Varying sentence length


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.


36 comments to Varying sentence length

  • Great post, AJ. I’ll reply with something from my book when I have access. 🙂

  • AJ,
    Lovely post. That ability to vary sentences – and create a style and voice from that variation – give life to words that otherwise are dead. I want to play in this sandbox! Here’s the opening from my WIP. I haven’t done anything to it, no minor or major revisions, but I like the movement and the repetition in the structure, that is followed by the shorter and shorter two ending sentences.

    I threw my leg over Bitsa and slammed my weight down on the kickstart. The engine—-recently given a major overhaul by her semiretired Restoration Mechanic / Zen Harley-priest—-started up with the putter-roar only a Harley has. It should have made me feel better—-that lovely roar-—but it didn’t. I was too ticked off. Or something.

  • I’ll play. This is from the beginning of the second Thieftaker book:

    Somewhere out on the wharf, amid the warehouses, Tanner had hidden a small package containing several gold watches he’d pinched from a watchmaker named Charles Short. All told, they probably were worth five times the ten pounds Short was paying Ethan to recover them. But Ethan tried not to think about that. A thieftaker’s reputation depended not only on his cunning, not only on his prowess with a blade or his brawn, or, in Ethan’s case, his skill as a conjurer, but also on his honesty. Unless that thieftaker happened to be Sephira Pryce. But he tried not to think about her, either.

    It’s early in the book, and I’m trying to give new readers a sense of what it means to be a Thieftaker. But more important for the book and the scene, I’m reestablishing Ethan’s rivalry with Sephira Pryce, and so I balance the longer explanatory sentences and with the shorter, punchier ones reestablishing that relationship.

    Great post and a fun assignment. Thanks, A.J.!

  • Hmmm… slow day today. Maybe too self-evident an idea. Or maybe my request for material was too specific.

    Scribe, yes, send something when you can.

    yes, love the reducing sentences here that let you luxuriate in the memory of the motorcycle’s sound for a moment before coming into the immediate present and the character’s mood. It manages to be both evocative of the machine and the rider. Nice.

    love the way those short sentences shift the voice a little in ways that somehow make the 3rd person perspective more limited, foregrounding the character’s attitude to Sephira (good name!), lifting him and the world out of what might otherwise feel more like exposition. Very cool.

  • Love the idea of sentence variation–length, word order, emphasis, they’re all useful things. I don’t have an opening or a passage to post. I usually start with dialogue fairly close to the opening.

    But, for writing sentence and appreciating sentences, check out “How to Write a sentence and How to Read one” by Stanly Fish. He’s a literary critic (phd and JD–yikes) and his work can be difficult (lots of long, dense sentences). This book, though, is short, concise, cheerful. He loves sentences and that comes through. His dicussions of how they work are really neat. (Full disclousure: I am using it in a class this semester, and my students really like it.) It’s his argument, that I love, that sentences, NOT words, are the basis for writing. Words have no real meaning until they’re in sentences. (If I’ve mentioned the book before, sorry, it’s one of those days…)

    But here are two gems of sentences he gives as examples. The first is Joan Crawford answering a reporters question about why she always goes out dressed to the nines: “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door!” And Eli Wallach at the bad guy in the Magnificen Seven commenting on the poor people he robs “If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep.”

  • Good point, Pea. Hadn’t really thought of it as an issue of the primacy of sentence over word, but that makes sense.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hmmm, sometimes I think I’m good at varying sentence length, and sometimes all of my supposed-to-be-short-punctuating-sentences turn into the opening clauses of yet another long sentence. Here’s my most recent. Others can judge whether it’s working or not:

    “Dhinii woke when the bed shifted, then grew cold. Lying still, she listened to her husband in the other room, listened all too soon to the sound of the front door open then shut. Then she followed. The haze of early morning shadows shrouded him, but she followed, climbing from Koll-thalin up to the heights of the city.”

    Here I’m *hoping* the short action sentence will stand out to give a bit of foreboding about the results of her following him. This is the only paragraph in this scene before I cut away to a different character and scene.

  • Where is everyone? Hibernating with Puxatawny PhIl?

    Here’s a sample from Middlemarch. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.”

