They say variety is the spice of life – and the same is true when it comes to storytelling. Whether you’re recounting a passionate tale of unbridled love or spinning a creepy campfire yarn, your reader is along for one thing: The experience.
Crafting that experience isn’t the easiest thing in the world, though – after all, you’re already spinning more than enough plates managing your plot, themes, characters and dialogue. All those basic elements that form the core of your tale.
But no matter how good the story itself may be, if you can’t manage to guide your reader’s experience – to involve them, to tease, tempt, surprise and relax them through the very measure of your words – chances are their interest will quickly wane.
It goes without saying that for you, the author, that’s a Very Bad Thing.
Vibrant, fascinating prose that invisibly sets its hooks and sustains the thread of intrigue depends not just on the words you use, but also on something less obvious:
The lengths of your sentences.
Varying your sentence length is a great way to keep your writing interesting. Monotony is a killer of human attention, causing us to ramp down our active focus on repetitive tasks – and this happens all too quickly when sentences of the same length are strung together.
Instead of staying rapt in your words, the reader’s thoughts begin to wander. Rather than worry about whether your superbly-drawn protagonist will make it out of this deadly predicament, your hard-won bookworm finds themselves wondering what they ought to have for lunch tomorrow.
And as their mind continues to wander, each successive paragraph is scanned – but not fully processed.
Admit it – you’ve found the same thing happening to you in the past, haven’t you?
Soon, the book becomes a slog and making it to the end seems a much less appealing proposition than it did in the beginning.
Here’s an example of the kind of monotony you’ll want to avoid:
Ella was asleep on the couch. Simon watched her for a moment. He did not want to wake her. She looked so peaceful lying there. But it was getting late. They had to get going. He touched her shoulder and cheek. She sighed but did not stir.
If it sounds dull, that’s because it is. The sentences are similar in length, which quickly becomes a flat and boring experience. It also feels a tad juvenile, like it was written for children.
And your readers don’t want to be talked down to.
How about a revision? Here we go:
Ella was asleep on the couch. Watching her, Simon felt reluctant to wake her. She looked so peaceful lying there. But it was getting late, and they really had to get going. He touched her shoulder, then her cheek. She sighed but did not stir.
It’s easy to see how much more lively that is. The words are almost identical in each version, but the simple act of varying the sentence lengths instantly makes the prose more absorbing and readable.
Now you see how important it is to mix up your sentence lengths, here’s a great little trick: Try to match the lengths of your sentences to the emotion or action in your scene.
If you’ve got an action-packed scene with high drama, your sentences should be shorter and snappier—shorter sentences raise the pulse of your prose, which is what you want in an action sequence. Likewise, if your scene is melancholic or descriptive, lean toward a mix of longer sentences to help reflect the contemplative nature of the scene.
More Variety = More Spice
Varying the length of your sentences is only one way to add variety to your prose. If you want to really dial in your control, try also paying attention to the way you start your sentences.
Sometimes we fall into the same patterns as we write, always starting with the same construction or word choice. It’s very easy to do – an unconscious habit that can be difficult to crack without consistent diligence when editing.
Three of the most common sentence-starter pitfalls include too frequently starting with pronouns (He, She, It); too often starting with conjunctions (But, And, For, So, Yet, Because); and starting too many times with an –ING verb (Running down the hall, etc.).
To put an old grammatical “rule” to bed, it’s now perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction. Modern language finds this approach perfectly acceptable.
However, it can get annoying if you do it too frequently, so it’s still something to be careful with. If too many sentences start with a conjunction, your prose will quickly grate on your reader like nails on a chalkboard.
Let’s take a look at an example:
But Sammy wasn’t about to rush home. So what if he was late? And so what if Jennifer was angry? Because the truth was, he was a little sick of Jennifer. So tired of her nagging. He didn’t want to hear about her annoying boss. Or listen to that cheesy pop music she loved. Or spend his nights watching bad reality TV because she just had to find out who got voted off the island.
Gah! See how quickly that gets annoying?
The thing about starting with a conjunction is that, in most cases, the conjunction adds nothing. It can easily be dropped to make the prose tighter:
Sammy wasn’t going to rush. So what if he was late and Jennifer was angry? The truth was, he was a little sick of Jennifer and tired of her nagging.
Yet as with most things, there are certainly exceptions to this.
Repeatedly starting with a conjunction can work, as long as you want that sentence or conjunction to stand out. For instance, if you have a neurotic character in your book, consider starting many of her thoughts with but and and to highlight her perpetual state of anxiety.
Here’s what that would look like:
Jane was tempted to skip work and spend the morning at the beach. But what if someone found out? And told her boss? And what if she got sunburned—how would she hide that at work tomorrow? But then, she could wear sunscreen and stay under the umbrella. But what would be the point of going to the beach at all if she couldn’t enjoy the sun? And hadn’t she promised herself she would try to have more fun?
This quick-fire train of additional thought (coupled with the shorter sentences, as we mentioned earlier) helps paint the picture of a chaotic mind or stressful situation and should stand out from the rest of the prose.
Good writing has a rhythm, and that rhythm only works if sentences vary in length and style.
When it comes to both the length and starter variations of your sentences, you can check for these on your own—or you can get help from AutoCrit, using our super-fast Sentence Variation Analysis and Sentence Starter Analysis tools.
And if you’re stuck wondering just how many initial conjunctions are too many? AutoCrit has your back there, too. Just run your manuscript through the Overused Words Report and AutoCrit will check your word usage against published books across all genres or within your genre of choice – something no other tool is capable of.
The simple act of varying your sentence length will have a huge impact on the vibrancy and readability of your writing. So have at it – mix it up and have some fun. Make it more than just a story. Make it an experience!