“Simple, short sentences don’t always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive…. Virtually every page is a cliffhanger—you’ve got to force them to turn it.”
Sentence structure influences a passage’s rhythm perhaps more than anything else. Occasionally shifting the subject, predicate, and object will give your writing a pleasing sound.
Listen to the cadence of the following passage.
She slipped into a window seat in the nonsmoking section and placed a slim black case on her lap and leafed through its contents. She latched the case once the plane was in the air, then she glanced briefly at the sunlit Manhattan skyline, let her head fall back, and closed her eyes.
Anne Ellis, thirty-two, was a senior editor at Castle Press, a highly successful publishing house on lower Park Avenue. She was flying to Washington to meet with a man named Hamilton Carver. Every sizable publishing house in New York had sought a meeting with Carver for years. Carver was a financier, developer, and a womanizer who was surrounded by a battery of lawyers and a cadre of bodyguards and he had played as large a part as any man could in changing the face of the eastern seaboard of the United States in the years since 1960. Little was known of his personal life.
The rhythm is as monotonous as a list. Listen, though, to the difference when the constructions vary. This is how Douglass Wallop wrote the first two paragraphs of his novel, The Other Side of the River.
Slipped into a window seat in the nonsmoking section, she placed a slim black case on her lap and leafed through its contents. Once the plane was in the air, she latched the case, glanced briefly at the sunlit Manhattan skyline, let her head fall back, and closed her eyes.
Anne Ellis, thirty-two, was a senior editor at Castle Press, a highly successful publishing house on lower Park Avenue. She was flying to Washington to meet with a man named Hamilton Carver. A meeting with Carver had been sought for years by every sizable publishing house in New York. Financier, developer, womanizer, surrounded by a battery of lawyers and a cadre of bodyguards, Carver in the years since 1960 had played as large a part as any man could in changing the face of the eastern seaboard of the United States. Little was known of his personal life.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
One of the best ways to avoid a tedious series of simple sentences is to combine the information in one sentence using subordinate clauses and phrases.
There are two types of connotation. One is personal. The other is general. Each affects the reader differently.
Two types of connotation, personal and general, leave the reader with varied affects.
Another way to avoid a series of simple sentences is to use coordination (the tying together of language elements that have equal rank, such as independent clauses) to combine several of these sentences into a single, compound sentence.
He watched them.
They were holding themselves.
Their noses were into the current.
They were many trout deep.
Fast moved the water.
There was a slight distortion.
He watched them far down through the surface of the pool.
The surface was glassy and convex.
Its surface pushed and swelled smoothly.
Here’s how Ernest Hemingway wrote the passage in Big Two-Hearted River—
It pushed against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched them far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge.
Compound and complex sentences can become tedious. Sometimes, they’re awkward or confusing. Don’t overload your sentences or your readers. If you find a sentence is becoming too long and confusing, or if you’ve used three or four complex sentences in a row, reverse the process described above and break your sentence up into several shorter sentences.
One of the best ways to discover problems with sentence variety is to read your writing aloud. Human language is primarily oral/aural and secondarily graphic/visual. Most of us have a better ear for language than we have an eye for it. Reading your writing aloud can help you discover problems not only with sentence variety but also with order and emphasis, parallelism, coherence, redundancy, syntax, rhythm, and grammar.
Because readers perceive one element at a time, as you revise for clarity, economy, emphasis, and variety, watch for convoluted sentences.
You might try revising as a periodic sentence—
Beethoven might have remained a talented and serious musician but not much more if he had been restricted to a less enlightened court circle and had not known the Breunings or had not been exposed to the repercussions of the French Revolution.
Revised as a periodic sentence—
If Beethoven had been restricted to a less enlightened circle, had not known the Breunings, had not been exposed to the repercussions of the French Revolution, he might have remained a talented and serious musician but not much more. —Frida Knight, Beethoven and the Age of Revolution
An easy way to avoid monotonous sentences is to vary sentence beginnings.
BEGIN WITH A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE.
In the tumultuous business of cutting-in and attending to a whale, there is much running backwards and forwards among the crew.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
BEGIN WITH MORE THAN ONE PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE.
On this public holiday, as on all other occasions, for seven years past, Hester was clad in a garment of coarse gray cloth.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
BEGIN WITH A SIMILE.
Like a razor also, it seemed massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure.
Edgar Allen Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum
BEGIN WITH AN ADJECTIVE OR SEVERAL ADJECTIVES.
Silent, grim, colossal-the big city has ever stood against its revilers.
O. Henry, “Between Bounds,” The Four Million
BEGIN WITH AN APPOSITIVE.
The elephant, the slowest breeder of all known animals, would in a few thousand years stock the whole world.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
BEGIN WITH AN INFINITIVE.
To see her, and to be himself unseen and unknown, was enough for him at present.
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
BEGIN WITH A GERUND.
Crawling on all fours, I made steadily but slowly toward them; till at last, raising my head to an aperture among the leaves I could see clear down into a little dell beside the marsh, and closely set about with trees, where Long John Silver and another of his crowd stood face to face in conversation.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
BEGIN WITH A MODIFYING CLAUSE.
Start with a subordinator (after, although, as, as if, because, before, if, since, though, unless, until, when, whenever, wherever, while):
When little boys have learned a new bad word, they are never happy until they have chalked it up on a door.
Rudyard Kipling, The Phantom Rickshaw
BEGIN WITH A NOUN CLAUSE.
Start with a relative pronoun or certain subordinators (that, what, whatever, when, where, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose*, why): What exactly he meant when he said he shall return, we may never know.
BEGIN WITH A SUSPENDED TRANSITION.
Scientists, furthermore, had succeeded in creating life, so that human evolution need no longer be left to chance.
Alvin C. Eurich, Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century
A Word of Caution When Combining Sentences With as and -ing Phrases
The as and -ing construction can position two or more actions to occur simultaneously when, in reality, they occur consecutively.
- Grabbing a slice of pizza from the box, she plucked the mushrooms from the slice as she wiped her fingers on a napkin.
- Diving into the water, he picked up a penny resting at the bottom of the pool.
- Entering the store, she bought several yards of fabric.
- Glancing up, Aaron saw that the rope had snagged a limb.
In each example, the actions happen at the same time, which is impossible. Only after Aaron glances up can he see that the rope had snagged a limb. Know what you’re saying, and rewrite such constructions to read accurately.
Aaron glanced up and saw that the rope had snagged a limb.
A glance up revealed that the rope had snagged a limb.
The word whose shows possession. Who’s is a contraction for who is.