Sentence Length Variance

If you read enough books, you can gain an understanding of sentence length variance without really knowing what you’re learning. And when you sit down to write, you’ll follow the style and flow of your favorite authors, using short sentences if they used short sentences, and going on long-winded, semicolon-dotted tirades describing the contents of a store room if they went on long-winded, semi… okay, you get it. But if you do need it spelled out for you, consider this quote:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

— Gary Provost

I love and hate this paragraph. I love it because it’s dead-on. I have not seen a piece of writing advice that encapsulates rhythm and flow like this one. And I absolutely hate it because I wish I had been clever enough to think of it first.

Being aware of the flow of your words is paramount. It’s another layer of storytelling. It’s more than what you’re saying; it’s how you’re saying it. Can stilted language create anxiety? Or long sentences fatigue? Or any length any emotion?

If a character is overwhelmed, I’ll run a sentence into the ground until everyone is exhausted. If a character is scared or angry, their dialogue will be short, clipped. How fast the reader gets through the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the chapter… all of it matters. When do they stop for air? When does it all become too much?!

I finished another chapter in Book V this morning, so I loaded it up intent on counting the number of words in each sentence. When that got too tedious, I decided to count the number of words in each paragraph. After all, those need variance too, right? Too many big blocks of text and the reader’s going to go watch YouTube.

So I counted up the words. 2,106 words in 79 paragraphs. Smallest paragraph: 1 word. Longest paragraph: 95 words. Average paragraph: 27.

Here’s what it looks like:

paragraph_word_counts

I like short sentences. They have drama. Power.

Longer sentences are great too, especially when they’re drawing the reader in, showing them things they may have missed, expanding on ideas in a thousand different ways to show them the hopelessness of the character’s plight.

I was glad to see there was plenty of variance in paragraph length. I think I tend towards shorter paragraphs because of the way it looks on the page, so there’s definitely an aesthetic consideration at work here as well.

When I look at the shortest of sentences and take into account their content, it’s almost as if they serve as punctuation marks for groups of sentences. A handful of regular-sized paragraphs followed by a short stinger.

“Watch me,” said, Armando, tossing a wad of paper towels into the trash can. He hurried out of the bathroom, wanting to get away from Jimmy and Ethan and the office and the horrible malaise that was slowly enveloping him. It was as if reality had developed a feel to it, a weightiness, one he was only aware of now that he’d been outside of it. Standing beneath the falls, standing on the bleak emptiness of existence, he’d felt free, almost… clean.

That was the word he was searching for.

Reality was a shroud he was forced to wear. It weighed him down, connected him to the simulation. If he could break free of it, he would also break free of its feel, its smell and taste—just everything about it. He could shed it all.

But first he’d have to make it back to the underworld.

The Rogue sputtered, growled.

I could see another writer combining the first three paragraphs, just letting it all run together. But to have a single sentence on a line by itself imparts importance, a clear clue to the reader that they should pay attention, something interesting just happened.

Anyhow, I was just thinking about this today. I hope you think about it too.

Because if I preview your Kindle book and am greeted with a page with no paragraphs breaks, I’m probably not going to read it. I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo.