Sentence structure. At first when I saw this tip in the list of The 25, my first impulse was to snore. It seems so mundane — something to take for granted.
I think that somewhere between middle school and high school, every student gets (or should get) a lecture on different kinds of sentences. You have the declarative sentence. Subject, predicate. Ta-da! You have the compound sentence, and you learn the little gaggle of conjunctions that join it together. (See what I did there?) Beyond the simpler sentences, you have the complex sentence in all its varying forms. (I did it again!) If you’re really looking to perform verbal pyrotechnics, you can use a compound-complex sentence, but you should always make sure it doesn’t coil around you and choke you with its length. (Not that long ones are always bad, but I’ve seen some that take up a whole paragraph. I mean, really.) Once you learn all that, you get the talk on using them. Writing goes from elementary to textured. Example:
See Spot run. See Jane run. Spot chases Jane. Spot slobbers. Spot growls. Jane screams. Spot bites Jane. Jane falls down. Jane shoots Spot. Spot bites more. Jane becomes a zombie. See Jane shamble. Hear John scream.
Only one of those sentences is more than three words long. The rest are two or three. Simple. Subject, predicate. A little action happens, but for the most part, the rhythm is choppy, stilted, and…somehow still a little charming. (I can’t help being pleased with this little example.)
The point is, there is no variation in sentence structure. Example #2:
Jane panted like the dog that chased her. Spot. Her puppy. The slavering beast hounding her footsteps bore little resemblance to the furball she and John had brought home for their first wedding anniversary. One backward glance showed Spot too close, his jaws frothing with spittle, snapping at every other paw’s impact with the green, green grass. One backward glance was too much. Jane’s feet slammed into a concrete pile-on, sending her sprawling on rough sidewalk. The burn of the scrapes was lost in the fire of Spot’s fangs sinking into her leg. Jane screamed. Spot pulled back and lunged at her throat. Hot breath on her face. Blood poured from her neck. Darkness.
The first example is something that would be expected from a (deranged) first grader or second grader. The second would be expected from someone who had gone through some more advanced grammar. The difference between them is sentence structure. Here’s what they have to say about that in The 25.
8. Sentence Structure
Well. I don’t know that any writer in the 21st century worries about subjects and predicates. Or believes that one shouldn’t begin a sentence with and or but or or. Or thinks contractions are slang. So I don’t have much to say on this matter.
But this is important.
Generally, I don’t like rules for writers. The First Amendment doesn’t, either. But the English language is democracy in action. It responds to its users. If it didn’t, we’d still be saying “prithee” and calling taxis “hacks.” Hence, my 30-minute recommendation is to sit down and write whatever moves you, following only one rule:
Don’t bore anybody.
I like what he says here. It leaves a lot of wiggle room. I adore wiggle room. It’s like handing a four-year-old a coloring page and some fingerpaint and telling her to have at it. Permission to get messy and go outside the lines.
The interesting thing about those two examples is that I don’t think either is really boring. The first one was supposed to be, and granted it is choppy and stilted, but it somehow still works. A really gruesome picture book. Sentence structure should vary and respond to what you’re writing. If you are writing a Tarantino-esque kiddie book, go for the short ones. Fun, fun, fun.
If your scenes are dragging, try chopping up your sentences. Throw in some short ones. Maybe even a well-timed fragment. Writing is art — you should know the rules, but you should also be able to sense when to give those rules the finger. Sometimes it’s more effective that way. I think we can all agree that creativity is a sledgehammer that bashes through walls and opens up new worlds. Maybe it’s like Thor’s hammer, powers of destruction and creation in one compact design.
The biggest piece of advice I take from this tip is not to bore anybody. When reading the concluding chapters from my book, I was bored. Ten seconds from Snoresville. My response was to bust out the sledgehammer. It’s helping. Not done yet, but that’s what a work in progress is all about. Even if your work isn’t boring you, it might bore someone else. That’s another reason your networks of readers are so vital to the craft. If they’re bored, hopefully they’ll tell you so. When my husband is bored, he’ll groan a loud, obnoxious “Snoooore!!!” I mean he says the word; he doesn’t fake a snore. I look forward to him reading my book if nothing else for that. I’ll dive-bomb the room and slash whatever page he’s on with red pen.
In conclusion, choosing how to structure your sentences ties in with a lot of the other tips on pacing, precision, and a holistic way of looking at writing. Be true to your story, your characters, and how everything unfolds, and you should be able to handle this tip without having to agonize over it. If you’re in the polishing or revision stages, it’s a great buffing pad to shine things up. Even if something works, sometimes you can still make it better by amending some sentences and making them more fluid, choppier, simpler, more complex, or just clearer. That’s the beauty of writing. Works of writing are evolving things. They respond to you as you mold them. Have fun with them and they’ll reward you in kind. I wish you all happy trails! (Hopefully devoid of Spot and other zombie-dogs.)
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