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Posted Friday, November 11, 2011, at 2:21 PM

A dramatic tone, especially in an action scene, can be demonstrated by using short, punchy sentences. Short sentences speed up the reading, and the overall impression of the segment. Say you're writing a scene with a car chase. Lots of action and speed. Cars jump the curb, knocking over the ubiquitous flower cart. And all of this takes place on a page that fly by, thanks, in part, to short, swift sentences.

One the other hand, if you're writing a romantic segment, one with a candlelit dinner set out on a linen-covered table and mood music playing in the background, your sentences will be long and flowing, both to slow down the reading and to match the mood of the scene.

But even within these two examples, you'll want to vary the length of your sentences. Sentences that are all the same length feel monotonous and read the same way. Below is an example of a paragraph that does an excellent job of varying sentence length:

The light changed. I couldn't keep my news bottled up any longer. "The manager told me if it were up to him, I'd be breaking camp with the big-league team," I blurted out. I paused a second before adding that the team's executives had agreed with the manager. For now.
(From "The Natural,"Guideposts, July 2009.)

Notice how the paragraph starts out with a short, three-word sentence. Then a slightly longer one, followed by two that are longer yet. Then it ends with a two-word sentence fragment. That sentence fragment at the end changes the entire tone of the paragraph. The author is relating a bit of good news. But those two words at the end - for now - hint that the good news could change at any time. It gives the reader a sense of forboding. Oh, no, what's going to happen next? It's a great way to end the paragraph.

And just as paragraph should end with its strongest sentence, a sentence should end with its most important word(s). The reader tends to better remember the sentence or word at the end, giving it more weight. If you bury the importance sentence or word, the impact is greatly diminished.

Another example:

Two weeks, later, the dog was dead.
(From I Am Legend by Richard Matheson)

What the reader takes away from that sentence is a feeling of grief. The dog is dead. But if you take that exact sentence and flip it, you get:

The dog was dead two weeks later.

It's the same words, but the meaning has been changed. Yes, the dog is still dead, but what the reader feels most is the time period - two weeks later.

And what about sentence fragments? Your computer program will scold you with a squiggly underline that indicates you've done something wrong. But as far as I'm concerned, sentence fragments are a great tool. I use them often, usually to add some punch to the message, just as the writer of the Guideposts paragraph did.


For me, not so good. I had a strong first few days, then, toward the end of the first week, with about thirty pages under my belt, I started to lose steam. And I thought they were pretty good pages, those I'd completed. They were clean, hopefully to need little editing when I'd revisit them down the road. But then I started to stumble. In the past couple of days I've barely squeezed out a page a day. At this rate I'm slipping farther and farther behind in my goal of 1,600 words a day, and I find myself becoming discouraged. I suspect the problem is that I've always been such an outliner, and by jumping in with both feet, so to speak, and without the benefit of a carefully constructed outline, I have written myself into the proverbial corner. But I'm not quitting.

"The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Bit of Promotion:

Don't forget, Sunday, November 20th, is the date for Arts on Grand's annual Holiday Book Fair. Many area authors will be there, including Roger Stoner, of Peterson, with his new book, Horse Woman's Child, and Hartley favorite Betty Taylor, with her books The Earth Abides and Dear Folks. We'll also have copies of the brand new, fourth Midwest anthology, Make Hay While the Sun Shines, which is so fresh off the presses that the ink is barely dry. The Holiday Book Fair is an excellent opportunity to support the arts, and to pick up a few Christmas gifts at the same time!

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Thanks, Jean! A good reminder about the power of well-constructed and well-worded sentences. The art of good writing requires attention both to sentence length and intended message.

-- Posted by like2read on Sat, Nov 12, 2011, at 2:55 PM

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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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