In the August 28, 2013 blog, I talked about writing interesting sentences and discussed, among other things, a bit about how to vary sentence structure. I also issued cautions about not changing every sentence to the same structure. Here’s the link to that blog article.
Writers often hear advice about varying sentence structure, but they just as often follow this in a limited way and take it to mean that they should combine sentences with “and,” or break compound sentences apart, or change them into complex ones, or begin them with a present participle or a prepositional phrase.
While these are all good ways to vary a sentence, they’re limited. One way new writers get into trouble is that they’re more interested in telling their story and slapping words onto the page than in how they’re telling the story. It’s fine to do that for a first draft, but rewriting and revision are about polishing the story, and too few writers pay attention to that during their second draft and later drafts (assuming they even bother with a second draft).
In this post, I’d like to offer some more ways to vary sentences to give them more personality. While I was browsing through Robert Pinckert’s out-of-print Pinckert’s Practical Grammar, I came across chapter 5 on “Good Sentences and Paragraphs” where he has a section called “Seven Tips on Sentences.” Here’s a list of some of his most important tips, which I’ll integrate with my own.
Keep sentences brief
Vary your sentence patterns
Be brave and strong
FIRST PRINCIPLE: Vary sentences by varying their length. This isn’t one of Pinckert’s points, but it’s the FIRST thing a writer needs to pay attention to. Sentences all the same or similar length become boring very quickly. If kept short, they lead to choppy prose. If too long, they can bog the reader down. Sentence length, among other factors, controls the pace of a story. Short sentences move the pace faster, while longer ones slow it down.
SECOND PRINCIPLE: Vary your sentence types. Sentences exist in four basic structural types: simple, compound, complex, compound-complex. Here’s are two links to examples.
Sentence length is not an indicator of type. Simple sentences can be long, and complex sentences can be short. The often quoted sentence from Field of Dreams “If you build it, they will come” is a complex sentence). If we invert it, it’s still a complex one. “They will come, if you build it.”
Another way to vary sentences is by varying sentence structure in the sense of moving phrases and clauses around. Here’s a link to examples.
Varying the sentence structure also affects its meaning and emphasis. A perfect example is the one we just gave. The sentence They will come, if you build it doesn’t have the same flavor as If you build it, they will come. Herein lies excellent advice to writers. As you revise and edit your work, pay careful attention to how your sentences are cast. You want to ensure that you don’t cast them all the same way, and you want to ensure maximum impact. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence is necessary to make it clearer as well as to give it more impact. Here’s a sentence I recently ran across.
He breathed in, his nostrils assaulted by a variety of smells from the multitude of flowers.
While it’s grammatically correct, it’s a little awkward and also somewhat passive. We can revise it.
He breathed in. A variety of scents from the multitude of flowers assaulted his nostrils.
He breathed in, and a variety of scents from the multitude of flowers assaulted his nostrils.
When he breathed in, a variety of scents from the multitude of flowers assaulted his nostrils.
Which is best? Each one has a different flavor, so it depends what impact the writer wants.
THIRD PRINCIPLE: Give your sentences power (Pinckert’s third: Be brave and strong). I’ll use one of his examples. Instead of He did not agree say He disagreed. This gives it more strength. However, the first sentence might be desirable in some circumstances. That’s what you, the writer, must decide, but you need to be aware that of the impact and when a sentence is weak.
Pinckert’s first and fourth principles (Be brief and Combine sentences seem contradictory, but together they give us our next principle.
FOURTH PRINCIPLE: Be succinct. This doesn’t always mean short sentences, rather sentences that convey their meaning in the most direct way, be it with a short sentence or a long sentence. Sometimes the best way is with two short sentences, and sometimes combining two is better, if for no other reason than to break up the monotony of too many short, choppy sentences.
Pinckert gives such a perfect example that I’ll quote him once more.
The factory is at 1500 Ohio Street. It is an old, red brick building. Repairs are badly needed.
Three short, direct sentences. But how about this revision?
The factory, an old, red brick building at 1500 Ohio Street, badly needs repairs.
It’s one long sentence, but it’s actually four words shorter than the three separate ones together, and it has more impact because it sounds less report-like. It’s more concise.
I’m going to close with passages from novels of mine and Scott’s to help illustrate some of our points in action. I’m not claiming my early writing is sterling prose throughout, but I can quote from it freely without worrying about copyright permissions, and I try to pick good examples. In the following excerpt from More Than Magick I varied the sentences. This is a non-action passage, so longer sentences work here. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s effective or if some revisions might be called for.
“So, this is Arion’s little domain. I’d like to own a town like this when I retire.”
“You misunderstand,” Dev said. “Arion founded Freetown, but he doesn’t own it.”
He couldn’t fool me. I’d been to college. I knew about landlords and how the world worked for them. A powerful guy like Arion sat back and raked in the revenue to finance his castle and frequent trips abroad, taxing peasants into poverty and casting nasty curses if they didn’t pay. You didn’t build and run a place like Freetown for free, whatever its name. I hoped that my dream would still be running when the peasants revolted against Arion’s flagrant misuse of their tax dollars.
