close up photo of book pages

Sentence Craft

By Quinn Clancy

I love talking about craft; structures, beats, tips, and tools. I can bore the best of people with my talk about it, but I’ve been advised that probably isn’t the best way to make friends. So I’ve been advised to try blogs to let it all out. Today I want to bring it all back to basics and discuss something that’s possibly not talked about a lot. Sentences. Yeah, I know a lot of you are probably looking at me weirdly at this point going, really sentences? Everybody knows about sentences, sure you can’t write a novel, screenplay, or poem without one.

And that’s true, however, have you ever looked at this basic part of your writing? They do so much for us without us even thinking and are a great tool to have in our toolkit. Now, this is more of an editing tool than a drafting tool, so if you’re tempted to go back and look at your unfinished draft and look at your sentences, please don’t. Please just keep chugging along and finish that draft, you can do it. All of use here at Cupán Fae are rooting for you.

So sentences, there are so many things they do that we don’t even notice. Their length and complexity help us determine the reading level of our readers. Have a look at picture books, they’re all relatively short sentences that convey a simple meaning. Middle grade (I think, I’m a bit wishy-washy on the age categories, to be honest) start having longer sentences, though with less advanced words. The more advanced words tend to be in shorter sentences. And then as an adult (I’m pretty sure I’ve skipped so many categories), you’ve long sentences that could take up almost a paragraph. But not every paragraph, that would make your book, script, or poem very hard to read, even for the most brilliant people.

So sentence length, and the words used in them, can help determine the category your work is placed in. So if you know your market you need to make sure the structure of the sentence is suitable for that audience. And that’s only part of the wonders sentences do for writing. 

Sentences are also one of the only visual tools writers have. I know seems obvious, doesn’t it? But have you thought about the impact that means for your work? Most of my theory here I’m pretty sure I read in Writing Action Scenes by Rayne Hall, so if you want to read into this further that’s a great place to start.

Think back to your junior schooling when you were first learning about grammar, how commas, periods, and the words ‘and’ and ‘but’ give the reader a mental place to pause. It’s ingrained in us, and we can use that old knowledge to help us with our pacing. Yes, our pacing of the story. Our longer sentences can instil a sense of relaxation, the character isn’t rushed and can take their time. While shorter sentences convey immediacy not otherwise felt by the reader in this textual medium. I think of it like short jabs a boxer might pull compared to the slow deliberate moves of Tai Chi. With this in mind, your fighting scenes or other action scenes should feature lots of short sentences to make the reader think they’re reading things happening within seconds of each other.

Which leads to the last discussion on sentence length, monotony. If every sentence has the same length as the last. The reader might get very bored with what you’re saying. But. If everything is short. It rushes them. And you don’t slow down. The reader will get tired. And if everything is long, taking up a lot of the reader’s brainpower and attention for reading that one sentence, then they might get tired of the book and put it down. 

So the obvious answer is to have varying length. It visually keeps the story interesting to the reader, whilst subtlely conveying the information you want. So don’t keep all your short sentences for those action sequences, just have more than usual in there. And if you want to convey that the protagonist is taking their time and meditating or otherwise contemplating life around her. Well, drop in a few longer sentences to slow the reader down to the pace you want to convey.

Poetry is perhaps one of the best ways to look at sentence length and their impact since poems are typically broken up further visually. I’ll take one of my favourites by Gerard Manley Hopkins to leave you with.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Has a lot more oomph than:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; as tumbled over rim in roundy wells stones ring;  like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; each mortal thing does one thing and the same: deals out that being indoors each one dwells; selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. I say móre: the just man justices; keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Quinn Clancy is a writer and programmer from Dublin. Fascinated by fantasy at a small age, she has consumed everything passed down from her equally fantastic minded family. Quinn has been a member of Cupán Fae for three years and has contributed stories to the Cupán Fae Anthologies: Fierce MightyFierce New Worldand Fierce & Proud.

Check out Quinn Clancy’s story ‘Hens of Hell’ in Cupán Fae’s Anthology, Fierce & Proud, now available in paperback and on Kindle.

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