Wednesday, September 19, 2018

4 Ways to Keep Your Sentences From All Sounding the Same

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A varied sentence structure can help keep your writing from sounding stale and flat.

After eight years of diagnosing pages here, and a few decades of critique experience, I’m quite familiar with issues writers face—from those just starting to write, to those on the brink of selling their novels, and even those with multiple published novels. Some aspects of writing are difficult for almost everyone, and each stage of the author’s journey has its own set of challenges.

One of those challenges is writing sentences that don’t all sound the same.

Getting into a stale “writing rhythm” can lead us down the path of flat sentences with the same basic structure. We’re focused more on getting the information down than crafting compelling prose, so the writing ends up sounding list-like or monotonous. For example:
She ran down to the pier and looked around. The ocean waves rolled in soft and gentle. Gulls cried out as they flew overhead. The sun warmed her skin but didn’t burn.
Four sentences in and already I’m drifting off. The same sentence, the same droning rhythm—nothing is broken up and it all sounds like white noise by the end.

(Here's more on five ways repetition is hurting your novel)

Luckily, we have several options to fix this. We can:
  • Vary the length of the sentence
  • Switch around the subject/verb pairs so they don’t all start the same way
  • Vary the type of sentence
  • Take advantage of punctuation

Let’s look a little closer at each of these.

Don’t make every sentence the same length

There’s a basic subject + predicate format we’re used to, and we naturally fall into that style when we write. We also picture a scene in our heads and we then “list” what we see, often unconsciously. The simple act of transcribing what’s in our head onto the page creates that list. Vary the sentence length and the rhythm changes.
She ran down to the pier. Ocean waves rolled under a blue sky in soft and gentle swells. Gulls cried out. The sun warmed her skin and chased away the hotel’s chill, but it didn’t burn her.
It’s better, but it’s not there yet, because just varying the length doesn’t always fix the problem. But it’s a good start, and we can see the sentences that work better, and the ones that still feel flat.

Mix up the complexities of your sentences. Use simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and compound-complex sentences.
She ran down to the pier. Ocean waves rolled under a blue sky in soft and gentle swells, sighing as they flowed across the sands. Gulls cried out. The sun warmed her skin and chased away the hotel’s chill, not burning, not yet, like it would later this afternoon.
If you need a refresher, here’s a great breakdown on the different types of sentences from The Write Practice.

Don’t start every sentence the same way

This is probably the most common reason sentences sound list-like. Every sentence in my example paragraph has the same “Subject/verb” beginning. She ran, waves rolled, gulls cried, sun warmed. Pair that with the same sentence length, and you’re pretty much writing a lullaby for readers. So try mixing it up.
She ran down to the pier. Across the horizon, ocean waves rolled under a blue sky in soft and gentle swells. Gulls cried out above her. The chill she’d carried from the hotel fled under the sun’s warmth, but it wasn’t hot enough to burn.
This is a tricky one, since it’s easy to edit in the same problem with different structures. I could have easily written:
She ran down to the pier. Across the horizon, ocean waves rolled under a blue sky in soft and gentle swells. Above her, gulls cried out. The sun warmed her, chasing away the hotel’s chill.
Hear that monotonous rhythm again? That, phrase—pause—phrase—pause, rise and fall of an introductory clause? These guys sneak in a lot when we’re not looking, because when we write them, it feels as though we are varying the sentences. But when we read back, we discover way too many of them too close together.

(Here's more on rhythm in dialogue)

Don’t make every sentence the same type

And by type, I mean description versus dialogue versus internalization. One reason this example reads so poorly is that it’s all anonymous description. There’s no sense of a voice or narrator here to break it up. But if I shift a few things, it changes the feel of the entire paragraph.
What a run! She stopped on the pier and caught her breath. And what a view. Ocean waves rolled under a blue sky in soft and gentle swells. Above her, gulls cried out to one another as they drifted on the breeze. Man, the sun felt good after the freezing hotel room.
Things have changed a little more now, and I’ve added a few phases, but the flow sounds much better with that sense of character behind the words. The same details are there, but now they feel more personal, and the sentences transition smoothly from one to the next.

(Here’s more on literary devices to make your prose sing)

Take advantage of punctuation

Punctuation is like traffic signs for your writing. It tells readers when to slow down and stop, and you can use that to help direct the flow of your sentence rhythm. Would a pause (comma) work better than “and?” Would a full stop add variety? Would one sentence work better as two?

Try breaking up sentences or varying your punctuation and see how it changes the rhythm.
What a run! She stopped and caught her breath on the pier. And what a view. Ocean waves rolled under a blue sky in soft, gentle swells. Above her, gulls cried out—Rheee! Rhee!—as they drifted on the breeze. Man, the sun felt good. The hotel room was freezing.
This has come a long way from those original four sentences, but the essence of the paragraph is still there.

(Here's more on the rhythm of the words)

Much of writing is trusting your ear to what sounds right and reads well, so if something sounds static, it probably is. Pay extra attention to any passages you start to skim. There’s a good chance you’re skipping what reads monotonously.

An extra tip:
read pages out loud to get a better sense of how they sound—spoken words often catch odd rhythms that reading silently misses.

Variety is the spice of life, and it’s certainly true in writing. Vary your sentences and how you convey your information, and you’ll craft compelling prose that draws readers into the story.

Do you struggle with sentence structure? Do you have any advice for those who do?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Such simple changes, but I needed to read this exactly now, this morning! Thank you Janice!!! As always you come to the rescue!

    1. Oh good! Glad I had the right info for you this week :)

  2. Lovely examples and a great post. Personally, I use short, staccato sentences for intense scenes like fights. When things quieten down a bit, I use longer, compound/complex ones to indicate the lull in the action (and let the reader catch their breath).

    1. Thanks! That's a great way to control pacing, and I do the same thing :)

  3. Very nice suggestions for improving "flat" prose.