So a while back, someone mentioned that they wanted to hear a bit more about structure in stories. There are a lot of different ways to talk about structure, but today we’re going to go over some of the basics and discuss sentence structure.
Now, I’m gonna have to roll up my sleeves on this one, because there is a lot to cover. So get ready kids, we’re going in.
The first thing that I feel I must point out is that regardless of what you’re writing, your primary goal when writing is to be understood.
Unfortunately, far too many novice writers seem to believe that the complexity and maturity of their work is directly tied to the complexity of their sentences. Which is far from true. There’s nothing wrong with rich, complex sentences, but you should never be writing sentences that require a second, third, or fourth look in order to be understood.
So, my first point will be this - ensure that all the components of your sentences follows a logical order.
One of the most common mistakes among newer writers is attempting to tack participial phrases on to the front of their sentences in order to avoid starting each sentence the same way. This was one of my biggest mistakes when I started writing, so I know from experience. (If you don’t know what a participial phrase is, you can go back a ways and find a lengthy post about it).
Essentially, a participle phrase is a phrase that modifies the rest of the sentence. It’s easy to spot because it typically opens with an “-ing” word.
These aren’t ALWAYS bad. Where they become a problem (specifically) is where you describe a character performing two actions at once, or you make the order of events unclear.
"Turning to face Lord Clemont, Valerie swung at him with her knife."
"Realizing the mistake she had made, Jane stood up abruptly."
Both of these sentences would benefit from the participle being removed and turned into their own thought, or at the very least an independant part of the sentence. Like so:
"Valerie turned to face Lord Clemont. Before he could speak, she swung at him with her knife."
"Jane realized the mistake she had made and stood abruptly."
Typically, you want sentences to follow a typical cause/effect order, especially if you’re describing certain sensations or saying something that might be confusing with the follow up information.
"A sharp pain shot through Alice’s side as the waves pushed her against the rocks."
(On a side note, this kind of reverse cause/effect order can become especially problematic when you’re writing action scenes, as it leads to the same pacing issues as using passive voice. Basically, it bogs the scene down.)
Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to sentence structure is that a single sentence should (more or less) contain a single thought or idea. Even very complex sentences should have something central to them - something tying them together.
Example of What Not to Do:
"She shivered as she pulled herself from the ice cold water, and she wished she still had the thick padded clothes from the village, but they had been burned along with everything else at the campsite."
So in this example you have a pretty quick transition from the physical sensation of the MC pulling herself from the water to her thinking about a separate event. Breaking the sentence down and separating those ideas will give the writing a bit of additional clarity.
Next up - learn how to identify and eliminate ambiguity from your sentences. The more creative you get with structuring your sentences, the more potential there is for sentences that make take a second or third look to understand fully.
One thing to keep in mind is that the greater the number of clauses and modifiers in your sentences there are, the greater the potential for ambiguity grows.
"Lana spent years working on her novel, but her family was not impressed."
Do you see the problem here? Is her family not impressed by her effort, or not impressed by the novel? So to get your point across you need to put the main idea a bit closer together, with additional details and modifiers in their proper place.
"Lana’s family was not impressed by the novel, even though she spent years working on it."
There’s obviously far more to sentence structure than I could possibly talk abou there. These are just a few examples I’m carting out because they tend to be fairly common among newer writers.
At the end of the day, remember this - SIMPLER IS ALMOST ALWAYS BETTER. Even the most complex, beautiful sentences are built from simple components. Complexity does NOT mean deliberately confounding your reader with overwrought sentences.