Varying Your Sentences
When I was in college, I took an early morning Anthropology class. I had to wake up at five to catch the bus. Ugh. Yeah, I'm not a morning person. But I did it. The first day, our instructor stood before us and starting reading from the textbook. Word for word. Completely monotone. I was asleep within ten minutes. The rest of the week was the same; arrive, begin listening to the instructor, pass out. I had to drop the class and get whatever refund I could, while I could. It was my worse class experience there.
Most people know that in public speaking, the person talking needs to vary their tone and speech patterns and such to hold their audience's attention. They need to have a rhythm. Otherwise, they'll end up putting the audience to sleep. The same applies to writing. If you use the same sentence length or structure continually, you'll be the literary equivalent of my instructor. Repeated short sentences make a piece read choppy and abrupt. On the flip side, overusing long drawn-out ones can lead to confusion and be difficult to read. Variance is key.
Before we try to vary sentences, it's a good idea to understand their basic types. I'll kept the grammar lesson short. Promise.
The most basic is the (aptly) named simple sentence. It's made of an independent clause, which sounds more technical than it is. Stick a verb and a noun together and, voilà, you have a clause. When that verb and noun combo make sense on their own, without any addition verbs and nouns, that clause is called 'independent.' In the first paragraph above, the sentence, "But I did it," is a simple sentence. Simple, yes?
A complex sentence takes a simple sentence and tacks a dependent clause to it. Dependent clauses are nouns and verb combos that don't make sense alone. The line above, "When I was in college, I took an early morning Anthropology class," is complex. The clause, "When I was in college," has a noun and verb, but can't stand on it's own. It's dependent of the rest of the sentence (which could stand by itself) to be understandable.
When you stick two simple sentences together, using punctuation or conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.), you have a compound sentence. You can get fancy and take that compound sentence, throw a dependent clause in there, and suddenly it's a complex-compound sentence.
For more information, check out this article: www.boundless.com/writing/styl…
Now that we have that out of the way, let's jump into short and long sentences.
Short sentences, when used in moderation (like seasonings in your favorite meal), can add flavor to your work. They're good for adding emphasis and can amp up the pace in action scenes. But, like spices, dump too many in there, and they overpower everything else.
Short Sentences can grab your readers' attention, especially when used after a much longer one. Like this. After a long sentence (or several), they're like a quick, literary slap. Hey, you! Wake up. They're an excellent way for adding emphasis. If you have a long, descriptive and/or mundane paragraph, you can change the entire mood with a few words. (For example, "Then, he died.")
Another excellent use of short sentences is for action scenes. In tense scenes, these brief lines convey the intensity better. They grab the readers' attention. Longer sentences, while not terrible for this purpose, don't have the same feeling of urgency that a well-written short sentence does.
In school, we've all been told to avoid sentence fragments. Guess what? They're not necessarily bad. When used properly (to add emphasis as a short sentence), they can be outstanding. Imagine this scene. A woman comes home from work. She lives alone. She can hear her neighbors outside through the open door. She closes it and still hears voices. From upstairs. Did you catch the fragment at the end? "From upstairs," is not a complete sentence, but in this, it works. It adds emphasis. You should use fragments sparingly (it loses its emphasis when used a lot), but please, in the words of neurotype, don't fear the fragments.
Random bonus lyrics, by neurotype
Short sentences, when used in abundance, can get choppy and reminiscent of the "See Spot" books. Because of limited size of a short sentence, they can become repetitive very quickly. "He did this. He did that." And so on. Boring. The easiest way to lose readers is to bore them.
If you choose to use fragments, please don't misuse them. Make sure that whichever scene you use it on is improved by it. Take this snippet: She mixed the sauce and the phone rang. In the living room. What? That really doesn't need the emphasis, unless there's something special about that phone (she's a superhero, and that's the line the mayor contacts her on when she's needed).
