Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).