Category Archives: sentence types

On Properly Narrating an Incipient Execution: Varying Sentence Lengths

In my last article, I talked about the four basic types of sentences in the English language: the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the compound-complex sentence. Now that you know what to use, let’s talk about how to use them.

The basic tenet that you should remember about sentences of any kind is that you must vary them. Let’s take an example.

As Gudrun approached Fokker Castle, she saw the soldiers forming a long, black-coated guard line, and knowing a frontal attack would fail, she wondered if the cunning woman, Ursula, had given her enough poppy essence put them all to sleep, for she knew it would be necessary to break through the line in order to reach the evil Baroness von Fokker, who had depleted the entire countryside of young virgins in order to bathe in their blood, thinking it would preserve her youthful features.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but who wants to have to read long-winded sentences like that? Let’s try varying it.

As Gudrun approached Fokker Castle, she saw the soldiers forming a long, black-coated guard line. A frontal attack would fail. She wondered if the cunning woman, Ursula, had given her enough poppy essence to put them all to sleep. Once inside the castle, she must kill the evil Baroness von Fokker, who had depleted the countryside of young virgins in order to bathe in their blood, and then, she must cut the noblewoman’s heart out.

Shuddering, the young warrior woman recalled that the baroness believed bathing in virgin blood would preserve her youthful features. For Gudrun, too, was young, and she had kept her vow of chastity.

In the above example, I turned the first passage into six sentences. I included a complex sentence, a simple sentence, a compound-complex sentence, and a compound sentence. I also broke the single paragraph into two paragraphs. All of the sentences are 36 words or fewer, which is about the right length for the average sentence. And the result is much easier to read.

That’s all fine for those of you who like long sentences (disclosure: I am among you), but what about really short sentences? Should you vary those too?

Yes, you should. A series of really short sentences is good for effect, but only sparingly. For the most part, using really short sentences results in your writing having a staccato effect. Not even Hemingway, the master of the short, simple sentence, wrote this way all of the time.

Let’s take an example of a series of short sentences.

Gudrun entered Fokker Castle by the servants’ gate. She crossed the courtyard. She saw no one in the courtyard. Nevertheless, she drew her cloak over her head. She did not want anyone to recognize her as out of place. Recognition meant that she would become the baroness’ next victim.

Then she entered the great hallway. There she paused and studied her map. She had drawn the map based on information from an escaped servant. The servant had instructed her to take the far right door. That door led to the kitchen. A dumbwaiter inside the kitchen would take her to Baroness von Fokker’s sitting chambers. The trick lay in getting into the dumbwaiter. She did not want the kitchen maids to catch her.

Honestly, this is just too monotonous to work as a narrative of a warrior woman about to kill a foul murderer! Most of the sentences are simple sentences, and they come one right after another with no variation. Let’s see what we can do.

Gudrun entered Fokker Castle by the servants’ gate and crossed the courtyard. Though she saw no one in the courtyard, nevertheless she drew her cloak over her head; she could not risk anyone recognizing her as out of place. If anyone did recognize her, she would be taken to the baroness, and Gudrun would become her next victim.

She entered the great hallway, and then she paused to study her map. Gudrun had drawn the map based on information from a servant who had escaped with her life. The servant girl had instructed her to take the far right door. That door led to the kitchen. And inside of the kitchen, a dumbwaiter could take her straight to Baroness von Fokker’s sitting chambers.

The trick lay in getting into the dumbwaiter without the kitchen maids catching her.

In the above example, I used a simple sentence, a complex sentence, a compound sentence, and a compound-complex sentence. All of the sentences are relatively short, under 30 words each. This sort of variation adds interest to the paragraphs and prevents them from becoming monotonous.

Complicated? Not really. You already talk in this way – and with practice, you can write as naturally as you can speak.