Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sentence length: Too long or too short?

Could you read that? Did you understand it?

Way back in the eighteenth century, or thereabouts, sentences were long because ladies sat in their drawing rooms, while Mama read out the latest book, sentence by sentence, for the young women to dissect, also sentence by sentence, comma by semicolon, while they all discussed all the descriptions therein. It was only after a page or three they would stop to work out the actual story behind the sentences. These days an editor would put a big fat red line (or possibly a track changed red comment) on the opening sentence of this blog and say “49 words. Too long. Cut into 3 short sentences for clarity”.

Readers today want their description in bite-sized chunks. They don’t want to stop and decide whether the punctuation required an extra comma or semicolon here or there, or if the curtains on the withdrawing room windows would have been prettier with an extra ruffle of French lace. They want to know if the villain catches the hero right now.

As a fiction author, your job is to keep the reader reading right to the very last line of the book. Only then do you want them wondering about window decorations or anything other than the characters and what is happening to them.

Of course you do need to vary the sentence structure somewhat. Every sentence starting with “The hero…” gets boring fast and will not keep the reader entertained. As for the curtains, show them flapping in the breeze, the French lace billowing (or whatever). Your reader will fill the gaps to their own satisfaction.

And yes, sentences can be too short. Fragmentary. Boring. Although fragments can add a lot of tension to a pivotal scene. But don’t do it too often.
Keep writing!

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

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