Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Tuesday, January 22— Sentence Length
Short. Long. One word. There ya have it—the primary ways to view sentence
length. Short sentences read faster and keep the pace moving forward. Longer
sentences slow down the action and make the reader be more thoughtful and pay
attention. One word sentences (or even sentences with two or three words) can stop
the action altogether. Short sentences demand attention and can make a strong
The thoughtful writer uses sentence length to conduct the action of the story and to
dictate the pace of the reader. Consider the opening page of The Fantastic Flying
Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce:
Morris Lessmore loved words.
He loved stories.
He loved books.
His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page
after another. He would open it every morning and write
of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew
and everything that he hoped for.
Did you feel the pace of your reading change sentence by sentence? That’s the
power of sentence length.
The first sentence—a statement of fact—is a short sentence—Morris Lessmore
loved words. We read it a normal pace, maybe even quickly. But then we have the
next two, short sentences. He loved stories. He loved books. We are compelled to
read each of these sentences slowly and pause after each. If you’re like me, you
may even read each sentence word-by-word with slight pauses between the words.
The rhythm stops because of the use of each short sentence. These sentences make
an also make an emotional impact.
Then two longer sentences follow and we read at a more deliberate rate as we try
to soak in all the important details. The author is making us slow down and absorb
information that we need to know before we can go on with the story.
Sentence length dictates pacing—both of the story itself, and how it is read. Allyn
Johnston of Beach Lane Books calls picture books “performance pieces.” They are
meant to be read aloud and performed for the listener. When an author varies
sentence length intentionally, he/she can change the pacing of the story and the
pacing of the reader’s performance. It’s just like a director telling the actors in a play
how to deliver a certain line, where to slow down, or where to speed up. Sentence
length is part of the powerful punch syntax can deliver.