Tightening the Belt on Your Prose, Pt.4 ~
One of the most straightforward ways to tighten your writing is to match your sentence structure with your emotional intent and manipulate the pacing in your manuscript. Create or reduce tension/suspense in your writing by simply adjusting the length of your sentences.
The Rule of Thumb:
Action – Several short sentences in a row with the occasional medium length sentence for taking a breath or grounding a character in the moment.
Information – Several longer or medium length sentences in a row to give a rolling wave-like flow.
Discovery – A good mix of all the sentence lengths but the most dominant one will still be the short sentence.
Most writers don’t edit while they write. That’s not to say the practice is bad or wrong – it’s just different and everyone writes how they feel most comfortable. Anyway, the majority of us write to get our ideas out and on the page – often so that we don’t forget them, especially if we’re on a roll 🙂 But this practice leads to awkward sentence structures and very little rhythm or pacing in the work. Here’s an example for each of the above instances of pacing:
Joe felt the shiver climb his spine. He reached for the nob and stopped. Fingers millimeters away from the brass lion head, he jumped. An electric shock jolted him. He clutched his hand to his chest.
… instead of…
Joe was nervous and shivered uncontrollably as he reached out with his left hand to grip the door nob. He stopped with his fingers just millimeters away from the brass lion head before jumping back, shaking off the electric jolt and clutching his hand to his chest.
It was supposed to be raining in the Crying Forest – it hadn’t earned the name for nothing after all. The leaves cracked and branches snapped as Glen and Anders walked on without caring. Didn’t they know they were destroying a part of our legacy, apart of our livelihood with their ignorance? If we couldn’t find the source of the drought soon, reaping the crops of a nonexistent forest would destroy our future and decimate the Yimmini People.
… instead of…
It was supposed to be raining. The drought made it difficult to farm. The twins didn’t see the destruction they caused as they trod through the dry forest. We faced the end of our existence. Why couldn’t they see that.
Now, you may like the feel of the second version here, but it does not relay the same information. The use of the shorter sentences does not convey a walk through the dying forest but implies that something is about to happen. If your goal is to give information and nothing ‘happens’ by way of action/tension/or suspense then you are tricking your reader and they will be dissatisfied. It’s imperative to know your intent and shape your sentences accordingly.
The boy wandered away from his mother. This wasn’t the first time it happened so Clair knew not to panic. She searched the park: he wasn’t in the water area, the sand pit, on the monkey bars or swings. The nervous twitch by her eye returned. There was a flash of red in the willow and something floating in the pond below it. She forced her breath to remain steady as she followed the psychiatrist’s instructions. The twitch doubled. Her breathing slowed. She was a walking contradiction and that just made matters worse. Jamie dropped down from the tree head first but didn’t land. He clung to a branch with his legs, his red spring coat flapping down from his arms.
… instead of…
If the majority of sentences had been longer, we wouldn’t have felt the tug of the mother’s concern. But, if the majority had been shorter we would have been disappointed when it was only a simple game the boy played – wanting to climb the tree and hang down from a branch. The use of discover here gives balance to intent and doesn’t mislead the reader. If you piss off your reader they won’t come back.
Now, you try.
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