The sentence.

Many of us stopped thinking about sentence length, composition and structure about the time we mastered cursive. (Or the last time we had to diagram a sentence in middle school, perhaps. Anyone else have to diagram sentences? I know—we’re dating ourselves.)

That lack of attention to one of the basic units of writing (along with the word), can be a handicap to a career author. Sentence structure and varying sentence lengths can:

  1. help give each of your viewpoint characters a differentiated voice
  2. keep the reader awake and interested
  3. heighten suspense and make different kinds of scenes (action, reflection, etc.) distinct

So, let’s not be too proud to get back to the basics, even if we’re multi-published authors. Consider some of the following tips for when and how to vary your sentences.

Differentiating POV characters

No two people think or speak exactly alike. You can emphasize that by using different sorts of sentence lengths and structures to define your characters. One character can use lengthy, multiple clause sentences.

Arranging the lilies and roses in a vase in the foyer, Stella wondered if she should shoot her second husband—the lying, cheating bastard—today, or if maybe later in the week, after the dinner party, would work better.

Another can use short, clipped sentences, and even fragments.

Lana arranged flowers in a vase. Today wasn’t the day for husband shooting. Later in the week would be better. After the dinner party.

The reader will know one sentence into a new scene whose POV she’s in.

Keeping the reader engaged

Let’s face it: repetition is dull. Too many writers rely on subject-verb construction sentence after sentence.

Fred waved.
Sally giggled.
Jane snoozed

Instead, mix it up to keep your readers alert. Start some sentences with a gerund clause or an infinitive clause:

To ensure the success of her party, Stella decided not to shoot her husband beforehand.

You should also work to include sentences of different lengths, and varying complexity (within the limits of your POV narrator, of course). All of these are important components of improving your sentence quality.

Signaling scene type

A person relaxing in a garden, taking in the beauties of the blooms, will think in a different way than a person evading a homicidal maniac. In the first instance, longer, multi-clause sentences might signal the relaxed mood. In the second, shorter sentences indicate the character’s fear.

Action sequences will almost always have shorter, more direct sentences. No one being chased by a killer has time for introspection and eloquence.

If only she’d thought to have a panic room installed when she worked with the architect to design her new mansion, Anabelle thought as she ran from the bedroom, hoping she could find a good hiding place in the kitchen, or maybe her husband Don’s office, before the intruder she’d heard breaking in through the dining room window could catch up to her.

See? Ludicrous. No one thinks like that under stress.

You could better signal mood in this instance like this:

Anabelle fled the bedroom. The kitchen? No, Don’s office. She’d hide there. Not much time. The intruder was getting closer.

So, next time you’re worried that an action scene doesn’t have enough zing, or your critique partners complain they can’t tell your POV characters apart, get down to the sentence level. It’ll work. I promise.