Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why Writers Should Care About Sentence Structure

by Guest Author Rebecca Rode

Before you read the words "sentence structure" and assume this to be about as exciting as a college anatomy class, let me assure you that we're not talking grammar here. This is a discussion of the length and structure of a sentence. Ironically, even though our stories are made up entirely of these babies, we rarely think about how we build our sentences--we just think about what to fill them with. But that is a huge mistake. To the best authors, sentence structure is like a brushstroke on a painting. Color is important, true, but it's how it's applied that creates a masterpiece. Long strokes give the illusion of beauty and calm. Short, intense strokes make the viewer more tense, more excited. Just as an artist manipulates our emotions, we must learn to manipulate those of our reader--and we can do that with sentence structure.

Varying sentence structure makes prose invisible. 

When each sentence is different from the one that came before it, it feels natural to us. Prose that changes, weaves, and threads its way through a story sounds more like real life. When a writer fails to vary their sentence structure, the reader can tell. They won't nail it down as a sentence structure issue, but you'll often hear complaints like, "I'm bored" or "This seems too wordy." When it's done right, ironically, the reader doesn't notice except to comment that they're sucked in and can't seem to put the book down.

 It's pretty easy to get into a rhythm when you're writing. There's technically nothing wrong with the concept itself. But it's in our nature as human beings to gloss over such things. We can't help but start to skim the words when that happens. Short sentences can start to feel choppy after a while. Long sentences can make us sleepy or bored after just a few paragraphs. Several sentences with several conjoined parts can be even more difficult to read. It's for that reason that we should vary our sentence structure in each paragraph.

Okay, if you didn't catch it, that last paragraph was thrown in to prove a point. Did you see the pattern? Each sentence (except for one) was 10-13 words long with no commas. It felt choppy and boring, didn't it? It stood out. That is the opposite of what we want. A reader's eyes should float through the page and allow them to get lost in the story without cumbersome, robotic sentence structure.

Here's another example:

Bobby squinted in the sun, determined to reach the sword at all costs. It would be hard, but he had to try. His sister's life was in jeopardy, and he couldn't give up. If he did, she would die. He sighed, then picked up his pack. It was several hours until sunset, and he wanted to get in as many miles as possible. Once they found out his plan, he would be in grave danger. 

Here's the same story, but with varying sentence structure:

Bobby squinted in the sun. He was determined to reach the sword at all costs. It would be hard, but he had to try--his sister's life was in jeopardy, and he couldn't give up. If he did, she would die. He sighed, then picked up his pack. It was several hours until sunset. He wanted to get in as many miles as possible, because once they found out his plan, he would be in grave danger. 

Make sense? With a little practice, it isn't hard to pick up on sentence structure. As you read books by other authors, it will become easier to determine the authors who have this concept figured out and those who don't.

So, how do we use this in our writing?

Here's what I would recommend. Choose five random paragraphs in your story, each from a different scene. Then take a magnifying glass (figuratively, of course, unless you want a headache) and analyze their sentences. Is there a pattern? Do you tend to use short sentences like those above? Does each sentence contain one comma? Two? Everyone has a pet "structure" that they use too often. Now that you're aware, you can watch for it. Whenever that structure comes up while editing, see if you can switch the order of the sentence (or other sentences around it) a bit. It'll probably make a huge difference.

Different structures can be used for different purposes. 

As you read books from the nationally recognized authors, pay close attention to pacing. Many of them use longer sentences during the slower, more thoughtful scenes, then pick up the pace with shorter sentences when the action hits. This is because a reader's heart rate actually increases when many shorter sentences are used together. It's a simple way to add a little umph to a lagging climax. 

Similarly, you may notice that certain sentence structures lend themselves to more white space, which allows the reader to cruise through at a faster pace. You may notice this with dialogue, too. 

Varying sentence structure is even more important when you have more than one viewpoint character. In real life, some people talk in short, trite sentences while others ramble on. If you don't differentiate the same way in your book, you're missing out on an important writing tool.

I learned this the hard way. My YA thriller, Numbers Game (coming out in Spring 2015), has two first-person viewpoint characters, a guy and a girl. In early drafts, my beta readers complained that the characters sounded the same. A critique group buddy gave me a Lee Child novel so I could read "what a real man sounded like." It helped. I immediately went back to my manuscript and changed the structure of almost every sentence from his point of view to reflect the more terse, concise manner of a no-nonsense type of guy. Now every reader says they like his character best.

Sentence structure is a tool, a secret weapon of sorts for the wise and experienced writer. It's the ability to wield sentence structure, transform it, and use it to his or her advantage. Don't be afraid to play around with the concept. It may be just the breath of fresh air that your writing needs to take you to the next level. 

Rebecca Rode
                  March 2013

1 comment:

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great post, Rebecca! I first heard about the whole varying sentence lengths at my first writing conference, a class taught by Tracy Abramson about pacing. Then I saw it was an issue on autocrit, with looks at potential problems in the submission and realized it wasn't just important for tense scenes.