Sentence Length: The Long and Short Of It

New writers are always told about the importance of sentence length. Long sentences slow down the action and are useful for description and to give a sense of time. Short sentences speed things up, create tension and don’t give the reader time to think. That’s all very well, but how do you go about pulling this off? That’s what I intend to look at in this post.

The Long

So, long sentences. You’ve seen them before. We all have.

Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack who liked ice cream. Jack’s mother was a horrible old woman who liked nothing better than to prod his backside with a hot fork. To be honest with you, Jack’s life was pretty rubbish.

As you can see, a long sentence gives plenty of time to convey ideas and develop the story, without rushing the reader along or forcing things. With a long sentence, we can span seconds, days, or even years. We can take the reader to a new place and have them snugly back at home within the same paragraph. The long sentence is where it’s at when you’re talking about a writer “playing God”.

The Short

Now, short sentences are another beast entirely.

Arrows flew from the left and right. He stumbled, went to ground. Crack! One buried itself in a tree. He scrambled away. Then, a burning pain in his leg. He tried to scream, but no sound came. The hunters closed in. This was it. The end.

It’s actually a lot harder to write short sentences, in my opinion. Especially in the case of the above example, when you’re trying to make most of it short sentences. The beauty of keeping it short, is that you instantly build tension and create a sense of fear, danger and desperation. Every sentence is a split-second flash of action. A snippet of consciousness. A rushed reaction. This is a story taking place at a blinding speed–so fast that the reader gets carried with it and doesn’t have time to think.

A Final Thought

Think of the difference between sentence lengths like the difference between a slow-building drama and a summer action blockbuster. You need a mixture of both to keep things rolling. Not too much, but not too little. Getting the balance right is difficult and I can happily admit I’ve not got it down to a tee in any way. Practice is the key. Oh, and reading. Not just reading for pleasure, but also reading to analyse technique, style and structure.


One thought on “Sentence Length: The Long and Short Of It

  1. mqallen 12-Aug-2012 / 20:30

    I also find short sentences good for when trying to convey interior monologue when the character is either agitated or trying to react to a sudden change. In this case, short questions can also be useful.

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