Technique: Sentence Structures and Variation

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SENTENCE STRUCTURES AND VARIATION

I've talked a lot in this guide about story content and details, but not so much about technicalities of writing (Only recently, with the novel structure chapter). We can't forget that the style and techniques of writing are equally essential to a successful novel!

Without structure or variation in your sentences, the narration can seem bland, rambling, monotonous, or robotic. You have to have variety to make it flow and sound natural.

Before I begin, let me just say that if this is your first draft, this probably shouldn't be your priority. If you're posting on Wattpad for others to see, then sure, you want it to look nice, but your first draft should primarily be just spitting words out as quick as you can. If you meander slowly through your first draft, perfecting sentences and all that, it's a lot more likely that you'll get stuck in the middle of your story and be unable to finish.

Now, let's get started!

You may have read this before, but it's always a good read:

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“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

-Gary Provost - 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

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PROBLEM #1:

If you didn't quite hear the monotonous tone at the beginning of that quote, try saying it out loud. It's pretty hard to make it sound like an exciting story with so many short, blunt sentences.

Now, before you mistake what my point is, let me say that short and blunt sentences can be powerful. However, they have to be used right to have an effect.

Here's an example I wrote of what I mean:

As his eyes turned away from me, I waited for the words I longed to hear. Everything I'd ever felt towards him was caught up in this moment, trapped inside my chest, waiting to get out. I could let it out, if only he would say those three words.

He didn't.

The bluntness of that very short sentence is much more powerful than if I had written:

I watched his eyes. They moved on from me. There were three words I longed to hear. But I kept waiting. I had to so much to say. To express. If only he would say it. He didn't.

Maybe it looks all right somehow, but try saying it out loud. Doesn't it sound choppy? And by the time you get to the 'he didn't,' you've already had so many short sentences that it doesn't really stand out.

SUMMARY: Short sentences are great, but you also need medium and long ones too. Use the short sentences to provide emphasis or as a shock factor. The long and medium sentences can build up the tension and then you drop the bomb in the short sentence.

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PROBLEM #2:

Be careful of the opposite problem: Too many long sentences.

Take a look at the quote I copied above, and read the last sentence. It's a nice sentence length if it's the only long one in the paragraph. Could you imagine, though, having sentence after sentence that length? Most of the time it sounds like a running faucet of words, and the sentences kind of blend together in the reader's mind. We want the writing to pop, to stick in the reader's mind, and you don't do that by lulling them to sleep.

I actually see this quite a bit with writers who don't really know where to stick a period. They'll keep the sentence running instead of stopping it. It's not always a bad thing, and it's not always grammatically incorrect, but sentence structure is key, as I mentioned earlier. If you have a super long sentence with explanations and information, make your following sentences a little more to the point.

SUMMARY: Keep your dialogue from being a runny faucet. You need short and average length sentences as well to make it read nicely.

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 Problem #3:

Repetitive sentence openers.

Example: "I turned at the sound of the door. I saw a man standing there, hidden by shadows. I jumped up from my bed and turned on the light. I screamed as the man moved closer."

Wow, how repetitive and monotonous does that sound? Every single sentence started the same way, and that's what we're here to talk about. You have to structure each sentence in it's own way so they don't all look the same and make the narration choppy.

Let's try this again:

I turned at the sound of the door. In the shadows stood a man. Jumping up from my bed, I ran to turn on the light. As the man moved closer, I let out a scream.

This example could still use a little more description and longer sentences, but you get the idea. It doesn't sound as repetitive, but you'll notice that I kept the first sentence the same. Having a sentence start with "i" isn't in itself a bad thing, but when it is used repeatedly by authors who aren't quite sure how to write in first person, that's when it becomes a problem.

You have several different options - use them. Any of those other options can become monotonous also, so vary it! We don't want six sentences in a row starting with "-ing" verbs, and we don't want a paragraph of sentences beginning with "As he..."

ANOTHER EXAMPLE: (I found this one online)

“She picked up the baby. She put him in his car seat. She tickled him under his chin. He giggled. She got behind the wheel. She drove to the grocery store. She hummed as she drove.”

Obviously, the issue is that every sentence is about the same length and follows the subject-verb-object structure.

“She picked up the baby and put him in his seat, tickling him under his chin. He giggled. Climbing behind the wheel, she drove to the store, humming along with the radio.”

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Check out the link on the side for more examples and explanations! This is something to keep in mind as you're editing. It's not as vital in the first draft, but if you're posting on Wattpad then you need to be aware of your sentence structure and variety as you're writing!

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