Novel Writing

Advice Please: How do I stop Starting all my Sentences with Pronouns?

I need your help! This writing malarky, as we all know, is blooming difficult. Not only are we trying to craft a robust and compelling story, but we need to write it in a varied and engaging way. It is hard!

I don’t know about you, but I have found that in my writing it is easier to notice when something is wrong, than when I’ve done a good job. Those pesky errors stand out like a Kindle in a bookshop.

One error I keep finding in my writing is that I start so MANY sentences with “She”, “He”, “Character Name”.ย 

I am well aware that this is a sign of immature writing and I’m not afraid to admit that I have a heck of a lot to learn. That’s why I love reading about other writer’s processes and advice. You are all making me a far better writer.

So I wonder, do any of you have some top tips for creating variety in your sentence starters? Have you written a blog post about it? I would LOVE to gather your wisdom, and I plan to write a blog post about it, linking to any bloggers or posts who have some useful tips. Thank you in advance.

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48 thoughts on “Advice Please: How do I stop Starting all my Sentences with Pronouns?

  1. Are you writing in a limited and deep POV? Not only does it make for a richer story (IMO) but it reduces the need for pronouns by eliminating ‘filter’ phrases.

    Shallow POV:

    Jane listened to Andrew drone on about his day and wondered when she’d stopped loving him. She watched clouds float across her coffee as she stirred it. She hoped she didn’t look as bored as she felt.

    Deep POV:

    Andrew droned on about his day. When had she stopped loving him? Clouds floated across her coffee as she stirred it. Hopefully, she didn’t look as bored as she felt.

    With limited & deep POV we’re firmly in Jane’s head, so everything (sound, sight, thoughts, feelings) are perceived by her. We don’t need to tell the reader “she saw” or “she felt” or “she heard” or “she wondered” because anything we’re told is coming from Jane.

    In a distant or omniscient POV we need Jane’s perceptions filtered through “she ___” tags to distinguish them from the narrator or from other characters’ POVs.

    One thing to avoid is changing from past simple to past progressive tense, if you’re writing in past. This does avoid opening with a pronoun but some readers dislike progressive tense if overused. E.g.:

    Past simple:

    She watched clouds float across her coffee as she stirred it.

    Past progressive:

    Stirring her coffee, she watched clouds float across it.

    The ‘ing’ phrases annoy some people.

    I guess this would also be the same in present tense, but present tense makes me weep so I’m not sure.

    Liked by 12 people

      1. Just to caveat, progressive tense is sometimes (often?) necessary, and avoiding it completely would be a disaster. It’s just when we get too -ing happy that some readers dislike it.

        I’m not sure how widespread the dislike is, either, so please don’t do anything drastic because of my comment!

        Liked by 4 people

      2. What Anna said. The “golden ratio” here changes a little depending on the nature of the scene you’re writing. I recommend going with your gut on this (as long as you are paying attention to it). Personally, I use “ing” starting words more than many tools would recommend (not by a lot, but enough the grammar checks flag me for it). As a base rule, I really don’t like doing it more than once per paragraph, and try not to do it more than once every few.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. The “ing” phrase is fine when you want to say that something is happening at the same time as something else. (The food writer Elizabeth David, who was famous for her style, used it a lot, because in cooking you’re often doing two things at once.)
        People get annoyed with it because of sentences like, “Running down the stairs, I leapt into a taxi,” which makes things that happen one after the other (we hope) sound like they’re happening at the same time.

        Liked by 4 people

      4. Looks like I have learned some super great stuff, thank you so much for sharing this super tips to all of you who have contributed in the comments section of this post! And a special thanks to creator of the post! ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh my God, and here I was thinking that I was the only one who suffered from this. The solution I found to this problem lies in lack of description. You may also search articles like “sentence starters” on internet, but what I personally liked was this.
    Every time, when you write a sentence, write it like this “First comes CAUSE, and then comes EFFECT.” Try starting your sentences with causes and then with your character’s actions.
    For example,
    She sprang from the sofa, upon seeing a cockroach.
    The moment she saw a cockroach, she sprang from the sofa.

    I hope you got it, I’m so bad at explaining things, and worse at giving examples.

    Liked by 8 people

  3. I will probably write a post about this at some point. To avoid using pronouns, and also to make the sentence more active I sometimes start the sentence with a verb. So, if the sentence would read, “The creature loomed overhead…” I might write “Looming overhead, the creature…”. This gives the sentence, varies your sentence starts and allows you to place emphasis on one point. In the example, the emphasis was on looming, but could easily have been on what the creature was doing. Hope that helps

    Liked by 4 people

      1. When I have a bit more to say on the subject, I will do. I believe you followed my hobby blog, wwwitsmorethanjustgaming.com . I also have a writing/storytelling as a skill blog called http://www.sharp-writing.com that you might find useful. I do not style myself as an expert, I share opinions on writing/storytelling and suggest what I have found to be good practice

        Liked by 1 person

      2. To be fair I want people to follow both. The hobby blog has examples of my writing on it in various forms and the writing blog is my work site. Just thought that the writing one is more useful to you

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Amy,

    I’m going to start by saying that I am a โ€œpantser.โ€ It’s an unflattering title, but it’s accurate. I belong to a small and quiet crowd of authors who believe that substance must come first. It must come before plot, before dialog, and certainly before craft. Your question is one of craft, but my first instinct is to ask if the first draft of your novel is done. Have you poured your heart out onto the page? Have you emptied your soul? Have you finished the story?