Dev took us around the left side of the Town Square with tiled sidewalks and no graffiti anywhere. I was seriously hungry. I figured we’d walked at least a quarter mile. My watch said twelve-twenty, but the sun hadn’t reached overhead yet. Maybe it got up late today.
Vendors lined the Square in farmers’ market fashion. The fruits and vegetables had all the right smells, but their shapes and colors didn’t match anything familiar: green-gray leafy stuff with orange fringes; purple things that looked sort of apple-like; hairy, yellow, oblong things that resembled obese bananas. The various berries looked almost normal, though.
We came to the river, which was a couple of hundred feet wide at this point. Across the flowing, debris-free, mud-free water I saw docks. Beyond those were small factories. I asked Dev what they made.
“Furniture and brick. The wineries and breweries are to the left.”
Dev pointed to the olive-green buildings with smoke stacks of like color tucked among them. A small amount of steam flowed out of the smoke stacks and angled toward us.
Upstream, to our left, was a wooden drawbridge—the type that splits in the middle—built from whole trees stripped of bark. Stout ropes connected the bridge halves to pulleys. A one-man gatehouse stood alongside. “Reading the local newspaper while waiting for boats to come by to lift the bridge must be a cushy job,” I said.
No one answered.
The towpaths were logical since I wouldn’t expect gasoline engines, but wouldn’t they have magic-powered ones?
On the other side of the river, burly dockworkers unloaded crates from a small barge. “What’s on the barge?” I asked Dev.
“Supplies from the towns upriver, and we’re shipping out hogsheads of our wine and ale.”
As we strolled, I was conscious of many stares in my direction. I thought we were supposed to blend in. From what I could see, we looked like everyone else, and I spied a couple of monks making purchases in the market. Missing, however, were the little urchins who should be running up to rip us off.
Jake asked first. “Where are your children?”
“In school. The few we have are mostly orphans and cast-outs from other islands of Stracos.”
“But this looks like a great place for families.”
“Not all of this world is as you see here. Families are rare in Freetown. Arion established it as a haven where one can make a new life for oneself.”
“If you’re all here for the same reason, I’d think families would be a natural outcome.”
“When distrust has been your way of life, it is difficult to unlearn.”
“Are you from this world?”
“No. I sought to reform a corrupt government. In return they sought my life.”
Dev didn’t look the fugitive type. “I saw a sign for courtesans back there,” I said. “What are they running from?”
Next is an action passage from Scott’s New Dawn Rising, written before he learned all the points of sentence variation and how not to structure too many the same way in a short space. Hhis style and mine are quite different, so take that into account. Both novels are sci-fi. Although Scott’s passage is a good one, he could have perhaps used more shorter sentences, especially since it doesn’t contain much dialog.
Pay attention to places how he tends to use present participles (-ing) phrases too often at the end of sentences here. Many of his sentences are compound or complex and often long. He perhaps could have used more short and simple sentences to increase tension and to make the pacing faster. I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to see how you would improve it.
And remember that just because something is in print (both of these books were released through regular publishers, by the way) does not mean it’s perfect and can’t be improved. Authors–even major ones–don’t always make perfect or the best choices.
They stepped from the cavern into a nightmare. Hellish streaks of light lit the murky sky, each ended with a fiery detonation. “Meteor shower!” Kish shouted through her helmet Comm. “Everyone back inside!”
Although their captives could not hear her transmission, they quite obviously understood the implications of their situation, and they allowed themselves to be corralled back into the cavern. But in a surprise move, Shallon dashed to the side and raced into the fog, hands somehow freed from the restraining wire. Kish motioned for the others to move inside the protective opening and then ran after the Kamling. Despite his advantage in size, his suit was much bulkier than those worn by the Avengers, and she soon had him in sight. In his blind flight, he hadn’t thought to change directions, for which she was grateful.
She fired her pistol into the ground next to him to get his attention, and he spun to face her, hand reflexively hovering above his empty holster. Even through the face shield of his environmental suit, she could see the hatred and rage boiling in his eyes, and she raised her pistol and pointed it at him, gesturing with her free hand for him to come closer. For the span of several heartbeats, she feared he might run again. Kish tried to ignore the streaking red lines above her head, a silent attestation to the barrage of incoming meteorites, focusing on her captive’s every move.
With a burst of light that burned her eyes before her face shield could darken, a massive meteorite struck the ground about a kilometer behind Shallon. The concussion from the impact roared outward, ripping across the rocky landscape and throwing Kish and her prisoner to the ground. She tumbled hard down a steep slide and struck the bottom with a jarring force, then lay there gasping and trying to draw a breath.
A rush of stones tumbled down the hill, some at least a meter across. In a move born of sheer desperation, she dug her hands into the loose soil and pulled, trying to drag her stunned body away from the path of the landslide. She thought she had succeeded until the largest rock hopped obliquely, deflected in her direction, and came to rest on her right leg, pinning her beneath its weight. Through the fog of pain enveloping her head, Kish heard her suit beep its warning, telling her its integrity had been breached. Her supply of oxygen would run out in minutes.