Have you ever come across a paragraph (or, worse, a chapter) so droll and monotonous, you feel yourself going cross-eyed? I’m not talking about textbooks, either – though they usually suffer from this problem. You go back over the same sentences over and over, trying to focus. And it’s frustrating because these passages crop up in plots that were – up to that point – fascinating. But now you’re falling asleep at the wheel for some reason. If you “step back,” you’ll usually pinpoint the problem: a complete and utter lack of sentence variety.
You’ve entered the monotony zone.
Every writer slips up and falls into this pattern now and then. Usually, it grabs onto the brain when you hit a patch of writer’s block or need to go over a part of your story that doesn’t capture your interest. (Or, let’s admit it – it’s a chunk of your worldbuilding you didn’t devote much time to) You’re bored. So you put on your best Science Slide Show voice and put your readers into a coma. All because every single one of your sentences have the same number of words, written in the same pattern.
Sentence variety drives a narrative forward. It’s also a reflection of the way we speak and think. Don’t believe me? Sit in an area and listen to the cadence of the conversations around you. Keep a notebook and make tick marks for the number of words in each sentence. You’ll see a wide variation based on the type of engagement. Anger and excitement? They’ll come out on the shorter end of things. But find someone who’s eager to describe something they’re passionate about? Well, you might need an extra piece of paper. Emotions dictate the flow of words we use.
And writing isn’t any different.
You have the chance to create emotion within your reader, simply by manipulating your sentence variety. Want to have them breathless and on the edge of their seat? Chop up your sentences. Even read silently, shorter bites of information speed up the heart rate and cause you to breathe faster. It builds suspense and tension – something mystery and horror writers exploit ALL the time. And you may not even realize it, you’re so captivated by the action. But stop and look at the sentence structure next time. Watch everything grow shorter and shorter and SHORTER the closer you get to something powerful.
On the flip side, when you want to draw out and latch onto the heart of your reader, you stretch your sentences as long as possible. (Note: this does NOT mean you have permission to write run-on sentences) Your stream-of-conscience monologues provide the chance for a reader to delve into the characters and their thought processes. You give them all of the twists and turns of the agony they’re experiencing. It’s your chance to break out your carefully selected adverbs. And it advances character development.
A well-written piece of writing? Moves back and forth. Because, of course, you’re progressing along a story arc. And – unless you’re writing about the most boring characters in the history of existence – you have a cast of people with emotions. Your sentence variety allows them to demonstrate those feelings in a natural manner. If you fail to inject an ebb and flow, you get a flat textbook. While I don’t want to knock the textbook writers out there, I’m guessing the vast majority of wordsmiths out there don’t wake up in the morning with aspirations of publishing the next organic chemistry volume.
You WANT to use variety!
Now, every now and then in writing groups, you’ll see a favorite exercise come up in which you need to craft a story using a specified number of words for every sentence. This flies in the face of everything I just said. But it’s a USEFUL exercise. Whether they throw out ten words or four, your brain goes into overdrive cobbling together a coherent plot with a “limited” vocabulary. It teaches you how to use the emotions tied to those sentence lengths, though – especially if you’re struggling to get the concept of sentence variety down.
For instance, I tackled a flash fiction piece with a limit of four words one time. Four words? Could you consider four words a sentence? (At the time, I didn’t) Over and over, I failed to construct my usual stories. It took me most of a week to finally get a SINGLE sentence written: Five minutes until midnight. Staring at the words on the screen, I brainstormed different emotions I could assign to that sentence. And once I settled on the emotion I wanted, the story built itself. It took trial and error (not to mention cursing as I reworked sentences that exceeded the count), but the story I finished I was happy with. And I learned to use those short sentences to my advantage down the road.
The same with another flash fiction – this time with a ten-word limit. Yeah, I thought four words was a pain? TEN exceeded annoyance. More ISN’T better. (Plus, I spent half my time tapping a pen on the screen to check my count) I needed to find a way to write coherent, REASONABLE sentences that didn’t hit that run-on boundary. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out something dramatic or introspective for a flash piece. But long sentences? They can work for flights of fancy, too – if you handle them properly. And that’s where “The Storyteller” ended up taking me.
These exercises HELP.
Once you learn the FEEL of varying sentence lengths, mixing them together is a cinch. And before you know it, you break the cycle of stilted, monotonous writing. Your readers don’t get bored. Even better, they don’t lower the book and check the cover to make sure they haven’t accidentally picked up a reference text. So go sit and listen to people and the way they speak. Think through the emotions they’re experiencing (or NOT experiencing). Then start to apply it to your writing. You’ll find your stories coming alive.
You can always write textbooks on the side – you know, if you have that aspiration.