How to manipulate SENTENCE STRUCTURES

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Warning: I wrote this right after a big final exam, which I stayed up most of the night studying for. There are typos in this how-to. Many, many typos.... So I profusely apologize in advance. :)

We've talked about the content of the writing so far, but we have yet to cover HOW to write that content. The structure of your sentneces, while it may seem trivial, is actually a huge deal in literature. Seasoned writers are anal about every measley word choice, as insignificant as it may seem to you.

For example, you could say, "I looked at the blue sky." or "I stared at the sky. Blue, as usual" Both convey the exact same idea--a person looking up at the sky and noting it's color, but the slight alterations in word choice and sentence structure associate a different FEELING with it. That feeling is what writers try to capture by the way they form their sentences. In this how-to, I'll talk about the subtle alterations you can make to your sentences to give them vibrancy, depth, and punch.

As always, please note that there are an infinite number of exceptions to everything I'm talking about here. Everyone has their own writing style, and I doubt even the best writers follow these rules or are even aware of them and might just do it naturally. However, it's good to be aware how sentence structure can affect the tone of your writing and the ideas you're trying to convey.


Sentence Length
This is the most commonly known technical aspect of writing. Always vary your sentence lengths. Don't have a big clump of short sentences or long sentences or medium sentences. Don't have REALLY long sentences. That's all understandable because the unchanging length in undynamic. Remember, you always want your writing to be dynamic, ie. changing. It'll hold your readers' interest longer just by varying the number of words in each sentence.

Short sentences are useful for emphasis. They metaphorically punch your reader. The most important ideas you want to convey should usually be short sentences. The shorter, the more it'll stick out to us. A lot of authors use one-word sentences to add dramatic impact. But don't become a drama-queen and beat your reader to a bloody pulp. Short sentences should be used sparingly, otherwise their message will become watered-down and less potent.

Example: His mouth watered when he saw what sat on the kitchen table. Chocolate cake.
If you have too many short sentences, combine some of them.

Long sentences convey ideas, summing up a series of thoughts, qualifying a previous point, and transitioning between ideas. The problem with longer sentences is sometimes writers try to pack too much information into a single sentence. Even if the word-count of the sentence is of medium-length, don't convey more than 2 ideas (3 is the absolute max) in a single sentence.
Bad example: He reluctantly pulled on his jacket after his girlfriend had told him how cold it was today--but there wasn't a day in the year when she wasn't shivering--and headed for the door, where his dog already was, leash in his mouth.

Good (well, okay) example: Reid reluctantly picked up his jacket. His girlfriend had told him it was cold today and he should bundle up, but she'd said the same thing yesterday when it was sixty degrees. Reid threw it on just as Rufus shot past him. The beagle's nails ticked on the tiles. Reid noticed the leash already clamped between the dog's jaws as he sat by the door.

If you find yourself with too many long sentences in a row, break them up into shorter ones.

In the same way the length of the sentence can get redundant, so can the structure. If you have something like: "She was crying. She fell off her bike and scraped her knee. I bandaged her knee, but she kept crying." Even though I'm varying the length of the sentences here, the structure of noun-verb-object is in every sentence, and that becomes redundant and monotonous. The writing becomes "choppy" and "clunky". A better way to word that blurb is like this: There was Aimee, sitting on the sidewalk and bawling like it was the end of the world. Of course. I looked around until I found her bike--well, the back wheel of it, anyway. It poked out from a bush, and the tire was still spinning."


Emphasis
Placing of the most important ideas within your sentences is very important. The place of greatest emphasis in your sentence is at the end. The beginning is the second most emphatic, and the middle is the least emphatic.

Example: "He jumped when someone knocked on the door." versus "Someone knocked on the door, and he jumped." Notice what words you focus on the most in each sentence. For me, I tend to focus on the end. So in the first sentence, I focused on "knocked on the door". In the second sentence, I focused on "he jumped". In this case, what idea is most important to the passage? That someone knocked on the door, or that the character jumped in response to that? That's for you to decide as the writer.
Subtle choices in sentence structure can bring emphasis and convey slightly (or even dramatically) different meanings, so keep that in mind when scouring your sentences.

Another thing to keep in mind is old and new information. If you're restating a point that the readers already know as clarification, that shouldn't be emphasized, so it should go either at the beginning or middle of the sentence. New information, new ideas, characters, or places that you want to emphasize more should go at the end of the sentence.

Independent clauses get more attention than dependent clauses.
Example: "Jake fell off the roof, breaking his foot." versus: "Falling off the roof, Jake broke his foot." The 2nd sentence is quite poorly done with an -ing word starting it (don't do that), however, you can see the difference in where you attention goes. In the first, you focus more on Jake falling off the roof. In the second, you focus more on Jake breaking his foot.

Look at your sentences and ask yourself what is the most important idea? How can you structure the sentence to put that idea in the spotlight?


Other technicalities:
Never start a sentence with an -ing verb.
Examples: "Calling for her, he ran down the stairs." "Reaching for the ice cream, she stumbled." "Playing the piano, she filled the house with music."
It sounds very awkward to structure sentences this way. Also, it signifies that both actions in the sentence are done SIMULTANEOUSLY rather than one after the other as you might initially believe, so make sure you don't make that mistake (it's one I made numerous times until someone pointed it out to me!).

For the ice cream example, some ways to reword to avoid the -ing at the beginning: "As she reached for the ice cream, she stumbled." "She reached for the ice cream and stumbled." "She stumbled when she reached for the ice cream."

If you guys have other technical/mechanical tips about writing, post in the comments!

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