On the heels of Graeme Brown’s blog last week, and adding to what Christy Caughie blogged about the week before, I thought I’d offer a few tips about sentence structure. Don’t groan. You know it’s a necessary evil if you write. :) And don’t worry. This isn’t a grammar lesson. It’s just some pointers I offer to help your story read well.
Sentence length - Cadence is defined as a “rhythmic sequence or flow” according to Merriam-Webster. How your sentences are strung together is as important as what they say. Consider this example:
Chuck went to the grocery store. There, he looked for the perfect wine. He took forever to find one. Tonight’s date was important. At the check-stand, he stopped. He’d forgotten his wallet.
If you read it out loud, it sounds stilted and, well, boring. Now, if we vary the length:
Chuck searched the wines for the right one. Tonight’s date was important and he needed everything to be perfect. Somewhere around the thirtieth bottle, he found it. A Cabernet, her favorite. He grinned and sprinted for the grocery store check-stand, reaching for his wallet. His absent wallet. Chuck froze as it hit him. He’d left his money at home.
More readable, right? So varying the sentence length, along with some more dynamic word choices, makes this more interesting. Now take a look at your paragraph and make sure you’ve done a couple more things. Is there a purpose? Have you moved the story forward? And will it intrigue the reader? Here’s another draft of the above paragraph:
Chuck searched the wines for the right one, certain he could hear his watch ticking away. Beer, now that he could figure out. But wine? That was Sandy’s department. Tonight’s date was important and he needed everything to be perfect. He glanced down at the label name written in ink on his hand. Somewhere around the thirtieth bottle, he found it. A Cabernet, her favorite. He grinned and sprinted for the grocery store check-stand, reaching for his wallet. His absent wallet. All he pulled out was the small jeweler’s box. Chuck froze as it hit him. He’d left his money at home.
Hopefully, it reads quite a bit more interesting than that first draft. Keeping your reader entertained, whether your story is humorous or dark, is huge. As an editor, I love seeing the author’s excitement shine through like that in a story.
As I re-wrote the paragraph above, you’ll notice that it slowed things down. This moment is important to Chuck. It sets up a series of mishaps over the course of the evening that help Chuck realize some things about himself. But you can imagine quite a bit from this sample, can’t you?
Not every paragraph needs this amount of re-writing or slowing down. I always recommend writers read their work out loud. You’ll hear the cadence and recognize words that sound flat or need powering up. And hopefully you’ll smile. And as editors, we’ll get excited with you.
Laurie Temple is an editor at Champagne Books and writes under the pseudonym Laurie Ryan.