In my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.
For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.
Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.
Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.
For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:
Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.
But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:
Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.
The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.
The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in —ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The —ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:
EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.
Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.
Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.
The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.
EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.
When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.
Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.
When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.
Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.
Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.
For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.
Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.
Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.
Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.
In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.
Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.
The choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.
Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.