puzzled_sentence_constructionSentence Construction - a Boring but Essential Topic!

by Marg McAlister


Sentence construction? I can hear most writers snorting as they read those words ("I learned to write sentences when I was seven!")

True; most people did learn how to construct a sentence in the early years of school – but ask any editor about the way writers use sentence structure and you'll see lots of eye-rolling. Here I'm going to look at just two problems that I've seen crop up many times when I've critiqued scenes for writers or marked assignments for writing courses.

Two common problems with sentence structure:

1. Sentences are too long

What writers need to understand is that even though readers CAN read long sentences, most of the time they'd rather not. Long sentences, with lots of embedded clauses separating the subject of the sentence from the object, simply make readers' eyes glaze over. They have to go back and re-read the sentence just to make sure that they have got it right.

Usually, incomprehension manifests as a general "Huh?" in the reader's mind. It's that "something doesn't make sense here..." feeling. The reader goes back and re-reads the sentence more carefully, and sees what she missed the first time. ("Uh-huh... oh right, now I see it..") Then she continues reading the book.) The trouble is, if this happens too often, the reader gives up.  A book is meant to be entertainment, not an intelligence test. Life's too short to have to keep checking for meaning. She'd rather go and find a book that flows.

Solution: Check your work for sentences that have lots of 'ands', 'buts', 'howevers', colons and semi-colons. Usually these indicate where a sentence can be broken into two or more sentences.

Research: Look for information on sentence structure and embedded clauses. A good investment is a copy of Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style.

2. Run-on Sentences
This is a problem that editors see a LOT. Run-on sentences are characterised by a surfeit of commas (also known as a 'comma splice'); it's not unusual to see a run-on sentence that goes on for half a page. Editors can't help wondering if the writer somehow missed out on Writing a Sentence 101 in those early school years.

Run-on sentences are not only grammatically incorrect: they give the whole manuscript a feeling of breathlessness, as though the writer has just kept babbling on until she has run out of oxygen.

Here's a real-life example from a romance that I edited around five years ago. (I am fairly sure this writer will have realised that writing romance fiction is not the right career choice for her, but I've changed the names in this excerpt to be on the safe side!) This is written exactly as it appears in the scene submitted for assessment - including the spelling of 'excelerates':

'Oh how much I have missed you' the young Bob Smith, kissing and teasing Mary's lips, yet all her mouth wanted was an endless passionate kiss, 'remember how we met?', 'how can I forget, the way your lips did not allow me to breathe' Bob throws a sexy smile, 'you liked it', 'how could you tell' her sensual eager lips getting closer and whispering in her bedroom voice, the way your tantalising lips kissed mine, 'likes this' his lips reach hers and his passionate, burning kiss is arresting, Mary's lets herself go, her body loosens, her breathing excelerates, Mary surrenders all her feelings, as if Bob had already started making love to her, erected nipples firmly press against his masculine chest, they drop to the floor, suddenly her phone starts ringing, ring, rrring, rrring she quickly sits up.

Mary realised she was only dreaming... etc etc

Okay, admittedly the 139-word sentence above IS an extreme example - and the writing needs a lot of work apart from the punctuation! However, over the years that I've been critiquing manuscripts, I have seen MANY scenes with similarly constructed sentences, sprinkled liberally with commas instead of full stops or other punctuation.

Solution: Check use of commas very carefully to ensure that you're not using them to 'splice' together sentences instead of using a full stop.

Research: Look for information on run-on sentences and layout of dialogue. Each speaker should be given a new paragraph; as a general rule, don't include words spoken by two characters in one paragraph. (There are exceptions, of course - such as when one character interrupts another and, for effect, the writer leaves it all in one paragraph. For safety, start a new paragraph for each speaker.

There are plenty of other problems related to the two outlined above - notably, wordy sentences and purple prose - but these are more related to style.

© Marg McAlister


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