Here’s How To Vary Your Sentence Structure - An author considers their fridge, on which the magnets spell out the same type of sentence over and over.

Here’s How To Vary Your Sentence Structure

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One of the most common issues in longer prose is a lack of variety in sentence structure. It can strike anyone, because it’s not a lack of sophistication, but rather the pull of (otherwise admirable) efficiency of language.

Unfortunately, when an author’s tendency towards efficiency collides with a reader’s desire for novelty, there’s a breakdown in the system. The result? At worst, readers can’t get past how artificial the story feels and they give up quickly. At best, they keep reading but internally mock you for writing all your sentences the same way, turning your sincere art into a ‘hate read’.

To avoid this grave fate, let’s take a look at some of the easy-to-fall-into habits and a few practical measures for getting out of a rut.

Repeating sentence structure

First, there’s the classic subject + verb loop. The form certainly drives plot forward, but have a read:

Scott peered down the hallway. He didn’t see the janitor anymore. He inched along the wall, breathing heavily. He couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the furnace. Lisa had told him she would be in the office at the far end of the east hall. He’d had a terrible time getting into the building, and now his bum leg was slowing him down.

He did this. He did that. She did that, and he did, too. It gets old – fast. Many seasoned writers recognize this and have worked on ways to avoid the monotony of he-did-she-did. Sometimes, though, they end up with a new pet sentence structure.

He did this. He did that. He needs to change up his sentence structure.Click To Tweet

Some writers favor introductory clauses. While it’s perfectly acceptable to use introductory clauses, the resulting rhythm is sort of sing-songy. If you read the paragraph above out loud, you’ll notice the effect. Other authors have a penchant for participle phrases.

Blowing loud bubbles with her hot-pink gum, the receptionist eyed me wearily. She thumbed toward the elevator, jerking her head in the same direction. Trying to maintain my composure, I stared straight ahead and made for the elevator.

This style does add sugar and spice to your narrative style, but not if the whole book is written that way.

Other patterns include writing sentences that are all about the same length, using too many adjectives or adverbs, overusing eye-catching punctuation like dashes and ellipses (and don’t get me, or any editor, started on exclamation points), perfectly equal usage of subordinate and coordinate clauses, starting every paragraph the same way, and trying to sound like a 19th-century poet instead of a normal person.

8 practical exercises for not repeating sentence structure

Exercise 1

Take a piece you’re working on and conduct a search for the following words: but (at the beginning of a sentence), and (at the beginning of a sentence), actually, obviously, really, very, so, totally, kind of, seems, suddenly, probably, just, a lot, and maybe. Delete most of them. Make that all of them. On a later read-through, you’ll know if you need to put any of them back.

Exercise 2

Write a paragraph (250–400 words) in which all of the sentences have the exact same number of words. Try seven, which is the number Ursula Le Guin uses in a similar exercise in Steering the Craft. This connects you more intimately with what it feels like to be intentional in the number of words that go into a sentence. It helps you whittle your sentences down to their most powerful, incisive form. It also gives you fodder for the next exercise…

Exercise 3

Take that paragraph and rewrite it several times in several different ways. Try combining two or three sentences here and there, cutting others down or deleting them altogether. Throw in a one-word sentence. Or for a challenge, try to write the whole thing as one long sentence. Note: the short sentences add punch or intensity. The long ones swell up with power and emotion; they don’t let you settle into comfort again until they’ve filled you, enraptured you, and absconded with your entire afternoon; they propel you toward each next moment, so that when it hits – it hits. You nearly drop the book. And the short sentences hold these grand moments together.

Exercise 4

Speaking of run-on sentences, your fourth assignment is to break a few rules. Write a page-long sentence, or one that’s utterly incomplete. Use the passive voice. Start a few sentences with the word ‘but’ (and then delete most of them; see Exercise 1). You have to play to learn! We know that kids learn by playing, that animals learn by playing, but then as adults, we stop playing and get stuck in these ridiculous, rule-bound ruts. That doesn’t mean chucking the whole lexicon out the window onto the open highway. It doesn’t mean shirking good research. (As Mark Twain famously said, ‘It takes a heap of sense to write good nonsense.’) But if we want to shape words into new things, we’ve got to use them like clay – no, like playdough. Be the kid with a lump of dough, poking little fingers in and plucking long tendrils out; the squish and thwuck of the material is sufficient, watching the thing take shape under your hands is sufficient, sneaking a taste of the dough when no one’s looking is positively requisite. If you’re going to enjoy the craft, you cannot be too caught up in whether or not the initial outcome completely sucks. It probably will. For the thing to take form at all, it must be played with.

