Let’s talk a little about how sentence length changes the reading experience. Consider reading as a movement across physical space. The reader travels across the sentences and paragraphs, taking in information as it is provided, to assemble a cohesive statement from the whole. The passage across those sentences can be smooth or rough, something that is created via sentence length. Long sentences and short sentences have very different effects on the readers’ experience, and writers can use this knowledge to provide the most appropriate sentence style for each type of scene.
With that in mind, consider various passages. The first is an idyllic scene.
Lucian gazed out at the pastoral vista, where white clouds scudded across a cerulean sky, the colors of the coming autumn just beginning to appear on the giant trees that dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. The great river Thenis wound along its ancient trail through the grasslands, its banks dotted by the waterwheels that used the river’s power to grind wheat for the bakeries and farms in the area.
In this first example, it’s clear from the descriptions that this is a calm moment in the story. The reader is given the outline of a visual vista and can take the time to imagine other details as she or he reads the extended descriptions provided. In terms of “looking under the hood,” there’s something important to note in the passage above—there are only two sentences in the entire paragraph.
When writing pastoral scenes, or scenes where there is no tension or action, I encourage writers to “let go” so to speak, and paint a scene with long, broad strokes. Long sentences are fine; details add to the reality of the scene. The reader gets a chance to be carried along by the prose, and to immerse her or himself in the world being painted by the writer.
Action scenes, however, are a different matter. Consider the following passage:
The bullet grazed Lucian’s shoulder, the searing pain stopping him. But just for a moment. He pulled a throwing knife from his boot sheath and sent it at the first assailant. A satisfying thump and groan told him it had reached the mark. Now for the shooter. The whine of a bullet passed Lucian’s ear. That was close. Lucian sent a concussion grenade where the bullet had come from. Another shriek. Another assassin down.
Both the first and second passages contain 74 words each, but you should be able to see a number of differences in style. In the first case, the character Lucian is only noted once, as an entrance to the scene itself — which is supposed to be enjoyed on its own merits. In the second case, the scene is dotted with references to “Lucian” and “he” in order to keep the reader involved in what’s going on with the character in a life-threatening situation.
A related point is the use of internal commentary. In the first passage, the writer is placing emphasis on the scene itself, so the character’s presence is limited to the introduction to the scene. The reader doesn’t want to be reminded of Lucian. She or he wants to experience the moment in that setting. In the second passage, the character’s thoughts are scattered throughout the scene, in italics. The reader is drawn into the character’s situation, the character’s thoughts and fears.
Take note of the sentence length. As I said earlier, the first passage contains two sentences. In the second case there are ten sentences. As a rule of thumb, long, meandering sentences work well in low-tension scenes and descriptive passages, while short, choppy sentences serve to heighten tension. In addition, the second passage makes extensive use of sentence fragments. While fragmented sentences are not a great thing as a rule, they do come in handy in providing a sense of abruptness and lack of time.
Here are two final scenes, back to back. The first is another pastoral scene:
The palace gardens were beautiful. Big trees, lush flower beds. Lilies were white, other flowers were blue, red and yellow. The walkway had multicolored stones inset. The path meandered left and right through the foliage. Some birds chirped in the trees. Others pecked at insects on the ground. A number of trees had ripe fruit hanging. Colorful fruit, with interesting shapes. The smell of the ripe fruit and blossoming flowers was overwhelming. It was a rich scene for the senses.
The second is another action scene:
His arm fell to his weapon—a long-barreled, gleaming six-shooter, and he surreptitiously unhooked it and drew without anyone noticing. He raised the weapon and fired twice, the first shot hitting the man sitting in one of the plush, dark leather chairs, who mouthed a silent cry before falling backward onto the ground, the second shot hitting the pinstripe-suited man lounging against the far wall near the emergency exit, who also fell immediately, a look of surprise on his face.
By switching writing styles we dramatically change the feel of each scene. The short, choppy sentences in the first scene interrupt the reader’s ability to enjoy the totality of the moment, and create the sense of a quick overview of the situation rather than an in-depth immersion. The longer sentences of the second scene create a surreal overview of the actions going on, and provide details to the scene (e.g. the look of the gun, the type of chair, the pinstripe suit) that draw the reader out of the immediacy of the moment and out to a view the scene as a whole.
I encourage writers to keep focusing on their writing at the sentence and paragraph level, and to consider what sentence length does to the feel of the scene for the reader. Hopefully the samples above provide some insight as to the different effects short and long sentences have on the reading experience.