When you're editing, pay close attention to your sentence length. If you find your work suffers from short-sentence-itis (oh yeah, it's a real thing ), it's an easy fix. Most short sentences are simple sentences. Change some of them into complex sentences by adding a few descriptive dependent clauses. Look to see which of them can be combined into compound sentences. Go the extra step and combine a few and then add a dependent clause for the longer complex-compound one. Remember to keep some short however. You don't want to overcorrect and have too many long sentences.
Long sentences are the best for descriptions and slow-paced scenes. They can be as long as you wish (look at Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club, which boasts a 13,955 word sentence ), although I suggest you employ some common sense when writing them. When they're too drawn out, long sentences can become confusing and hard to follow.
If you need a good explanatory sentence, you'll probably need a long one. Short sentences just don't cut it. You can pack far more information into a complex or compound sentence. It will also be far more interesting to read, as it allows you to vary your sentence structures around.
Like the explanatory reason, descriptive scenes are conveyed better through longer sentences. They slow the story's pace, allowing your readers to sit back and enjoy the imaginary scenery. No one wants to read about a beautiful mountain pass in brief, short clips. Draw it out. Immerse your readers in the sights, sounds and smells.
Some sentences run on too long, confusing the reader and becoming hard to understand. Paragraphs made solely of long sentences are an eyesore. Frustrate your reader and they're likely to dump you. The longer your sentence wanders along, the easier it is to mess it up grammatically. Does all the subjects and verbs match? How about the punctuation?
When you're checking your sentence length, don't just check for too many short sentences. Keep you eyes open for run-on sentences, or huge chunks of long sentences. Break these up. Sprinkle some short sentences in, or break the longer sentences into smaller ones. Your readers will thank you.
Just as it's important to vary your sentence length, it's also important to vary its structure. Imagine a story where the author wrote, "John went to the store. He bought milk. He paid for it. He went home. He made a sandwich. He ate his lunch." Yawn. How about this? "Driving his car, John went to the store. Considering his list, he bought milk. Humming to himself, he paid for it. Listening to the radio, he went home." You get the idea. The first example was boring. The second had more detail, but it was still boring. It repeated the same structure.
As you're writing, be aware of your sentences. Look for any patterns and break them. Readers will pick up on those. I used to (unintentionally) follow a pattern: a long sentence followed by a short one. I was watching my lengths, but had become formulaic in my structure. Awareness of your sentence lengths will help, but don't slip into any patterns.
Like sentences, paragraph length and structure should vary. Ever see a page that's filled with one gigantic paragraph (i.e. the dreaded wall of text)? Or a piece where every "paragraph" is a single sentence? Paragraphs suffer from the same problems that sentences do when there's too much repetition: readers are more likely to lose track of their place or become confused in longer paragraphs, while shorter ones are choppy and disjointed to read. Like sentences, be aware of your paragraphs. Break up mammoth ones. String together those loose one-liners if feasible. ( This does not apply to separate speakers in dialogue. When the speaker changes, you must start a new paragraph.)
Interested in more? Check out these resources!
Variations In Sentence StructureVariations In Sentence Structure
Writing well is about more than knowing a lot of words – it’s about knowing how to put those words together. When we put words together, we get sentences, but not all sentences are the same. Some sentences are short, and some sentences are long. Some sentences are very simple, and some sentences are very complex. A good writer doesn’t use only one kind of sentence, because varying the structure of your sentences is one of the best ways of influencing your readers.
Let’s start with something simple.
Tip #1: Don’t Start Every Sentence The Same Way
One of the easiest traps to fall into is to start each of your sentences in the same way. If you do this, it not only looks quite strange on the page, it also reads very poorly. It can come across as repetitive, and it can make you look unimaginative. The place where I see this occur most often is during fight scenes. Here’s an example:
John dodged the arrow and
Sentences and paragraphs, like speech, have rhythm. When they're written well, we may not notice it, but it flows over us, pulls us into it. Written poorly, it jars or bores us. It forces us away. We may abandon it. As writers, we must find that rhythm and grab our readers. Don't be my Anthropology teacher. Don't put your audience to sleep.