    I like how the relatively short, direct sentence is then elaborated on by the longer, much more complicated sentence. The third sentence strikes a balance between the two, ending with as very direct statement that could be made into a separate sentence that “her sister Celia had more common-sense.’ The length and rhythm of the sentences mirrors the movement of the images. We go from elaborate lyricism about Virgin and Bilbe quotes and elder poets to a plainer, untrimmed statement that the other sister had more sense.

  • May I say, that I also appreciate how the final example AJ gave had a fragment sentence in it, which he pointed out, not to call the author wrong, but to point out how the grammar was making the style possible. That’s the point of grammar, I think, especially in fiction. We should know it not to get caught up in red-inking someone else’s work, but to have tighter and finer control over our style because we understand exactly what we’re doing. I see a vogue in fantasy for using fragments too often to create emphasis at the end of a previous sentence or paragraph when using a comma would actually serve the rhythm and sense of the paragraph better. A well placed fragment can be explosive. However, I think the [Full sentence.] [Fragment that’s really a dependent clause of the previous sentence] pattern has become a tick of the genre – I see people doing it three times a paragraph which just becomes clunky and tiresome.

  • Hep,
    I like it, and yes, I think the short sentence does just what you want. I’d consider dropping the “then” to make it even shorter and because you just used it in the previous sentence. Also (if you don’t mind me editorializing) I’d rethink the placement of “all too soon” which seems to apply more to the sound of the door than to her listening, no? Might just be me 🙂

    I’m gratified that my little prompt lead to George Eliot 🙂 I like the fact that the principle of sentence length variety can be illustrated by work from an entirely different period and tonal register. Thanks.

  • Sarah,
    missed your follow-up. I agree. Fragments can have real impact, but if over used they just look like you don’t know how to use a comma.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Glad you liked it, and thank you for the comments. As I mentioned, this is what I’ve just been working on, so the bits aren’t yet all tidy the way they should be. I’m of two minds about the ‘then’s…

  • Here’s my offering. It’s from a scene a few chapters in, but I really like the way if conveys exactly what I’d aimed for:

    His voice cut like shards of glass. She recoiled. Concentrating on her movements, Tirae rose to her knees, to her feet. For a long silent moment she dared nothing more. She vibrated like a plucked harp’s string, off key, wound too tight. Finally, she looked at K’Lar. “You lie.”

  • Razziecat

    Varying sentence length is something I have to pay close attention to, or they all come out using the same rhythm. Here’s a bit from a short story I’m working on.

    There were voices in the jungle.

    They followed him as he wove his way through the trees. Rain fell, pouring down hard and steady. Under the incessant pock-pock-pock of fat raindrops and the sticky squelch of his boots through the mud, the voices murmured, now rising, now fading. He might have caught one word in ten.

    No matter how quickly he turned, he never saw anyone.

    He took another step. Another. He made one thousand his goal, and then one thousand more. His sense of direction had never failed him, but everything looked alike, green and wet and shimmering. The sky was a distant memory, somewhere above the shadowed, dripping canopy. Light bloomed, thin and milky, grew and died as the hours passed.

    Day became night became day. North. He needed to go north.

  • @Sarah – Crazy week for me. I missed out on Kalayna and Faith’s posts (both wonderful, of course), and I’m only getting the chance to weigh in for today’s now. 🙂

    AJ, I love this. Sentence length variety is vital. To me, it’s part of the rhythm of the story and getting the right number of “beats” in each line to help the story flow.

    Here’s a sample from my favorite, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. This is a passage from the night before the coming final battle:

    Jack’s bay gelding Draco and Harry’s Sungold had become friends over the days of carrying their riders side by side. The Outlander horses were always set out on a picket line while the Hill horses wandered where they would, never far from the human campsite; and Sungold and Draco stood nose to nose often, murmuring to each other perhaps about the weather and the footing of the day past; perhaps about the eccentricities and preoccupations of their riders. Tonight they stood near together with their heads facing the same way—watching us, Harry thought, looking back at them; or watching that awful northwest wind. Sungold flicked one ear back, then forward again, and stamped. Draco turned his head to blow thoughtfully at his companion, and then they both settled down for a nap, one hind leg slack, their eyes dim and unfocused. Harry watched enviously. The north wind gibbered.

    I like how this the long paragraph of description starts off with something theoretically tame—the horses—and then grows more and more ominous with that em dash and shorter sentences. I think it (and the paragraphs around it) captures some of the pre-battle restlessness.

  • The Mathelete

    Thanks for mentioning this, AJ. My MW time is better than a Strunk and White day calendar.

    I second what Razzie said. If I don’t watch it, I write “(independent clause), (independent clause)” for EVERYTHING. I found one of those sentence fragments that Sarah mentioned, and I think it works pretty well. Normally, I’d have a dash there, but that would leave the dash in the next sentence feeling heavy handed. Words like “cruel, mean spirited threat” demand more than a comma.

    Submitted for your approval or lack thereof: the last paragraph of chapter 3 of the draft I finished just before Christmas (Space Ships, giant robots, human colonization of the stars, yada). Oh this was also my first time doing first person perspective; weirdness, indeed.

    That was the difference. My conscious and rational brain knew it, but that reptilian place where my heart lived couldn’t quite puzzle it out. To Kyle, every time he mentioned leaving, he was planning for the future. Just like planning what he might have for dinner or whether or not to go to the pub. Then the words left his mouth and hit my ears as a threat – a cruel, mean spirited threat to run away and leave me behind. I doubt he even understood that distinction.

  • The Mathelete

    Hmm, comment gnome doesn’t like it when one uses the angle brackets in posts. I swear, grammarians, there was a conjunction between those clauses 😛

  • TwilightHero

    This looks interesting. I have the opposite problem though; if I’m not careful, all my sentences run on as I think of something that connects to what I just said, comma, something that compliments that, comma, and so on. Here’s something from my fourth chapter, where the pace starts picking up. (This is a villain’s POV.) I like how the longer sentences make sensations flow, one after another, while the shorter ones emphasize shock and disbelief.

    He sensed an ominous surge of power, and pain exploded through his right arm. It felt as though someone had pried up one of the wide paving stones and thrown it at him with inhuman might. The sword flew out of twitching fingers as his arm was thrown across his body, nearly wrenching the limb out of its socket and even forcing him to turn slightly. He twisted back immediately, feeling the pain searing through his arm as it hung limp at his side, the blood soaking through the sleeve in a dozen places, the agony that came with an attempt to flex his fingers.

    Disbelievingly, Rhannon stared at the boy now wavering on his feet on the verge of collapse. He hadn’t expected this. It did make sense; the ability often ran in families.

    But how the boy did it was…impossible.

  • In what follows, please take any suggestions as well-intentioned and entirely subjective.

    very nice. I’d consider making the first two sentences one, personally: still short but avoiding having two very brief sentences back to back: “She recoiled from his voice which cut etc.” or “His voice cut like shards of glass, and she recoiled.” Not sure if that’s better or not. Also, I’d drop the ‘s after harp. I think that shaves a tiny bit off which throws your rhythm off, avoids the awkwardsness of one word ending in s and the next one beginning with it, and is actually a tiny bit more intuitively right, I THINK, since its the string that’s plucked. Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Try it without the s and see what you think.

    good. I particularly like the sentence “Under the incessant pock…” and I’d encorourage you to combine at least two of the shorter sentences in the following section into one of similar length to this. I think the contrast works really well, while the repetition of short sentences creates a staccatto effect, suggesting separate ideas. What you’re going for here (I think) is a sensory picture conveying a lengthy period, right? I think making at least one of these sentences longer would help convey that. Maybe something like “His sense of direction had never failed him, but now everything looked alike, green and wet and shimmering, so that the sky had become a distant memory, somewhere above the shadowed, dripping canopy.” Or you could combine the latter section of that with the next sentence. I think the continuity helps connect the ideas. Again, just my two cents.

    great example. I think you’re right that the structure builds the sense of restlessness while (it seems–I don’t know the book) allowing us one last reflective moment before the action takes over. Makes perfect sense that the short sentences come last as the phrasing enacts the begiining of that shift.

    another good example. I like the way you use ths sentence lengths to indicate the shift in the character’s thought, somehow (as I said to David) rendering the perspective more limited 3rd person, closer to the speaker. I’m not sure you need the fragment as it is, though. I always think fragments (esp. lengthy fragments of more than three or four words) derail the reader for a moment, leaving them hunting ofr a mian verb to make sense of what they’ve read, so they need to be used very judiciously. In this case, I’d ask yourself what you lose my combing the sentence before and the fragment. If the answer is really nothing, and you get a tiny bit more clarity in the process, I’d do it. Smething like this, perhaps: “To Kyle, every time he mentioned leaving, he was planning for the future, just as he might consider what he might have for dinner or whether or not to go to the pub.” ?

    Twilight Hero,
    I especially like the way you end this. The short sentences nicely evoke the shock. Personally, I think that the earlier section could use some trimming down in the same way. You are describing an action sequence from the perspective of someone getting hurt, but the shock and pain of that (which, to my mind, should totally dominate) are getting lost in what feels to me like extraneous detail. In the first sentence, for instance, I’d cut “ominous.” You don’t need it because you are about to say what the surge does and it slows the moment down. Likewise, the second sentence can probably go entirely, esp. since the sequence seems backwards. I’d consider adding a word like “slammed” into sentence 1 to convey what you are saying in the second sentence, before saying that the pain exloded. I’d cut “twitching” from the next sentence (there isn’t time) and end the sentence after “socket” which is far more dramatic than the somewhat anticlimactic “even forcing him to turn slightly.” Again, this is just one person’s opinion.

    Nice work, guys 🙂

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm…you make valid points. I like the image the second sentence evokes, but it is true the order seems a bit off. A compromise then: I make the bit about sensing power a single line above, cutting the ‘ominous’ since the new placement builds tension anyway, and start the paragraph with the simile and the pain as a single sentence. Something like…

    And then he sensed the surge of power.

    It hit him like one of the wide paving stones, pried up and thrown with inhuman might; pain exploded through his right arm. The sword flew from his fingers as his arm was thrown across his body, nearly wrenching the limb out of its socket. He twisted back immediately, feeling the pain searing through his arm as it hung limp at his side, the blood soaking through the sleeve in a dozen places, the agony that came with an attempt to flex his fingers.

    *pauses, holds chin in hand, considers revised paragraph*

    Your advice was spot on, I think. Thanks AJ 🙂

  • TwilightHero

    Just found out what the HTML tags are for. Hehehe 😛

  • The Mathelete

    Thanks, AJ. I appreciate the advice. Also, crazy typo in my screen name — completely changes the connotation. I got a vision of those “Meth — not even once” posters with the wasted out people on them. It soured my Cheerios eating 🙂

    Fair warning: these are my thoughts on this, and I have lots of formal training almost none of which is is English composition, grammar, or literature 😉 When we think of the link between spoken English and written English, we have several tools for pauses — comma, dash, semicolon, period, paragraph break. These devices are also structural, and that’s what AJ pointed out that I missed. I arranged these devices in this order because I feel like that’s how they go from shortest, mildest separation to most protracted and intense. So when I wrote that paragraph, I was thinking about a monologue delivered by the narrator (Chris), and I wanted to make sure that he took a longer pause between “planning for the future” and “just like …” as if it occurred to him as an afterthought.

    However, after re-reading that entire section, not just the little excerpt, AJ, you were exactly right. I do get a little derailed there at the end. Then, as an experiment, I read it aloud like a monologue. No derailing that time. So, I think you’re right. I should find a different way of capturing that pause and making it stronger without relying on that fragment. It sounds great; it just doesn’t read so well 😉 Now I just need to find time to go through the rest of that draft looking for places my monologues sound good but don’t read well. Guess I’ll add it on the end of the list 😛

  • Razziecat

    AJ, yes, thank you, that’s exactly what I was going for! I wanted to convey a long, monotonous journey and it’s nice to know I wasn’t off the mark. I’ll put your suggestions to work and see how it goes from here. Again, my thanks!

  • AJ – Thanks, and I absolutely agree regarding the s on harp’s. Consider it gone.
    As for joining the two short sentences at the beginning of the sentence, I’m going to withhold action and, instead, provide a little more context (the preceding paragraphs) and see if you still think those two sentences should be joined.

