ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE AH-HA MOMENTS during my MFA in Creative Writing program occurred after a professor assigned us the task of writing a nonfiction story with alternating sentence lengths. We were to rotate very short sentences, from two to six words in length, with very long sentences, at least thirty words. The longer the better.
This wasn’t an easy assignment to accomplish. And I thought the alternating of sentence lengths would seem strange and obviously contrived, which it was. However, and surprisingly, when the class got together to read what we had written to each other, the opposite was true — the stories had a rhythm that felt natural and flowed well. And the alternating sentence length was not even noticeable.
I learned something that day about varying sentence lengths: use them.
There’s a tendency among contemporary writers to avoid long sentences as “too complicated” or “hard to read.” We’re told over and over to “keep things simple.” Writing for clarity is good advice and we should always keep that in mind, but long sentences do not necessarily equal confusion, and a story with one short sentence after another is monotonous. As is a story with all medium-length or all long sentences. Varying sentence length allows you to control the pace of your story.
In his book, Writing Tools, Roy Clark says that long sentences, which he calls Journey Sentences, “create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding.” And a “short sentence slams on the breaks.” I would add that commas are like speed bumps, slowing readers down but not requiring them to come to a full stop.Think of sentence length as one aspect of the music of language. Click To Tweet
So how do you know when to use a long sentence and when to use a short sentence. And must you always vary them?
Think of sentence length as one aspect of the music of language. Short sentences provide staccato rhythm, while long sentences are the legato of melody. Do you want to increase drama and slow down the action so that readers see every little detail? Use short sentences. Do you want to create a sense of time flowing forward or a sense of breathless stream-of-consciousness thinking? User longer sentences.
There’s a famous quote from Gary Provost’s book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing:
“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.”
The important point I want you to take away from this is to not be afraid of long sentences or even really long sentences.
- Next time you are reading a book by one of your favorite authors, examine sentence length. Do they vary? When does the author use successive short sentences and when does she use successive long sentences? How do the sentence lengths help to slow down or speed up the story?
- Analyze the sentence lengths in a recent piece or one you are currently writing. Do you tend to write sentences that are roughly the same length? Does the sentence length fit the subject or content of what is happening in the story? For one passage, try cutting some sentences into two or even three short sentences, and combine others to create longer sentences. Then read your piece out loud. This is the ultimate test of rhythm and whether or not your sentence lengths are contributing to the desired pace for the passage.
- Just for fun, replicate the exercise I described at the beginning of this article. Write (or revise) a piece alternating very long with very short sentences. Then read the piece aloud. If doing this seems forced and contrived, I guarantee, you’ll be surprised by the results.
Another just-for-fun idea: find a passage from one of your favorite books that successfully varies sentence length and share it in the comments section below.