I live in the heart of a medieval Dutch city and everything in my neighborhood is made of bricks: the cathedrals and cafes, the old houses and the new houses, the streets, parking lots, bike paths, garden walls. Everything. But if you’re picturing some red-brown dystopia of uniform cubic edifices—like a city of American elementary schools or prisons—you’re far from the mark.
The variety of architectural style here is endless. Thousands of different sizes, shapes, and shades of brick are combined into unique patterns and structures to form vistas that take one’s breath away. No two buildings are alike and each alley has its own personality.
As an author, you are an architect, and every sentence you write is a brick. (Hopefully that’s obvious at this point and you don’t just think I’m obsessed with fired clay blocks.) Readers want interesting prose architecture. They respond to the flow, rhythm, and patterns of writing. And nothing makes prose more tedious to read than a bunch of sentences crammed together which are all the same length, complexity, and style.
Length & Complexity
Theoretically, a sentence can be as long or short, as simple or complex, or as lyrical or prosaic as the author wants. But the 1,000-word run-on sentences of Faulkner and the stark simplicity of Hemingway’s prose are the exception. Most sentences can be categorized pretty easily.
First, you’ve got your simple sentences:
The horse leaped over the fence.
Then there are your compound sentences:
The horse leaped over the fence and galloped down the road.
And finally, there are complex sentences:
As the horse leaped over the fence, Priyanka held on for dear life, her fingers tight on the reins.
But it doesn’t stop there. Plenty of authors also use clauses, fragments, or even single words as separate sentences. Let’s look at an example that uses a variety:
The horse’s hooves pounded the ground as it galloped toward the fence. Priyanka held onto the reins for dear life. There was a rush of wind and a cloud of dust, then a burst of blue sky as the horse leaped clear over the barrier that had confined it for so many years. Bam! Its hooves slammed down onto the grass. Freedom.
By writing this way, the prose is given a unique rhythm. Certain moments are emphasized more than others because of their presentation.
You’ve got to be careful with using too many fragments or one-word sentences, as they can become distracting or make the prose choppy. To learn when and how to do this more effectively, check out the article “Sentence Structure: Clauses and Phrases.”
The trick with pulling off a really long or complex sentence is precision grammar. Commas can be your best tool to make a lengthy sentence clear and easy-to-follow. To learn when and how to do this more effectively, check out the article “Grammar Rules: Periods and commas and Semis.”
Contrary to what may seem obvious, using lots of short sentences can actually slow down the flow of prose more than using long sentences. Every period is a stop sign, a red light, a full stop. If you want the story to rush forward, try using longer sentences.
Let’s consider a scene described two ways. Which conjures a speedier pace of action in your head?
The sheriff drew his gun. He fired three quick shots. Bang! Bang! Bang! The bullets tore through the outlaw as he tried to run. The outlaw fell into the dust, arms raised. His mouth was open in an empty scream. He was dead. The echo of the shots hadn’t even faded away down the canyon.
The sheriff drew his gun and fired three quick shots. The bullets tore through the outlaw as he tried to run and he fell into the dust, arms raised, mouth open in an empty scream. He was dead before the echo of the shots had faded away down the canyon.
How to Analyze
It can be difficult to sit back and review your own writing objectively, but through a combination of editing techniques, you can get better at recognizing and polishing the way you differentiate your sentences.
First, read your story in your head, as any other reader would. Read it again, this time out loud. Next, highlight the text and have your computer read it aloud to you. (Many computers have this feature built in, but if yours doesn’t, there are sites online that will do it for you.) Finally, you can copy and paste the text onto one of the many free ‘analyze my writing’ websites. These will not only give you information like your story’s word count, reading level, and most commonly used words, but may also tell you the average number of words per sentence and highlight your longest and shortest sentences.
If you notice that you aren’t differentiating your sentences as much as you should be, experiment. Try breaking up long sentences. Try combining short sentences. How do these changes alter the way the prose reads, feels, and flows?
Back to Bricks
I love listening to the tinkling hammers of the bricklayers at work on the streets here and watching their craftsmanship. Whenever the road they are laying comes up against a barrier—the curb, a lamppost, trees—the bricklayer just grabs a brick from the pile, looks it over with a keen eye, then strikes it with a special hammer. Part of the brick breaks off, leaving behind a unique shape. The new shape almost always fits exactly as it should with the first swing of the hammer. It’s popped in place and the alley looks perfect.
Choosing the right size and style of sentence can help you fine-tune the pacing and emotion in a scene. Each of your sentences should have something to say. It needs focus. It needs to be more than pretty words. It needs to propel the story forward and keep the reader’s gaze moving smoothly across the page.
By purposely differentiating your sentences—never randomly, but based on the effect the changes have on the prose—you can create a beautiful piece of story architecture.