    **Tirae has just been told she’s not human; a truth that she has long suspected but does not want to believe.**

    The meadow, so warm and alive only moments before, seemed cold and brittle now, as if formed of crystal and ice. She raised herself slowly to a sitting position, sure that any sudden motion would shatter her. Each leaf, every blade of grass, every flower sliced into her eyes, the colors so pure they hurt. K’Lar stood waiting, watching. He too, seemed crystalline, sharp-edged and unreal. A bird trilled and Tirae flinched at the sweet sound. The air seemed thick, heavy, swollen with the scents of sap and grass, moldering leaves and rich, black soil.

    “You belong with me, T’Rael. Not them. Not him.”

    His voice cut like shards of glass. She recoiled. Concentrating on her movements, Tirae rose to her knees, to her feet. For a long silent moment, she dared nothing more. She vibrated like a plucked harp string, off key, wound too tight. Finally, she looked at K’Lar.

    “You lie.”

    I chose not to combine her recoil with the previous sentence because of the previous paragraph’s “A bird trilled and she flinched” to avoid it feeling repetitive. I was also trying to show that his voice, and by inference, his words, cut more deeply than the natural sounds of the forest. Did I miss the mark? If you (open call to all MWers!) still think they should be joined, please weigh in!

  • Twilight, Mathelete (apologies for the typo!) and Razzie,
    thanks guys. Glad I could help a little even if it’s just getting you to figure out why you like what you already had! M, the issue of converting spoken speech to print is a common one. You shouldn’t worry about it, but it’s good to be alert to the way others will read your stuff when not guided by your spoken voice. I have the same problem sometimes: I read my work aloud to myself as I edit and it sounds fine, but then someone else will read it and they’ll struggle because they don’t “hear it” in theair heads as I do. They then rely on silly little things like punctuation…:)

    your explanation makes perfect sense. I wonder if you might consider trying to insert a beat of some sort between “recoiled” and “Concentrating her movements.” Maybe not necessary, but given the scale of the moment, I wonder if there’s a way to give it tad more weight before she moves. Maybe it’s as simple as beginning a new paragraph with “Concentrating”? Might give the eye a cue that the short sentences don’t speed things up too much. Just a thought.

  • rebnatan

    Saima had to run. As the wind drove each frozen drop into his skin, the sting reminded him that his feet were hurting him less than before. This was bad. Frozen flesh, dead flesh brings no pain. Earlier, when his hands and feet were throbbing, he could barely focus enough to look ahead through the darkness to know where he was running. With the pain easing, he could now concentrate on the way towards shelter. He tried not to think about his fingertips turning white with frost, eventually black with rot. He ran on, jumping over the deeper puddles, trying not to lose his footing on the ice that met his soles.
    This is the start of my novel Quantum Cannibals.
    I bracket two short sentences around a longer one to create a mood of urgency, of fear. This is followed by a medium length sentence, which leads into a more normal mix of lengths.

  • AJ – yeah. I see what you mean. I’m also thinking recoiled is the wrong word to use there as it implies a sudden motion. Hmm. Maybe something like:

    His voice cut like shards of glass. She shivered as his words tore and burned and echoed and faded into silence. Concentrating…

    I may have to work on it a bit more, but yes, I agree that I need to somehow slow it down a bit yet still maintain that tenseness and brittleness she’s feeling. Hmm. Work to do.

    Thanks again, AJ. I really appreciate your comments.

  • A bit of the first scene I wrote for HELLHOUND, which sparked the idea.


    Helena’s diaphragm lurched, and she didn’t have time to decide if she was holding back a sob or a gag before Jaesung accompanied a rush of cold air through the door, his black hair still askew, still dressed in the collared shirt and tie for his interview. He drew up short at the sight of her—either because she was now standing before the book-case, staring at him in horror, or because he had read the book and now he knew.

    She saw his nostrils flare, dark eyes widening, before he mastered his expression. Then he shrugged, gave an approximation of his usual smile, like there was nothing wrong.

    “I got the internship,” he said.

