• Rachel Paige

Sentence Length

Last week, I talked about paragraph length and the "camera" and I want to move into a similar topic: sentence length. There's two parts to this issues. One is writing correct sentences and the other one is utilizing the length to impact the reader.

Sentence length influences the pacing of a scene greatly. If all your sentences are long and wordy, it takes the reader longer to read them and the scene is slower. If they're all short, the reader takes less time. If they're all the same length, the scene will appear longer because it becomes dry.

Sentence length also gives you the opportunity to highlight words. A short sentence following a long one, or vice-versa, hones the readers attention. The same is true of paragraph length.

Let's look at some examples.

This is a short sentence. This is another one. I'll put a third one here. By this point, you're bored. All of these sound the same. There's no rhythm. There's no flow. It needs some variety.

This is going to be a long sentence and you probably won't read this entire paragraph because it will all be so long that you'll be bored by the time we make it to the second sentence. This is the second sentence and it's going to be about the same length as the first one because I'm trying to show you how painful this is to read. When everything is wordy and long, the paragraph and scene stretch on forever and the reader never gets a break or a pause in the text.

This is a short sentence. I'll put another one here, but make it a bit longer. Then this one will be even longer than the next one. Do you see the difference between this paragraph and the last one? Can you feel the pacing stretch and shrink to match the lengths of these sentences? Good.

Do you feel the difference between these three? Now let's look at some real examples.

This is an excerpt from the beginning of a blog post titled "Your Jokes Aren't Funny," which appears on my other blog, My Anxious Thoughts. This post uses a lot of short and choppy sentences to keep the pace quick. But, they're broken up and doing so draws attention to certain lines.

"Someone I know, we’ll call him Adam, makes a lot of jokes. Several weeks ago, he made a joke I didn’t understand, then asked why I didn’t laugh. I told him I didn’t get it. He then made a comment about how he was offended and going to commit suicide.

I didn’t laugh. I left the room."

The next few paragraphs all contain the sentence "I didn't laugh." towards the end. It's choppy and allows the reader to pause and focus on those three words.

This example is from a chapter of my novel, Definitions of Life in which my 12-year-old narrator gets in a fight with her friend.

"Everyone that wasn’t already looking turned towards us and a lot of people got closer to get a better view. A boy behind me said, 'this is gonna be good.' I glared at him, but he didn’t back up. No one backed up. They got closer and a few kids pulled out their phones. I glanced around for a teacher, but I couldn’t see outside the circle of people encouraging Kelly to hit me."

Notice the sentence lengths. The words counts are 20, 10, 9, 4, 11, and 20. See how the short sentences are in the middle and the paragraph is capped by two longer ones? It chances the pacing and highlights the sentence "No one backed up" that would otherwise get lost.

I think you've seen enough examples, so let's go ahead and move into the end-of-post exercises.

Exercise 1:

Print out a piece out your own writing, just a few pages, and count the words in each sentence. Note them on the page. Is there variation in the length or are they all the same?

Exercise 2:

Pick your favorite book and rewrite a page or two of it either by hand or typed. What do you notice about the sentences? Now do the same you did for your writing and count the words in each sentence. What do you notice now?

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