How Can Writers Vary Sentence Structure?

How Can Writers Vary Sentence Structure?

Diversifying Your Sentence Structure for Variety and Pacing

Many years ago during a presentation at the now defunct Antioch Writers’ Workshop, I made a reference to “lazy writing.” One of the attendees asked me to clarify what I meant by that, and I mentioned, as examples, reusing the same word in a single paragraph, using clichéd phrasing, starting consecutive paragraphs with the same word, and repetitive sentence structure.

This last point—sentence structure—can make or break a solid story.


Planting Variety in Your Paragraph Gardens


Our eyes crave variety. Think about walking into a garden. If all the flowers are the same species, it’s a tad boring. But if instead the garden has varying bursts of color from a diverse array of flower species—all of fluctuating shape and height—it’s an awe-inspiring sight. 


Writing is much the same way. Think of your paragraphs as little garden beds. If you use the same structure in your sentences, it quickly can become monotonous for the reader. Here’s an example:


The man walked in the woods. The dead leaves crunched under his shoes. The low sun cast long shadows on the ground. The man spotted an ominous boulder around a bend.


First and foremost, this passage has four sentences that all begin with the word “The” which I find to be really hard on the eyes. But beyond that, all four sentences have a pretty standard structure of subject – verb – object or subject – verb – prepositional phrase. One or two of those is fine, but four in a row is too much.


Here’s a slight re-working of the same passage:


The man walked in the woods, where the low sun cast long shadows on the ground. Dead leaves crunched under his shoes. Around a bend, the man spotted an ominous boulder.


With just a few tweaks and some rearranging, the relatively bland original passage now has diverse structure. The meaning is essentially the same, but the layout of the sentences is fresher and more pleasing to the eye.


Scoring Your Stories with Sentence Pacing


One of the advantages that television and film have over written works is the use of music. Think about how terrifying Michael Myers is, not just because of his pale mask and his menacing presence, but because of John Carpenter’s eerie music. 

As writers, we have no flutes, guitars, or tubas to cue the reader about what to feel. Our only keyboard has letters, not ebony and ivory keys. But one thing we can do to provide a sense of rhythm is alter our sentence structure accordingly.


Consider how this passage reads:


The man approached the lurking boulder. A gruesome troll leapt out from the shadows. The man stopped in his tracks. It snarled with its slobber-covered lips, exposing crooked, dirty teeth. Its eyes were yellow. Its clothes were torn and stained with blood. It shrieked and ran toward the man, who raised his hands to ward the creature away. The troll grabbed him and threw him to the ground, knocking the wind from his lungs.


Right off the bat, four of the sentences start with “It” or “Its” so we’ll have to fix that! But also consider the length of some of the sentences, especially toward the end of the paragraph when the troll attacks. This is where we want to pick up the pace, but the longer sentences only bog the action down. Shorter sentences here can make the reader read faster. They can work like a pulse-pounding soundtrack, intensifying the action rather than slowing it down.


See how much differently this version reads:


As the man approached the lurking boulder, a troll leapt out from the shadows and snarled. The gruesome sight stopped the man in his tracks. Slobber-covered lips. Crooked, dirty teeth. Yellow eyes. Torn, blood-stained clothes. 


It shrieked and ran toward him. He raised his hands but the troll grabbed him. It threw him to the ground. The impact knocked the wind from his lungs.


Now we have two paragraphs, each with its own mood and pacing. The first paragraph is all about the reveal, the horrid details of this menacing creature. The details all come at once in rapid-fire succession. In the second paragraph, the action breaks. The shorter sentences pull the reader’s eyes quickly through the course of events. 


Likewise, you can use longer sentences for scenes where things are at a more measured pace, such as the reworked first passage above describing the man’s walk in the woods.


The same function applies to paragraph size, as well. Use longer paragraphs for slower moments and shorter paragraphs for fast-paced moments.


A Parting Caveat


Like all things in writing, there are exceptions to every rule. While in general, you want to use diverse sentence structure in your paragraphs, there are times when you quite purposefully want to be monotonous. 


For example, if you’re trying to convey how repetitive or boring something is, then use repetitive and boring sentences! 


Here’s a quick example:


All afternoon long, it was the same thing. He folded a letter. He slid it into an envelope. He put on a stamp. He wrote an address. Again and again. Over and over.


In this example, the repetitive structure works, because it’s echoing the action (or lack thereof) in the story. 


In summary, be mindful to your sentence structure as you craft your stories. Keep your sentences diverse so that your reader doesn’t get bored. Use short sentences to speed things up long sentences to slow things down. 


Write on!

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