Writing tips: change things up with these sentence openers

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When relaying the details of an event, how do you escape the rut of starting each sentence of a story with I + verb? Case in point, the lyrics of an Alanis Morissette song, Your House:

I went to your house, walked up the stairs.

I opened your door without ringing the bell.

I walked down the hall, into your room.

And I shouldn’t be here, without permission.

Writers like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy go for these pithy sentences on purpose because it’s part of their style, so there’s intent behind that choice. Also, consecutive short sentences speed up action scenes, adding impact and suspense.

From Goat by Brad Land:

I unlock the door to my car, this maroon Oldsmobile with the streetlights gleaming off the hood. Drop down into the seat and pull the door shut. Fumble with the keys. They shake in my hand like a rattle. The smile is looking down into the car. I lean over across the passenger seat and pull up the silver lock … That way, he says. That way. And the car’s moving again. Inside the car the sound of wrappers tearing and being pulled apart.

However, if you find you can’t escape the “I did this, then I did this, then I did this …” structure because you just can’t think of any other way to put it, then fear not. Here are a few tools you can play around with in order to change things up.

Reverse word order

How fresh and exciting is the unexpected? Nothing gets me going more than juicy and delicious sentences I didn’t see coming. That being the case, I am a sucker for a literary tool called anastrophe.

Anastrophe: a figure of speech that inverses the usual order of words or clauses.

In English, typical sentence structure follows a subject-verb order.

The ball bounced across the street.

The stuntman flew from the canon.

Using anastrophe to invert word order, the stuntman flew from the canon becomes from the canon the stuntman flew.

This tool also allows you to call attention to something.

In the first example sentence, the ball is the primary focus because it’s referenced first and the rest of the sentence describes what it did. If you were to use anastrophe and change the sentence to read across the street the ball bounced, then across the street takes the emphasis.

Loving anastrophe? Here’s a couple more examples:

Around the world, I wandered wide, through forests of trees, crossing ocean tides.

Mystery I met round every turn, letting loose static reason for the unknown to churn.

Even Vanilla Ice likes anastrophe: to the extreme, I rock a mic like a vandal. Deadly, when I play a dope melody.

Convey simultaneous action

Another way out of the “this-then-that” structure is to use one sentence that conveys two actions at once (rather than using two back-to-back sentences to describe the scene).

This is done by employing the present participle at the beginning of a sentence. It looks like this:

Snorting sour Pixie Stix, Brandon swore he was the most bold kid on the school bus.

Throwing dollar bills in the air, the gangster sipped Chandon.

In this case (as you may have noticed) the present participle contains a verb + ing. While I feel starting a sentence this way makes the writing flow with ease, it doesn’t always have to go at the beginning of a sentence. In fact, the present participle takes many different forms that can be used at different points of a sentence. I suggest trying out this structure, though, because the point is starting sentences differently.

Another note: prepositional phrases aren’t always an -ing. They can also act as adjectives, or adjectival phrases.

Faster than the speed of light, Superman sprinted for the train.

On display, the Ikea bed looked easy to assemble.

Smooth it over with transitions

Other than plainly stating, “right then, moving on …” how do you actually move on? A transition word, or connecting word, can do the trick.

Here’s a few transition words I like:

Still

Above all

Of course

After all

For this reason

With this in mind

For

Consequently

In the long run

In essence

Eventually

Transition words convey time and chronology: first, now, since then, until, meanwhile.

They also give a sense of place: between, wherever, behind, across.

And convey consequence: as a result, in effect, consequently, therefore.

Stumped as to how to start that next sentence? Check out this entire list of transition words.

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