Thursday, March 10, 2016

What’s In a Sentence?

This sentence is too long. This one’s too short. You have too many sentences starting in the same manner. It’s a fight scene, for crying out loud! Make it sound like one.

What’s in a sentence? That by any other…

Not all sentences are created equal, and not all sentences serve the same function. The basics are (for the most part) the same: you’ve got a subject, a verb, and a complete thought. But there are many ways of ordering the parts to create meaning and music, to craft words that sing to your reader. In addition to simple sentences, you can use a subordinatingconjunction (e.g. while, although, when, etc.), coordinatingconjunction (e.g. and, but, for, so, etc.) or conjunctive adverb (e.g. however, nevertheless, indeed, instead, etc.) to build complex sentences.


Before you run screaming for the hills with these grammar lessons, let me explain why paying attention to your sentences is important.

Your Sentences Contribute to Voice

Okay, so here’s a little grammar lesson: In simplest terms, syntax is the order in which words are placed in a sentence. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables creates rhythm, which in turn influences your characters’ style and your manuscript’s tone.

In other words: the way we order our words and sentences contributes to voice.

Notice the difference in the following examples:

Chase’s cell phone vibrates on his dresser. It sounds like a swarm of mosquitoes. THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE by Sarah Lynn Scheerger

The fruits and vegetables for sale were rejects from nearby supermarkets—basically, they were cheap and somewhat edible. THE THIEF OF LIES by Brenda Drake

Back then, the outskirts of Boston were still farmland, and in the summer I spent the long days out of doors with friends, coming home only when the sun set. THE GLASS SENTENCE by S.E. Grove

When I open my eyes, all I can see is darkness. Can’t move… can’t speak…can’t think through this jaw-grinding headache. RIDERS by Veronica Rossi

Each of the above has a different arrangement of words, each resulting in a different voice and tone. Sarah Lynn Scheeger’s example makes use of simple sentences. Brenda Drake’s has a compound subject and uses an em-dash to link a dependent clause. S.E. Grove’s is a longer, more complex sentence. And Veronica Rossi’s uses both dependent/independent clauses along with ellipses to simulate longer pauses.

And with each different style, we get a glimpse into the character’s voice and the story’s tone.

Often, our characters’ voices come to us with their unique quirks. They might have a habit of avoiding contractions, or maybe they skip the final “n” in some words. Perhaps they use slang. Or maybe English is their second language, and they skip some prepositions.  

As writers, we try to faithfully record the nuances of our characters, though it’s very easy to muddle the space between their voices and our own. While there is no one preferred order for words, other than it needs to make sense to the reader, it’s important to note that our entire manuscript will not be written using only one pattern or structure. The examples above? Just one of many these authors used.

Which leads me to…

Vary your sentences

Characters will speak a certain way (which contributes to their voice) and you will write a certain way (which contributes to your voice), but to achieve the perfect harmony, there has to be variety. I know what you’re thinking. But my protagonist always talks like this! Maybe…

While it’s important to be faithful to our characters, we need to remember we’re writing fiction. At the 2014 SCBWI FL Conference, Chris Crutcher said, “You don’t need to use the same words (curse, like, etc.) all the time. Just a couple mentions go a long way [to] place your reader there.” The same is true for sentence lengths. Just because a character tends to speak in short, simple sentences doesn’t mean she always should!

Consider the following:

Amazing what sentence variety can achieve, right?

When sentences follow the same structure too many times in a row (or when they repeat “like” every other line), we have monotony. And monotony is not good. It’s boring. A bored reader is one who might not finish the story. That’s the last thing we want!

The good news is that sentence length is an easy fix. As you re-read your sentence, make note when you have three or more sentences in a row that have the same structure. The key here is in a row. Ask yourself:
  • Do they start with the same subject? (e.g. He sat... He ran... He kicked...) If they do, change at least one.
  • Do they start with the same kind of dependent phrase? (e.g. Running to the door, he kicked the dirt. Shoving him hard, she dashed outside.)
  • Do they have the same syntax? (e.g. She didn’t know what was worse, losing or losing to him. She thought it was over, except there he was. She was wrong, as she always seemed to be.) 

A great source for identifying repetition and sentence variety, among other sentence/word choice errors, is ProWritingAid

Use sentence lengths to create (or reduce) tension

Aside from creating music, sentence lengths can create or reduce tension. How’s that, you ask? Consider a sword fight scene. If you’re in the middle of a fight, you’re not likely to recount it with long, flowery sentences. Your adrenaline’s pumping. You’re jabbing and ducking. Side-stepping. Another jab, two, three. And your opponent falls.

However, if you’re lying languidly against the hot sand, staring at the cotton candy clouds dotting the sky, you might be more in tune with nature, and as such, your words will take on a longer, dreamier quality.

Short lengths are abrupt. Harsh. Longer ones can be poetic. Use this knowledge to your advantage. Wield that mighty pen—er keyboard—to create sentences that grip your reader.  The combo of complex characters, compelling story and stakes, and flawless sentences will increase the chance of capturing an agent’s (and editor’s) attention!

Happy writing (& revising!)

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