Dear Maggie, Some my ex- friends been telling me that the action in my novel, Forever and Ever, is too slow and that my story is boring and my sentences too long and they had a hard time figuring out what’s going on, but I swear that I’m a really really good writer and have read somewheres that we should avoid short sentences because they speed things up too much so I write I guess sort of medium length sentences like this one here which should keep the pace down to a manageable level cause I don’t want things to move along to fast, you know what I mean, cause then the story will be over two soon and I really don’t want that to happen, so tell me Maggie that my ex-friends are wrong, right?
Mr. Well Paced
Dear Mr. Not-So-Well-Paced,
Wrong! If your novel consists of many – or even any – sentences like the one in your letter, then your problem is actually twofold. (Really, it’s threefold, but we’ll discount the congenital insanity for now.) First, that letter of yours is composed of a run-on sentence. That means it consists of two or more sentences run together without the appropriate punctuation to separate them. That not only confuses readers but also indicates a lack of knowledge on your part about the craft of writing. If I understand what you’ve written correctly, that letter of yours actually contains about seven or eight sentences, depending on how you want to divide them up.
Second, longer sentences do slow down the pace of a story, but in any event you should avoid overly long, excruciatingly convoluted sentences that leave your readers in the dark about how to interpret its contents; even if its meaning seems clear to you, it may not seem that way to them, such as this sentence demonstrates, although my use of a semi-colon between the main independent clauses does help somewhat. Both periods and semi-colons tell your readers to pause at those points. They are handy little critters, so I advise you to use them, especially the periods. A writer can live without semi-colons but not periods. Period.
Use short sentences to speed things up. Quick back-and-forth dialogue also helps in this respect. Novels should never be based on sentences that are about the same length and same basic construction. Your “ex-friends” were right, I’m not too sorry to say.
Play with sentence length and construction. Once you’ve mastered the typical subject-verb-predicate form, move on to variations, such as starting sentences with dependent clauses. Also allowed is reversing that order for emphasis. So is writing fragments. But don’t get carried away.
Word order matters. To emphasize a particular word, end your sentence with that word. For instance, you could write:
“Her claustrophobia was the result of her mother locking her in a closet when she was young.”
If you want to emphasize the word, “claustrophobia,” which is the strongest word in that sentence, a better way to write it would be:
“Her mother locking her in a closet when she was young resulted in her developing claustrophobia.”
Right now, though, I believe I’ve developed a new phobia for the psychiatric manuals. It’s called long-senteceophobia. I think I’ll go find a nice dark cubbyhole to hide in where I won’t be pestered by clueless nuts like you. It’s time for my hourly nap anyway.