual—colors, people’s appearances, expressions. But there are four other senses that add rich detail to our descriptions. Smell is the strongest memory trigger. Sound can help ground a character and define a setting. Taste is the most often ignored but can be a vibrant and defining sense. And touch adds texture and dimension that none of the other senses offers. Joan hall wrote an excellent series of posts on the five senses. For more details, you can find her take on sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch by clicking the links.
Sentences that detail a character’s history are often discouraged. People hear “backstory” and they throw up red flags. But backstory is important. No, you don’t want huge blocks of it. Info dumps are bad and boring and readers will put down your book and probably never pick it up again. But they do need to know who your character is. Just like you get to know a new friend bit by bit over the course of the years you know them, you want to get to know your characters bit by bit over the pages you know them. Of course you don’t need to know about the time he skinned his knee at Great Aunt Ida’s 95th birthday party. Not unless it’s relevant to who he is today or what the plot of the story is now. But you’ll want to see that he always buys coffee at the Dunkin’ across from Panda Express at 9:00 a.m. before going to work, and he always pays for the car behind him. That’s history, but it also establishes his character.
Action sentences are the ones we either love writing or dread writing. These are the ones that really drive the plot forward. Fight scenes. Chase scenes. A hike. A stroll. A leisurely country drive. A swim. A horse ride. Most of the time, if it’s a verb, it falls in this category. These scenes are driven by what’s going on externally and not what the character is thinking or feeling. That doesn’t mean you can’t use any internalization, because you can work some in. But the focus is the driving action around the characters.
Dialogue is probably the type of sentence we’re all most familiar with. I’ve written two posts about it already, if you want to brush up on some of the rules or best practices. Dialogue is important because, when done effectively, it drives the plot better than any other sentence type. Characters exchanging words is the easiest way for an author to impart information to a reader. Just make certain it’s easy to tell who is speaking without going overboard with name use. You don’t want to do anything that confuses or distracts the reader.
The last type of sentence is exposition. This is when your character can express his opinion about his situation. It’s a good place to reveal details about the setting—it could be his unease about the creepy noises in the fog—or his jealousy that his ex (who he broke up with) has moved on and he hasn’t and he has a nonstop internal monologue about all the guy’s flaws while they make polite smalltalk over beers at a picnic. Any information that you want to impart to the reader can be done through your POV character’s internal thoughts, which is far better than a generic, bland description that could have come from any random narrator.
So, there you have it. SHADE. If you have your POV character throw a little shade in your stories, you’ll avoid that generic narrator in your work and have a strong established voice throughout.
Do you avoid the generic narrator in your stories? Let’s talk about your techniques.