Playing with language will give you a less rigid approach to sentence structure.Click To Tweet

Exercise 5

Make friends with grammar. Now that you’ve gone and twisted it all out of shape, make amends by knowing grammar’s laws and limits. Know the difference between ‘would’ and ‘used to’ when talking about things long past. Learn the subtle differences between gerunds and infinitives. Google ‘past perfect tense’ and make sure you’re using it correctly, rather than stylistically. When you are a student of language, it pulls you into its patterns and frees you from the effort to cram it into the shape of bad habits.

Exercise 6

Try intentionally starting a few sentences off exactly the same way, as in Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box Miracle: My Spiritual Journey of Destiny, Healing and Hope:

Dance. Dance for the joy and breath of childhood. Dance for all children, including that child who is still somewhere entombed beneath the responsibility and skepticism of adulthood.

You could even try a little parallelism, à la Scott Russell Sanders in ‘Under the Influence’:

If my father was unstable, I would be a rock. If he squandered money on drink, I would pinch every penny. If he wept when drunk – and only when drunk – I would not let myself weep at all. If he roared at the Little League umpire for calling my pitches balls, I would throw nothing but strikes.

Understanding how to use this device purposefully will make you less likely to do it accidentally.

Exercise 7

You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: expunge your work of most adjectives and adverbs. Consider how few are necessary to paint a vivid picture. You might have in mind exactly what your Russian spy minor character from subplot level 3 looks like, but you do not want your readers to see her exactly the way you see her. You want them to picture her in the way that is most vivid for them. So you use cues to create a visual framework – say, the spy is tall and has thin, cold lips. You don’t need to go into hair color, clothing style, eyes, cheekbones, any of that. By casting the framework, you catalyze your reader’s imagination, putting them right in the story, as a participant in the creative process. I can’t resist including this example from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

…they were married in her mistress’s great parlor, and her mistress herself adorned the bride’s hair with orange-blossoms, and threw over it the bridal veil, which could scarce have rested on a fairer head; and there was no lack of white gloves, and cake and wine, of admiring guests to praise the bride’s beauty, and her mistress’s indulgence and liberality.

There are very few details (count the adjectives and adverbs), but the reader is in that parlor. The white gloves and wine are all attached to other things, arms and tables and decanters. The thrill of orange blossoms against dark hair subsumes my need to know what her dress looked like, what kinds of tablecloths were draped about, or any of the other details so often deemed necessary for painting a scene.

Over-description leads to repetition of sentence structure.Click To Tweet

Exercise 8

Host a Hemingway contest with your friends. The famously terse author wrote this six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Get your writer friends (or for added amusement, your non-writer friends) and see who can come up with the most compelling six-word story.

Sentence structure isn’t everything

You have your Faulkners (upwards of 1200 words in one shot); your Hemingways (driving, short, rhythmic, you can read a whole novel in an afternoon); your Frederick Buechners (you could chew and digest a shank steak in the time it takes to decipher one of his extraordinary sentences). Your style matters. The story matters. It’s just that a little syntactical creativity can go a long way to improving your voice and giving a better foundation for your story.

In the comments today, I’d like to take a more actionable angle. Take this sentence and recast it: I bought a pound of cheese yesterday. You can add words or clauses, but the meaning of the sentences has to remain the same. The structure can be great, clever, horrific, purple through-and-through, whatever you like. Have some fun with this one.

And, for more great advice on this topic, check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words and 5 Ways Your Paragraphs Are Broken (That You Can Fix).

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26 thoughts on “Here’s How To Vary Your Sentence Structure”

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Bethany! This is a great example of showing readers something about your character without having to tell them outright. You also made me laugh out loud with the “third time this week.”

      Best,
      Rebecca Langley

    1. Nice, Leanna! I like the subtle character work in here, and the addition of “entire” gives me a great visual of the wife discovering that the whole pound of cheese is gone…after a day. I appreciate your contribution.

      Best,
      Rebecca Langley

  1. For love, I bought a pound of cheese today; its price was steep and its odor was foul—putrid, really—and it came at the added cost of twenty minutes in line behind a gentleman who reeked of Saturday night; and yet this cheese, this sixteen-ounce hunk of coagulated milkfat squeezed from some unfortunate beast, was nonetheless my ticket into that breathtaking heaven for which I would endure any hardship or pay any price: her smile.

    Okay, I went a bit far. But you did say have some fun.

    Fantastic article.

    1. Hi, Cedi, wow! What a delightfully hilarious sentence. I’m glad you had fun with it, because I had fun reading it. And ‘coagulated’ is such a rich word, isn’t it?

      I appreciate your compliment on the article too, and hope you find it supportive in your own authorial pursuits.

      Best,
      Rebecca

  2. Why did I fight her all those years? I could have watched some of the really dumb TV shows she liked, but I really hate a laugh-track; I do not need to be told where to laugh. And food? I could have tried some of the cheeses she liked. But I can’t stand Roquefort. It’s been six months since she died and I desperately need some of her back. I watched Modern Family before going to the store. I bought a pound of cheese yesterday.

