Friday, June 23, 2017

PROSE THAT FLOWS: Straighten Out Your Sentences


This is writing advice, real nitpicky writing advice, but the kind you don't see enough. Obviously. People still do this. They don't even know what's wrong. Maybe you're doing it. Tell me which which sentence scans faster:

I ducked into the alleyway, squeezed off a few shots, and vaulted over a fence.

I ducked into the alleyway and, squeezing off a few shots, vaulted over a fence.

The first sentence is the correct answer. Action is presented as it happens, and the reader follows the chain of events smoothly through time. The second sentence isn't the same. The commas are corrupted, no longer gentle angels of mercy separating units of thought but wicked devils that stutter the action until the sentence is about fence-vaulting with an aside, if you'll take the time to read it, about firing a gun. The flow is broken.

This is huge with inexperienced authors. They cling to their tone-deaf subordinate clauses. I don't know why. Maybe I used to. Sure, you can make up for it in other areas. You don't have to. You can write sentences where things happen in sequence and action is not caged in corrupted commas of filth. The human brain processes prose just like it processes speech, almost exactly, and if it don't flow out loud it won't be prose that flows.

If you cripple your sentences with awkward flow it's your fault if your story can't fly. Don't be cruel to your dreams. Take off the hobbles and write the prose that flows.


  1. The second sentence also says that you're firing as you are vaulting.

  2. Okay, I've got comment here. It is very true that sentence structure influences the flow of the narrative. Some constructions--subordinate clauses, passive voice, complex sentences modifiers like adverbs and adjectives--do slow the pacing of the story.


    Sometimes slow is what you want. Just like in a piece of music, tempo in fiction sets the mood. In the example given above, I agree that the second sentence lacks the punch of the first. But consider the following examples:

    John walked down the hall. The hall was dark. There was trash scattered across the floor. The windows were high. The windows were caked with dirt. The door at the end of the hall was open. Past the open door John could see something moving. He could not see the moving object clearly because it was dark.

    John walked down the darkened hallway, stepping over the trash that had been left behind, scattered across the floor. High windows, caked with dirt, let in only thin slivers of late afternoon sunlight. Movement stirred beyond the open door at the end of the hall, something big, the shape unclear in the darkness.

    Approximately the same length, but the second passage feels longer because the structure is more complex. If this scene occurred in a film, it would be drawn out to increase the tension as John moves to the unknown peril. In fiction, deliberately slowing the pace of the prose serves the same function.

    It is important to understand how phrasing sets the pace of a story, but it is also important to understand how pacing sets the mood. Eliminating all of the structures that slow the pace of a story can be like taking all of the rests out of a piece of music.

    1. Hmmm. . . the first passage also had some seriously flat-footed sentences.

      But yeah, long sentences do have that effect.

    2. The trick, I believe, is to create a melodious combination of short and long sentences in simple and complex arrangements, like a composer tells his story with combinations of short and long notes in simple and complex phrasings. Pauses and silent beats also play a role in both mediums.

      As for the examples given, Jesse's first sentence has clear and crisp delineations between three actions which makes for a breezy read. It's perfect for an action sequence. The second sentence muddles the second action with the third.

      Misha's second paragraph is perfectly paced for creating mood and whetting anticipation. The first paragraph slows the narrative to a dull crawl.