Ever look at a page of your writing and spot a discernible pattern in the shape of your sentences, so that the periods which end them and the capital letters which begin the next start to look like bricks in a wall? The sentences are all, say, a couple of words longer than a single line, so there’s a wrap-around effect that you can see as the pattern repeats itself like floor tile. When you read the page you often find that—even if you can’t put your finger on the problem—the prose has a flat, slightly formulaic quality. It might be perfectly workmanlike, and it may do lots of other things well, but there’s a monotonous quality to it that dulls the reader’s appetite for more.
It’s an easy problem to fix, but first the writer must recognize that it is a problem. Sometimes writers get so caught up in the big stuff (plot, character arc etc.) and the really small stuff (word choice etc.) that the actual sentences and their structure get lost in the shuffle, as if they don’t really matter. They do. Sometimes—and this is trickier—writers mistake stylistic repetition for voice, thinking that to retain a consistent and distinctive sound, the sentences should follow the same basic length and structure. They don’t. Varying sentence length and structure gives you greater control over the effect of your language on your reader without significantly limiting the specificity of your voice.
Take the above paragraph as a case in point. The rhythm of the whole is broken up and given extra punch by that pair of two word sentences (‘They do’/’they don’t) which clearly balance each other and complete the unity of the two longer sentences which both begin “sometimes.” They give the paragraph an internal logic which registers on the senses if not in the conscious mind and give rhetorical emphasis to the point they are trying to make (while, of course, modeling exactly what they are advocating).
In genre fiction—particularly in thrillers—short, bald sentences are often favored as if their spareness (“He drank the wine. It was good.”) is somehow an escape from and a corrective to all that luxuriant prose we associate with more literary models. Personally, I blame Hemmingway, or rather the way Hemmingway has been used as an example of a style which is unaffected and forces the reader to imagine the massive ice burg whose tip we only glimpse above the water. Short sentences are a potentially useful device, particularly when you are describing action—which tends to happen in short, unreflective bursts—or moments when other thoughts and feelings are being suppressed (as they nearly always are in Hemmingway), but they can also make you into a one trick pony. Readers generally want more than bare minimalism, and it is incredibly difficult to evoke a sense of subtext in writing which seems to offer so little about which to speculate. Sometimes, after all, the unsaid–rather than hinting at silent possibilities–is simply absent. (This is part of why the less less executed thrillers today often read like screenplays).
Longer sentences used equally consistently are likely to be just as problematic. The lengthy sentence, assuming it is well phrased, coherent, and broken up with distinct clauses, is an extremely useful tool for laying out complex action, feeling, thought or whatever. Entire pages built of such sentences, however, can quickly feel like a wall, and the prose becomes ponderous and overly ruminatory.
I’m a balance guy. I’ve said it before and I don’t doubt I’ll say it again. Varying sentence length and shape broadens your affective palette. It helps keep your readers on their toes and gives you more ways to create richness and emphasis. Here’s an example from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens:
“Current theories on the creation of the universe state that, if it was created at all and didn’t just start, as it were, unofficially, it came into being between ten and twenty thousand million years ago. By the same token the earth itself is generally supposed to be about four and a half thousand million years old.
These dates are incorrect.
Medieval Jewish scholars put the date of the Creation at 3760B.C. Greek Orthodox theologians put Creation as far back as 5508B.C.
These suggestions are also incorrect.”
And so on. I love the way this passage (which begins the novel proper) sets up the tone of the book to come almost entirely through sentence length, the short comments puncturing the faintly pompous main sentences and their claims to scientific accuracy. You can also see how the overall voice is also perceivable in the conversational tags of those longer sentences (“as it were,” “by the same token”) so that both sentence styles belong clearly to the same narrative point of view. It’s very British, of course, which is part of why I like it, very Douglas Adams, that impulse to deflate the grandiloquent or official from within, but the effect needn’t be simply comic.
Here’s another snippet from Brenna Yovanoff’s recent dark YA fantasy, The Space Between:
“This was a long time ago, before famine or war or the combustion engine. Before my father fell from grace and killed a thousand divine messengers on the way down. Back then, my mother was young and wild. She had another life.”
You’ll notice that grammatically the second sentence is actually a fragment which depends on the first, so that the sense is of the sentences getting shorter as the paragraph moves to its pointed conclusion. The expansiveness of the first two sentences’ content (the reach of history and cosmic/theological conflict) is thus mirrored in the scale of their form, while the human scale of the last sentence keeps things small and simple.
We could do this all day, comparing passages and looking to see what makes them work and—since I suspect we don’t think enough about actual sentences—let’s do just that. In your comments, post a short extract from a book (yours or someone else’s) in which at least two sentence structures or lengths are contrasted and add a comment about what you like about how it works. Let’s keep total posts to no more than 150 words.