One of the main things I change when I’m editing is sentence structure. So many writers focus on the story, the plot, the characters, but they don’t spend the time they should on the mechanics of writing. One of those mechanics is sentence structure.
Here’s an example paragraph:
“She picked up the baby. She put him in his car seat. She tickled him under his chin. He giggled. She got behind the wheel. She drove to the grocery store. She hummed as she drove.”
Obviously, the issue is that every sentence is about the same length and follows the subject-verb-object structure.
“She picked up the baby and put him in his seat, tickling him under his chin. He giggled. Climbing behind the wheel, she drove to the store, humming along with the radio.”
So we have two long sentences with a short sentence in the middle. Guess which one stands out?
Use sentence lengths to focus attention in a paragraph. If you have a sentence that should really pop, make it short and nestle it in longer sentences. Or let it stand alone on a line by itself, with longer paragraphs above and below.
On the other hand, if you’re writing an action scene, stack up those short sentences. Think about the last time someone described an exciting car chase scene from a movie to you. They probably used shorter and shorter sentences, their speaking voice got louder, and their tone of voice was higher and higher. They probably used exclamations, like “Bam!” They didn’t have a lot of description.
Write the same way. Use sentence lengths and structures, especially exclamations set off from the rest of the prose–love those dashes here!–with short paragraphs to build suspense and excitement.
I think the reason that sentence structure jars in normal copy is that instinctively we know it should be used for action, and when it’s not, it just feels weird. It’s jerky, start-and-stop. It doesn’t flow.
In quieter scenes, link shorter sentences into longer ones, especially if the same character does several actions in a row, and use those descriptors. This is where lyrical writing can shine, and characterization can really come out.
Just keep an eye on your verbs. Make sure you don’t go from “come” “show” “yell” to “holding.” Keep your tenses together. I actually go through sentences and identify the subject and verb(s) to make sure they match. Yes, I really do. It’s takes seconds once you get in the habit. That’s part of the editing process.
I think sometimes people use boring, repetitive sentence structures because they’ve been yelled at in the past for dangling modifiers. They didn’t really understand what they did wrong, so they just became cautious about sentence structure. Read my post, “Don’t dangle!” for more on that, but don’t be afraid of starting a sentence with a past-participle phrase, like, “Donning her favorite dress, she left the house.” As long as the subject is the same for both sides of the comma — “she” donned and left — you’re okay.
Look on sentence structure as another tool in your writer’s toolbox. It’s great if you can weave a great plot or create characters your readers miss when the book is done, but if the writing itself is boring or repetitive, they won’t love the book they way they could have.