    My wife of forty-five years died three years ago and that’s exactly what I did for all those years. Those thoughts have been in my mind for the three years since. Your prompt brought them to the surface, thank you. No, I haven’t watched any sit-coms or eaten Roquefort. The first is mind stultifying and the second is absolutely vile.

    Thank you for that very informative article.

    Paul

    1. Hi, Paul. Thanks for this poignant and vivid contribution. I appreciate how cathartic writing can be, and thank you for your vulnerability. My sympathies with regard to your wife. I had to re-read your post three times to really let it sink in.
      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  3. Magic was brewing inside the pot, bubbling, flowing like molten gold. I fiddled with my double-prong fork, eyeing the platter of oblong cuts of bread as the aroma called out to me. I bought a pound of cheese yesterday. Gruyere. Lucy brought the crockpot, an old wedding gift long hidden in the back of the cupboard, like the happier days of our youth. She gave one more stir. “Dig in.”

    1. Hi, Wass. Thanks for jumping in! I love how much is hidden between the lines in this excerpt. You paint a great picture.
      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  4. amanda kelley-goodhew

    Seriously, what was I thinking at the deli yesterday? Who needs a pound of cheese? I guess it’s cheese and crackers at book-club this month.

  5. The recipe called for a pound of cheese. I stared, bewildered by the multicolored cellophane wrappers, impatient customers vying for my spot. On impulse, I chose a French one, Roquefort, sounded sophisticated, impressive, like I knew my cheese. The cashier turned up her nose.
    “You like that?”
    “It’s my favorite.”

    1. Hi, Frank. Thanks for the laugh. 🙂 The question, is, does anyone like Roquefort? Or does it exist as a sort of massive sociological practical joke?
      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  6. The recipe called for a pound of cheese. I stared, bewildered by the multicolored cellophane wrappers, impatient customers vying for my spot. On impulse, I chose a French one, Roquefort, sounded sophisticated, impressive, like I knew my cheese. The cashier turned up her nose.
    “You like that?”
    “It’s my favorite.”

  7. “It have to have something wrong with that pound of cheese I buy yesterday for $1.00 and is 50 cents today.”

    Thanks much for this informative and thought-provoking article.
    God Bless

    1. Hi, Gregory. Thanks for this humorous contribution. Happens all the time, doesn’t it?
      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  8. You have written a terrific article. I very much appreciate your eight instructive exercises with illuminating examples. Thanks for helping us “think out-of-the-box”. I will be reviewing and strengthening my body of work as a result.

  9. Hi, Jim. Thanks so much for your feedback. I’m glad you found the article supportive, and I hope it helps you in your continued growth as a writer. Onward and upward!
    Best wishes,
    Rebecca Langley

  10. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, and have always kept my eyes on how it’s done so that I can learn from what others do, or don’t do. So, I haven’t had much trouble in varying my sentences.

    I like your advice here though. There are some good tips. I’d like to try this trick of yours in re-writing short sentences in other creative ways.

    While I was at work, my taco-lover wife sent me a text: “Cheese please!”

    1. Hi, Adam. I’m glad you found some added value here. It’s great that you read so much and learn from it.

      I like your contribution, too. It made me smile…and kind of put me in the mood for tacos, full disclosure.

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  11. Cheese, a pound and a half, sits alone on the top shelf of my refrigerator staring back at me. I bought it yesterday with a cheap bottle of wine from the corner store below my apartment. The wine is gone but the cheese sits there awaiting its chance to flee those cold confines and the thick plastic smothering it.

    I need therapy 😉

    1. Love it! For me the problem is the wine AND cheese disappear long before I promised myself they’d last till. 🙂

  12. While at the shops on my day off yesterday, I took my time perusing the rows and rows of dark wooden shelves; heavily laden with every cheese imaginable: crumbly, dry, well cultured, besotted with tart wines or soused in sour brine, sharp, complex, mild— all the irresistible flavors, all the heady scents, all ruminating in my mouth; shouting, “Pick me! I’m the best,” while I paced, much like a hungry lion in the tall Savanna grasses, until, at last, walking forward with my prized choice and laying it humbly on the counter before this proud purveyor, I bought an entire pound of raw sheep’s milk cheddar.

    I am in the process of self editing my first novel and procrastinating, despite the fact I should be doing precisely what your article is advising, at the moment. Thanks for the prompt!

    1. Rebecca Langley

      Hi, Joan. I enjoyed your contribution, and now I am hungry for cheese. ” Heady scents” – spot on.

      Good luck with your novel, that’s very exciting. If you need a second pair of eyes, you know where to find ’em!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  13. Yesterday, I went out and bought yet another pound of a cow’s best product; that rich, creamy substance that would blanket every otherwise bland dish; the most wondrous blend of colbyjack and pepperjack cheese.

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