    The words vanished in the air, like stones disappearing under the surface of a pool without a ripple. He might as well have said nothing at all. Helena sucked in a breath, and smelled his sweat, smelled the cedar trees around the music building and the unmistakable iron scent of dark magic.
    She lowered her hand from her mouth, pulse jarring the inside of her head with each beat. “My book?” she said.

    Jaesung ducked his head, holding up both hands. “Hel…” he began.

    “Where is it?” There was no time for mincing words; her heart was breaking anyway, so she might as well just chuck it out. Jaesung stepped back. He opened his mouth, but the words were locked inside, and Helena felt her face go cold—he didn’t need to say anything. The fear in his dark eyes told her everything she needed to know.

    She couldn’t have expected any other reaction, but seeing him afraid of her cut deeper than any demon’s claws. She wished she had the luxury of grieving, because if she hadn’t lost him yet, she was about to.

    “You read it,” she said, and the shelf creaked under the force of her grip.

    A vein pulsed in his neck. He dropped his hands to his sides. “Not on purpose.”

    She couldn’t tell if his words were defensive or consoling, but there was something helpless about his expression that made her hate what she was going to have to do. Fear aside, he was certainly taking the news better than Howard had. Who would have imagined an applied math major would have more tolerance for magic than the fantasy aficionado. It would have been funny, if it didn’t mean she was going to lose him. If he hadn’t just taken her book.

    She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The damage was done. Right now, she had to get the book back before it did even more.

  • Deb S

    Personally, I like the impact of the 2 word sentence- I shivered. Or – I recoiled.
    i.e. He speaks. She reacts. It’s important. The “as” sentence construction buries her reaction and hurts the stimulus – reaction flow, IMO. I think a whole new sentence about his words echoing to silence or something would slow things down and give his words and her reaction more weight. Just my 2 cents.

  • Nice, Scribe. Of course here the sentence length issue is affected by the fact thsat it’s mainly dialogue, so your balance tends to be long/description and short/utterance, which makes sense. Of the non spoken parts, my favorite pairing is “The words vanished in the air, like stones disappearing under the surface of a pool without a ripple. He might as well have said nothing at all.” Cool. I’d consider dropping the “either” clause in sentence 2 of the passage because it’s not entirely clear to me, slows things down a little, and follows another implied either in the previous sentence, but that’s just something to mull. Thanks for the example.

  • Cool! I agree with that, actually. This is first draft stuff, and will probably be pared way down in the final. Good to know what lines made an impact, and what lines slowed it down.

    And you’re right about the dialog. I should probably have chosen a passage that was 100% narration. Unfortunately, I had to pull from my blog, as I don’t have anything on my work computer! But food for thought! 🙂

    This was an excellent post, and some great things to think about. Thank you!

  • Thanks, Scribe. Didn’t mean to suggest that the dialog issue was a problem, just that it makes sense that what people say tends to be shorter than the non-dialog narration. Most people speak in short bursts, especially when emotion is high, and your example catches that nicely.

    Always open to suggestions for my posts, by the way. Thanks for this one.

  • Awesome. 🙂 Since it was mentioned before, how about a post on using/abusing fragments? (Technical posts, I choose you!)

  • Hmmm…. Maybe. Not sure I have enough to say about that for a full post, but I’ll ponder. Thanks.

  • Deb – thanks. Your comments have been added to the mull pond! 🙂

    This was fun AND instructional, AJ. I second Scribe’s call for more of the technical posts and on the use and (oh, how I love to) abuse of fragments.

  • “How long have you been writing?” He asked, internally grasping for some positive outcome.
    “Since I was about six” she joked cheerily over her shoulder, “I learned to write when I was in the first grade,” she said as she ambled gracefully toward the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.
    He tried desperately not to imagine a room full of pretty little girls, all in a row, holding fat pencils and scrawling neat letters on big paper with little bits of wood in it. It was so sick and wrong. He tried thinking about No Child Left Behind, but it was no use. He knew what he had to do. He’d seen it all before. He had accidentally dated a librarian once and he still carried the scars that one had left on his heart.
    He knew that writing was not a choice for her. She was born with it, like the color of her eyes.