The Writing Life

Friday, May 27, 2005

Writing 101: Sentence Variety


It's often subliminal. You're reading a story and you get a vague sense that there's something choppy and abrupt about it. Or perhaps you find yourself reading sentences over and over again, trying to follow the logic through a maze of phrases. Or maybe you sense something almost childlike in the rhythm of the sentences.

Chances are, the writer isn't paying attention to sentence variety.

It's easy to do. As a writer, you get into a pattern, and start writing in the way most natural and easy for you. The problem is that you can ruin the pace and appeal of your story even with something as subliminal as this.


They're short. They're abrupt. They're easy to read. They're simple. And that makes your message seem simple. Not a bad device in a fight:

From the left came a crashing blow. Her jaw exploded with pain. She tried to guard herself. One arm came up. Too late. Death came quickly.

The sentences themselves take on the aspects of the fight. Sharp blows, staccato movements, the simple, unadorned reality of a fight to the death. But if your whole story is told in this fashion, it wears on the reader. It can be exhausting.

A tip: Read a passage out loud -- you can hear the staccato rhythm when you do this, so it's an easy check. And it's something that needs to be fixed.


Sometimes, we want to convey the complexity, and the grandeur, of something so sublime, so wondrous, that we take our time in the telling, allowing our thoughts to dribble out in lethargic phrasing that appears to go on endlessly, never stopping, never pausing, just flowing unimpeded as we attempt to capture in words the uncapturable beauty of nature, the complex threads of two hearts intertwined, the somnolent creak of time as it meanders across the clock, or perhaps we're just idiots and can't figure out when to stop writing a sentence. Phew.

There are times when a run-on sentence is exactly what you want. You want the complexity of the situation to be reflected in the complexity of your sentence structure. William Faulkner wrote a book called "The Bear". In it, the first couple of chapters took place in the wilderness. There, the language and the sentence structure was simple. They reflected the purity and the genuineness of nature. Straightforward and real. The last chapters were set in the city. And to reflect the chaos of man's creation, he wrote it in run-on sentences that would go on for pages at a time. The language was complex and convoluted, the sentences were mazes of intricate meanings. It was a terror to read (especially if you were in high school and thinking of more important things like getting a date, or a part in the school play. Stop me before I tell you about the two mean boys who hung out by my locker and called me names).

You're probably not going to write sentences that last a page, let alone a chapter. Faulkner was doing it on purpose, but here's a word of advice: don't.

Run-on sentences are often confusing and when the reader gets jumbled and lost in a sentence, reading it over and over again trying to figure out what on earth you were trying to say -- that's a bad thing. You've lost your reader. Anything that takes someone out of the world of the story is something to avoid. [you're in the bedroom, Gorgeous Guy leans closer, his eyes half-closed in smoky desire -- d'oh! You're sitting at your computer and your left butt cheek itches and your eyes hurt and what in @#$#@$ tarnation is the author trying to say in this convoluted mess of a sentence?]

A tip: Again, read a suspect passage out loud. If you run out of breath (a normal breath) before the end of the sentence, chances are it's too long. And if you can make it, but by the end you sound like you're toking pot and rushing all the words together -- that doesn't count as doing it in one breath -- it's still too long. Divide it into two sentences. Chances are this won't even be difficult, because usually those overly long sentences are just two or more ideas smashed together.


Few things are as awkward and childlike as someone who writes without any variety when they begin a new sentence.

Mary came to a turn in the path. Mary didn't know what to do. Mary thought about it awhile, so finally Mary decided to take the new route. Mary didn't know what she'd find, but Mary hoped it would be okay. Mary took a deep breath. Mary started on the new path.

Okay, so that's really obvious. Mary, Mary, Mary. Stop it. But what about this?

Mary came to a turn in the path. She didn't know what to do. She thought about it awhile, so she finally decided to take the new route. Mary didn't know what she'd find, but she hoped it would be okay. She took a deep breath. Mary started on the new path.

The problem isn't just repeating "Mary" all the time, is it? No, it's starting each sentence with a proper name or pronoun. The structure of the sentences is almost identical. It's much more interesting for a reader (and denotes much more maturity in the telling) if you get some variety in your sentence structure. Start some with prepositions, others with verbs. Mix them up, think of interesting ways to tell your story by manipulating the sentences.

A turn in the path stopped Mary. She didn't know what to do. Thinking carefully, she decided to take the new route. She didn't know what she'd find, but hoped it would be okay. Taking a deep breath, Mary started on the new path.

A tip: It may sound strange, but it's not a bad idea to randomly pick paragraphs of your stories and write down how each of the sentences begin. Noun, prepositional phrase, etc. Then see if you're building habits and patterns that need changing.


Variety is the key. Short sentences, long sentences, simple and complex. Starting them differently, ending them differently. And all of this needs to be as seamless as you can make it. Don't draw attention to your 'artistry'. Don't fall in love with your verbosity, or point out your cleverness by throwing in something that sticks out like a sore thumb just because you think that'll give the appearance of variety. It has to be a part of your style, invisible, yet beautiful in that the result of this hard work translates to a rapt reader.

Everything you do when you write is an attempt to lead the reader from one sentence to the next. Sentence variety will help you achieve this goal.


Post a Comment

<< Home