Varying sentence structure

| Friday, September 2, 2011
Today's Tune: Devil

Woo, so now that I got my whole BRAIN BLEARGH thing out of my system in the last post, I'm feeling a lot better. Thanks to all of you for your supportive words, they were very much appreciated!

Today is a quick 'n dirty writing tip about varying your sentence structure.

When we write first drafts (or "starter" drafts), most of the time we're just trying to get the basic form of the story down on paper. If you're a pantser, your first draft might end up more like an outline than a novel, and that's okay. It's all part of your individual writing process.

What most of us don't worry about during that initial drafting process is the exact phrasing or structure that we'll end up with in the final draft. Since the first draft is all about taking the idea and getting it out, we just write whatever comes to mind. So long as we put the ideas down, we're good. Afterwards, we go back through and do rewrites and grand-scale edits and all that other fun stuff. And then we get down to line-editing, polishing, and smoothing. Part of that smoothing involves varying our sentence structure.

Have you ever read a novel excerpt that feels monotonous or boring? It may be the content, but it may also be that the sentences are structured the exact same way. Too many short bursts, or long multi-comma phrases, or lists, or conjunctions, or whatever. They may also start the same way, like this:

I jumped at the sound of a creak at the door. I crept slowly toward it and listened carefully. I placed my hand against the wood and reached for the knob. I knew then that I wasn't alone.

Repetitive sentences and paragraphs like these can make a reader's eyes blur. They start skimming because they become used to the structure and think they know what's coming. You want to avoid that. Varying your sentence structure mixes it up and makes the reader have to think about what they're reading.

CRASH. My heart hammered in my throat, making it ache with every beat. Something was out there. The floorboards sighed under my feet as I crept toward the door. I reached for the knob and stifled a gasp. It was freezing cold.

Not perfect, but much more interesting than the first example. All you have to do is watch for repeated words, sentences starting with the same word or phrase, or multiple sentences that are roughly the same length or structure. Then change them up!

Just one of the many ways to keep a reader's interest. What other methods do you recommend?


{ Charlotte } at: September 2, 2011 at 5:19 AM said...

Yes! Let's be friends. :D Sorry, was distracted for a minute there. Great post. Stuff like that is the sort of thing I know subconsciously, but your post made me pay attention to it, so thank you! One tip I recommend, though it's probably completely obvious, is to go through your WIP deleting 'nothing' words, like very, really and totally. Words that basically add nothing to your writing. I find that if my writing then sounds weak without them, I need a stronger verb. Hope that's helpful and makes sense!

{ Sommer Leigh } at: September 2, 2011 at 5:29 AM said...

I pay attention to sentence structure when I'm writing. I do a lot of editing while I write my first draft, a horrible habit I can't shake which makes my first drafts take twice as long as necessary but they end up being more polished when I start draft 2 than they would otherwise. When I write (also when I read) I "read" out loud in my head while I go. When the varied sentence structure is off, I hear it and it makes me crazy. This is a great topic and one that is really hard to do well if you aren't paying attention to it.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: September 2, 2011 at 5:36 AM said...

grrreat point! monotonous sentence structure sends me snoring bigtime!

{ TL Conway } at: September 2, 2011 at 7:13 AM said...

I found that my sentences were naturally longer when describing the world of my WIP, but they were almost TOO long. I pulled some adjectives and simply cut some redundancies and it made a huge difference.

I struggled with the action/fight scenes, though. I'm not terribly adept at writing a fight seeing as I have zero personal experience to draw upon, so it took a while to get short, crisp action sentences with the best possible verbs.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: September 2, 2011 at 7:41 AM said...

I'm odd, I guess, and not surprised I have something else in common with Sommer in that I'm also thinking about this as I do my first draft. I find it's something I have to pay closer attention to when writing in first person, but it's so worth it. Varying the structure can really help manipulate pacing, while intentionally (and sparingly) introducing a short(!) bout of repetitive structure can set an intentional rhythm or comparison or contrast.

Excellent post, as usual.

{ Emily White } at: September 2, 2011 at 7:52 AM said...

Great post! I've been thinking a lot about this while doing some critiquing. Perhaps you sensed that and wrote this post just for me. :P hehehe!

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: September 2, 2011 at 10:37 AM said...

Awesome additional tips, dudes! Margo and Sommer, you guys aren't weird :) I do that now, too, but I had to train myself to do it. I didn't pay attention during my earlier writing projects, but now I'm consciously thinking of sentences before, during, and after I put them down.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: September 2, 2011 at 10:38 AM said...

It's called style, and I love yours!

{ Ruth Josse } at: September 2, 2011 at 11:07 AM said...

Well, I guess I know what I'll be obsessing about while I write today. :) Thanks for the reminder!

{ Sangu } at: September 2, 2011 at 11:45 AM said...

So very true! It's so important to change up your sentence structures, to keep a close eye on them when editing; it's amazing how easy it is to construct an awkward sentence just because it sounded fine in your head!

{ Emy Shin } at: September 2, 2011 at 1:11 PM said...

Great advice, Steph! This is definitely something I struggle with. Another thing that I commit way too soften as I write the rough draft is not having enough narrative variety. My scenes would be either too dialogue, action, or introspection heavy -- and I need to learn how to intersperse them.

{ kirstenlopresti } at: September 2, 2011 at 7:04 PM said...

Great post! Sentence variety is very important, but most people don't think about it. I like your example of a bad paragraph. It's just so bad!! It really gets the point across.

{ Katy } at: September 4, 2011 at 8:07 AM said...

Great examples and fantastic advice! I'm looking forward to visiting your blog more often as the Campaign gets underway! :)

{ Miss Cole } at: September 4, 2011 at 10:44 AM said...

I'm currently engaging in sentence edits and trying to vary lengths to keep up the pace. Hopefully it'll keep readers engaged!

Also, please allow me to share some awards with you! Hooray!

{ Ciara } at: September 5, 2011 at 11:08 AM said...

Great post. I just received edits back. Need I say more. :)

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