Sentence Length

One piece of advice you’ll get from everyone concerns sentence length. A long sentence is long, therefore it must meander, therefore you aren’t really sure what you want to say. Short sentences are short. Really short. Short! (And therefore non-fattening and good for you.)

What difference does it make? Why should you care?

In general (and note that caveat well!), longer sentences convey a sense of ease or comfort. When the narrator can speak in long sentences, he or she is not stressed. So go ahead and put in your entire thought. In fact, if two sentences are closely related to the same idea, just put a semicolon between them; you may find this keeps things together. Or, if you’re trying to tell your reader something then do this: use a colon and spell it out! And, quite frankly, if you’re trying to convey complexity of thought or careful rationalization, pull those thoughts together into juicy sentences that are long enough to convey the relief.

A period (.), or as the Brits say, a full stop, is just that. The eye sees the period and the brain stops. Two ideas. Separated. A comma is less of a stop, but still a pause for breath. In fact, you can decide whether to use a comma by reading the sentence out loud. If you automatically pause for breath, insert the comma. If you don’t don’t.

Ah, but what use are short sentences? In general (there’s that caveat again), short sentences convey not only terseness but also tension. The mind is focused. The narrator leads you. Something critical will happen. Now.

Do you see the difference? You may do this automatically, but as you look over your text, see if the sentence length shortens as the tension goes up. Conversely, make sure the sentences stretch out a bit after that climax; the reader will know it’s time to relax.

Here’s an example from Broom 1:

   Well, to make a long and fascinating story short, the nurse finally rescued me from the reception area, but not before ten—that’s right—ten people, two of whom I recognized—came in to ask if I’d really flown the broom. And there I was, holding a broom, which makes things hard to deny (I’d finally removed the goggles). I tried ignoring them, which was actually tempting given that my leg was truly a bonfire, but I had to acknowledge the painful truth that I’d been seen flying.
   In town.
   On a broom.
   In broad daylight.

Let’s take a look at this. I’d been rescued from the reception area, which represents relief from trying to get some medical attention: I’d achieved my goal, so I could slow down a bit. Quite a bit, in fact, although note that the sentence is a bit broken up with dashes, used to convey our narrator’s confusion. But our narrator has a serious problem: the flying broomstick is now public. He knows this will greatly complicate matters. Now that his mind is focused beyond the pain of his leg wound, he ponders the new crisis. And the sentences get shorter. In fact, so short I spread a sentence across four paragraphs.

Why? Simple. Emphasis. The page layout affects how people read. A period (full stop) is a break, but a paragraph is an even greater break. So if you want to focus the mind, make a paragraph very short. Maybe just one word.

Give it a try. Make your narrative sparkle! Modulate the reader’s tension with sentence length.

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