    Us pantsers, we develop our craft by reading the works that touch us. This helps us shape our voice naturally. We then go back and pour over our own work, in order to make sure we tell our story in the best way we know how. With each draft, our craft and voice evolves. With each draft we ask ourselves: โ€œwhat did we mean to say and how can we say it better?โ€ It’s a lot of work, but that’s how pantsers do itโ€”over and over. In time, and with practice, we begin telling our stories better in our first drafts. In time we learn to convey meaning from our minds to the readers minds with an evolving elegance.

    I really liked annakalingauthor’s comments regarding POV โ€“ she’s right on the money regarding how POV influences the crafting of better sentences. A better sentence is typically a shorter sentence. A better sentence is typically one with greater meaning than the words themselves convey. The only thing I would add is that the work she suggests comes later for a pantser. I think it should probably come later for a plotter too since many of my friends, novelists and screenwritersโ€”some pantsers, some plotters, all suggest: โ€œgetting the story told first, and then,โ€ they advise: โ€œgo back and tell it better.โ€

    So where are you in terms of telling your story? If you’re done with the first draft, spend a little time with the theme behind your words. Consider the emotions you want to evoke in your reader and shape your words and sentences accordingly. There’s been some good advice in the responses to your postโ€”start with a verb, play close attention to POV. Play with those ideas, try them on to see how they fit, but in the end it is your own unique voice your readers want to hear. Craft the sentences that evoke the feelings you want to convey by choosing the words and structures that evoke those feelings in you.

    Remember Kurt Vonnegut? He wrote in a voice that was all his own. It was simple. It was direct. We loved him for it. Be like Kurt Vonnegut. Be yourself and tell your stories. Hope this helps.

    โ€œHi ho.โ€

    -J

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so very much for this detailed answer. There is a wealth of information here, and you make some very good points. I have worked my way halfway through a few drafts now, but I know that they aren’t “The Story” I want to tell. I’ve gone back and am working through my outline (how I wish I was a pantser, but it just won’t work for me). When I write I tend not to think or worry about sentence starters and the like, but I am trying to learn as much as I can about technique for when the time comes to actually look into it. Thank you for your encouragement and advice ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Since I sometimes write in the 3rd person, I went and looked at what I did myself on the last story I wrote that way. Right off in the first paragraph, I used several techniques.

    “Geoffrey MacAlpine was bored.” Using the person’s name, rather than a pronoun. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get lost when authors overuse pronouns. So I’ll switch to the name every so often.

    “He set a pound coin spinning on the top of the table in front of him, and tried to use as little magic as possible to keep it spinning. That was too easy, so he then tried to make it wobble as much as possible as it spun by using even less magic to keep it stable.” The first sentence is just what you’re worried about, so it tells us nothing. But the second begins with a description/evaluation of the action taking place, which then leads into what “he” did next.

    “Abruptly he slammed his palm down on the coin.” Some people will tell you adverbs kill writing. It’s one of those “rules” it’s best to consider advisory, not a rule. And here it serves a dual purpose, relieving the monotony of the sentence structure and also flavoring the action of the sentence, as a good adverb ought to do.

    “His waitress was coming, and it wouldnโ€™t do for her to see a coin that was violating the normal order of things.” Two things going on here that help break out of the “he” sentence structure: a) a reference to what some other character is doing, and b) an indirect report of what the protagonist (“he”) is thinking.

    I’m not very good at propounding rules for writing. Consider these suggestions. I hope they stimulate you to more ideas on how to vary the sentence structure that will better fit your writing style.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great question Amy. It’s hard to escape pronouns at times. I often look through a sentence and see if it can be re-ordered. Instead of saying “He would find walking hard”, you might look at “Walking would be hard for him.” This helps me keep things fresh.

    Hope your writing is going well.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In reading the comments, I’ve realized I have so much to learn! I’m an intuitive writer so when I’m in the zone I barely think about how it comes out. I think that’s an important point – let your first draft come out however it wants to and don’t think of the “rules” until you get to rewriting/editing. Otherwise your internal censor will be hovering at your back, hindering the creative process. Some people call it “word vomit” which I think is a good analogy ๐Ÿ˜„ Thanks for starting this discussion Amy.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Word vomit! I love this phrase! I take this point on board whole heartedly. When I get to writing my next section I will word vomit without thinking about these points and then come back to them when I am editing ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s so liberating to write like that, getting the story down quickly without needing it to be perfect first go. Have you read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott? It’s one of my favourite writing books and she goes into it in detail.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No I haven’t heard of it before – I will look into it ๐Ÿ™‚ at the moment I’m following CS Lakin’s book about the 12 parts of a well structured novel so I’m outlined and ready for Camp NaNoWriMo in July, I’ll have a look at this book once I’m done I think ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

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