Monthly Archives: May 2009

Altering Sentence Structure, Part 2

Including fragments is only one way a writer can create sentence structure variety. Another is to begin sentences with something other than their subjects (or the attending adjectives). Possible sentence openers include prepositional phrases (e.g. in the house), participial (words that are verb forms) phrases (e.g. waving her hand), adverbs, and even conjunctions.

Here are some examples, taken from Stephen R. Lawhead’s latest novel, Tuck:

Prepositional phrases:

At the cookhouse, he begged a bite to eat and a cup of something to drink, and found the kitchener most obliging.

Participial phrases:

Stepping past the gaoler [jailer], Tuck pushed the door open farther and relieving the porter of his torch, entered the cell.

A series (and mixture) of phrases;

Upon reaching the foot of the fortress mound, Tuck worked his way along the rising, switchback path towards the entrance.

Single word adverb:

Again, a slight hint of a grimace crossed the earl’s face.

Adverbial phrase:

That night at supper, Bran baited and set the snare to catch Wolf Hugh.


And while he told himself that paying monks to pray souls from hell was a luxury he could ill afford, dep in his heart of hearts he knew only too well …

A key point to remember is that varying your sentence structure is something to do during revision, not something to worry about in your first draft, or even in your first rewrite. First get the story down, then work to pretty it up!



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Altering Sentence Structure, Part 1

You probably remember from high school English that there are three basic types of sentences: simple, compound, and complex. Of course, there is the hybrid, compound-complex, so I guess that makes four types. When I say writers should vary sentence structure, am I saying we need one of each of these basic types in every paragraph?

Not exactly.

A writer can utilize a healthy mixture of these basic types, of course, but there are other ways to create variety.

The fragment. In formal writing, the kind we learned to do for school, using fragments is a no-no. Not so in fiction, especially in dialogue. The fact is, we rarely speak in complete sentences in real life, so our fiction characters certainly should be allowed to use fragments, too.

But even in non-fiction and in the narrative parts of our fiction, fragments can be effective. I hope you already picked up on the fragments I used earlier in this post to illustrate the point. Fragments are a great change of pace, which means they are eye-catching, attention-arresting, thought-stirring.

They should be used judiciously, which means they should not be used too frequently or for no particular purpose. They are special because they are not the norm, and as such they should be reserved for special occasions.

When sprinkled into the text with thought, fragments can give needed refreshment to prose.


Filed under Sentence structure