Sentence Length Matters: The Anatomy of a Perfect Paragraph
Before we think about it, every sentence we write is pretty much the same. He did X. He did Y. Ready-set-repeat. But this is boring. Apocalyptically boring. And even our seven-year-old selves can figure that much out. Who wants to read an endless laundry list of he-did, she-dids? But figuring out what to do about it, without starting to sound like Yoda? That is an entirely different matter.
What we’ve instinctively recognized is that talking about something interesting is not enough. A good paragraph also has varying sentence lengths, a good rhythm, and a word order that places the emphasis in the right spot. A paragraph that has all of these things, and an interesting subject matter, is a quick and easy read. Without these things, even a pulse-pounding fight scene will prove dense, slogging, and mechanical--at best.
You’d think the solution would be easy, given the problem. Just mess with the sentence structure more, right? But that’s like painting your whole face red to hide one pimple. The problem is not actually the sentence structure—that’s just a symptom. The problem—often anyway--is insufficient variance in the focus, distance, and subject matter discussed. But fixing it is a tricky issue! So, next time you find yourself slipping into he-did, she-dids, are a few tips on how you can break out of that pattern, and find a better rhythm.
Sentence Length Matters
"He could hide within his body. He’d fled to someplace very deep. She’d searched his internal organs. She’d searched his mouth and eyes. She found his soul in his liver. She followed it into a dream." —an incredibly, horribly mutilated quote from The Shadowed Sun (N. K. Jemisin)
When every sentence is the exact same length, as it is in the above mutilated sample (composed entirely of eight-syllable sentences), the effect is monotonous and boring, no matter how exciting the subject matter. But one thing that helps is to make it more specific.
"There were two hundred and fifty-six places he could hide within his own flesh. The soldier dying beneath Hanani’s hands had fled to someplace deep. She had searched his heart and brain and gut. She had searched his mouth and eyes. At last, she found his soul’s trail behind a lobe of his liver. She followed it into a dream of shadowed ruins."—a still very mutilated quote from The Shadowed Sun (N. K. Jemisin)
Much better, right? The details really make it pop. But there’s still more we can do. The two sentences on searching are so close as to be nearly the same: they are the same length, they start with the same three words, and they follow each other, toe-to-heel. There are a few things we can do to help them differentiate themselves. Certainly vary the vocabulary, turning one “searched” into an “examined.” It could also help to eliminate the period after gut, eliminate early excess conjunctions, and add a conjunction to join the two sentences: “She had searched his heart, brain, and gut, and examined his mouth and eyes.” But the result, while fine, is hardly a work of art. To try to tart it up a bit, we could move the first verb to the beginning of the sentence: "Searching his heart, brain, and gut, she examined his mouth and eyes." But while certainly different in structure, that sentence doesn't even make temporal sense. Or, you can do as N. K. Jemisin did and add more details that shift the focus and tell us something about the world and the protagonist—not just the action at hand.
"She had searched his heart and brain and gut, though the soul visited those organs less often than layfolk thought. She had examined his mouth and eyes, the latter with especial care."—The Shadowed Sun (N. K. Jemisin)
There, the two sentences have a poetic balance and a pleasing rhythm, but are totally distinct. As an extra touch, we can apply that conjunction trick to the last two sentences, and use a bit of narrative distance in the first sentence, to give the world more resonant, mythic feel. The resulting paragraph has varying sentence lengths; details about the situation, the world, and the characters; and an excellent flow. It is also the full first paragraph of N. K. Jemisin’s The Shadowed Sun:
"There were two hundred and fifty-six places where a man could hide within his own flesh. The soldier dying beneath Hanani’s hands had fled to someplace deep. She had searched his heart and brain and gut, though the soul visited those organs less often than layfolk thought. She had examined his mouth and eyes, the latter with especial care. At last, behind a lobe of his liver, she found his soul’s trail and followed it into a dream of shadowed ruins."—The Shadowed Sun (N. K. Jemisin)
The Importance of Rhythm and Not Rhyming
" 'Why do I try?' she said with a sigh."
It’s not so much whether you choose a poetic style that has a distinct rhythm and rhyme, or whether you choose an arrhythmic and discordant style—both are totally viable, as is everything in between. It’s about avoiding unintentional rhythms and rhymes—or those incompatible to the scene at hand. Unless you’re going for humor, for instance, I’d stay away from the above example. The proliferation of sibilants, rhyming of “why,” “try,” and “sigh,” and the bouncy rhythm makes this sentence impossible to take seriously, despite the subject matter.
In fact, I’d say it’s pretty much always useful to take the subject matter into consideration, when reviewing your rhythm. In fight scenes, for instance, it’s probably best to use a variety of short, stressed, and unrhymed syllables—avoiding humorous and slower rhythms. In contrast, when setting a pastoral scene, you might want to steer away from those same short, stressed, and unrhymed syllables. And, of course, you always want to avoid the inadvertently hysterical.
Pro Tip: This is where that “read it aloud” bit comes in real handy.
Things, and the Proper Order Thereof
"She screamed at the sight of the alien, who had earlier that morning landed, broken in, and eaten all her doughnuts."
If you drew an arrow along a sentence in the direction it should be read, the ending would be the point. And just so, in a balanced sentence, the ending will likely contain the point. (Unless, of course, there is a literary reason for doing otherwise.) This is because there is a natural flow to sentences, and in that flow, endings have a natural emphasis. We pause right after an ending, giving us more time to appreciate it than any other part. And if we were to say a sentence aloud, it is that last word that would echo.
When you remove the point from the end of the sentence, you risk being confusing, which can break your reader out of the story, and trailing off, which can make your writing feel like it has the hiccups. It can totally be done, of course--just so long as you understand that moving the point shifts the emphasis. In fact, emphasizing the unusual can be awesome for humor as it says something about the narrator’s priorities and state of mind. But doing it just to change up the beginnings of your sentences will often create more problems than it solves.
Of course, there are dozens of things that can go wrong, in a paragraph: Yoda-speak is only the cute, green tip of that iceberg. But when it comes to pursuing the perfect paragraph, just having an awareness of these three things will get you an awfully long way.