Friday, May 27, 2011

Sentence Variety

Week of May 22—Pacing a Picture Book
Thursday, May 26—Sentence Variety

My apologies . . . I’m late with a couple of posts this week!

When you read a picture book aloud, how do you know when to speed up your reading or to slow it down? How do you know to make a dramatic pause or let your reading pick up speed like a locomotive? The text gives you the road signs to guide you through the story—that’s how. Though it may sound overly simplistic, short sentences usually speed up the pacing, while longer, more complex sentences slow down the pacing.

To illustrate the powerful way sentence variety can impact pacing, we’re going to look at a classic picture book, Scarecrow, by Cynthia Rylant and Lauren Stringer. Even this quiet tale has pacing changes which are almost exclusive created through sentence variety.

The Long and Short of It
Or, in this example, the short and long of it. Read the two sentences below and feel how the pacing changes.

He knows he isn’t real. A scarecrow understands right away that he is just borrowed parts made to look like somebody. (p. 12)

I read the first sentence quickly. A simple, quick fact. Then I slow down with the long explanation filled with details. Long sentences aren’t long for the sake of being long, they are long to provide details. Those details often are little speed bumps in pacing that help the reader slow down and reflect.

Fragments Can Put on the Brakes
When I turn from page 12 to 13 in Scarecrow, I hit this sentence fragment.

But a scarecrow’s life is all his own.

The fragment literally throws on the brakes in the story. Because it’s a fragment, an added-on thought, additional information, it seems important. So I stop when I read it. The illustrator has skillfully used this phrase at the top of a beautiful two-page spread that has no other text. The illustrator felt the brakes go on in the story, and she laid the book out to show the pause in the action caused by the sentence fragment.

By the way, forget what your high school English teacher taught you about fragments. Sentence fragments are perfectly acceptable in writing. You’ll find fragments in best-selling novels, The Wall Street Journal, text books, and just about every other form of written communication. To successfully use sentence fragments, however, you must mean to. An accidental fragment is a mistake, an intentional fragment used to create pacing, or add an additional detail, etc., is a writing craft. Intention is the key.

The Power of Lists
Now, I don’t want to confuse anyone, but lists can be used to slow down the pace of the story or to quicken the pace. Look at this series with commas (followed by a sentence fragment) and feel the slow pace.

His hat is borrowed, his suit is borrowed, his hands are borrowed, even his head is borrowed. And his eyes probably came out of someone’s drawer. (p. 2)

As I read this excerpt, I find myself pausing after each comma. Not only are the commas in this series slowing down the pace, so is the repetition of borrowed. I find that each comma makes me read the next phrase more emphatically. I feel this happening to me as I read . . .

His hat is borrowed, his suit is borrowed, his hands are borrowed, even his head is borrowed. And his eyes probably came out of someone’s drawer. (p. 2)

The commas in this series not only slow down the pacing, they dictate the emphasis the readers places on the words. On the other hand, a list can speed up the pacing. Consider this example from page 18 of Scarecrow:

The scarecrow doesn’t care what he is made of or how long he might last, for he has been a witness to life. The earth has rained and snowed and blossomed and wilted and yellowed and greened and vined itself all around him.

When you hit the sentence “The earth has rained and snowed . . . “ did you feel your pace pick up? Each and propels you into the next and sends you barreling through the list. This time, instead of commas being speed bumps to slow us down, they become hands pushing us forward. Lists can be powerful pacing tools—it’s all in how you use them.

Here’s another and phrase that has the same speeding-up effect:

But he knows this, too: that there is a certain wonder going on around him. Seeds are being planted, and inside them there are ten-foot-tall sunflowers and mammoth pumpkins and bean that just go on forever. (p. 15)

Though this is a long, complex sentence, we don’t slow down. The ands are pushing us forward again. Thus, Rylant gives us the glorious details without obstructing the flow of the story.

The Magic of Ellipses
Ellipses—or as my students call it, “Dot, dot, dot”—is a magical pacing tool. Ellipses can serve as transitions, they can create a cliff hanger, they can precede a list, and more. But what they always do is slow down the pacing of a story. The example below shows ellipses prior to a page turn and another ellipses after the page turn.

The scarecrow is thinking his long, slow thoughts . . .

. . . and soon, birds will be coming by. (pp. 29-31)

Instead of slamming on the pacing brakes, ellipses bring you to a slow, gentle pause.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Looking through a favorite book to discover how an author has created pacing is magical. I hope you’ll do some searching of your own today. Especially notice how sentence variety is affecting the pacing.

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