Sentence Structure

Word by Word


Sentences are probably the most important part of a story. They contain everything between one capital letter and one tiny little period. Each one has to tie into what is going on. You can’t just jump from scene to scene or thought to thought without some sort of transition. But these transitions are all part of the ever important structure.

I’ve edited papers for friends and family for many years but I’ve never really tried to explain structure to anyone so bear with me here. Before I get into the basics, I’ll delve a little bit into what I do.

I always find myself using compound and complex sentences the most. It’s probably one of my worst habits (along with over describing something) but I can freely admit that. Because of this, I am often a victim of long, rambling sentences.

For an example, I’ll take a sentence out of the Elf post of my Creatures Challenge.

‘She could tell from that twitch in his eyebrow that he was very displeased with her nonchalant attitude and disregard to what no doubt thought were very serious charges.’

Not only does this sentence ramble on, but I even left words out! Don’t do that! Always double check your sentences for inconsistences such as missing words or details that don’t quite fit. I’m guilty of not doing that and I often have missing words. I do the same thing while I read; my mind automatically fills in words like he, she, and, it, or, the, and if. Because of this, I read faster than most people but when I write, it causes me to think the word but not necessarily type the word.

To help combat this, I would advise having an editor or at least someone who reads over your work and catches the little mistakes. It will help keep the sentences concise and effective. Maura often does that for me but things get past the both of us from time to time.

Now, that’s enough about what I like. This isn’t what this is for.

For your stories or even essays for school, you want sentences that flow from one thought to another. We all learned the four types of sentences in school; Simple, Compound, Complex and Compound-Complex.

For an effective story, you’ll want a mix of all three while avoiding the curse of rambling. Make sure you get to the point and then add description with clauses and following sentences. Readers will lose interest if you ramble too much.

“That is Lady Sylavel to you.” Leaning back in her chair, Sylavel couldn’t find it in herself to care about the dark look she was receiving from the council scribe. He was the one making the breach of protocol. She may be standing trial but she still outranked him.

In this paragraph, there are a mix of sentences and dialogue. If we look closer, there is a simple sentence, and a compound.

“He was the one making the breach of protocol.” This is a simple sentence. Simple sentences are just as they sound. They are short and to the point. All the information you could need in one little sentence. But to make a good story, you need more detail. Simple sentence after simple sentence makes for a choppy paragraph. Take a look at how choppy this one was. This is where other sentence styles come in.

A compound sentence is made up of two parts that could have been their own simple sentences. “She may be standing trial but she still outranked him.” This could have been broken up into ‘She was standing trial. She still outranked him’. With small changes and a word in the middle to properly connect them, it flows better.

Complex and Compound-Complex sentences require a bit more. These are the ones that are in danger of turning into rambling. Complex sentences are often a combination of a simple sentence and a dependent clause. Don’t ask me why they’re called ‘clauses’, I never understood it myself. I always considered it a sentence plus a fragment that needs that sentence or it needs to be cut.

For example, the sentence ‘After twenty years, he still loved her’ is complex. My little snippet above didn’t have one so I made my own but back to the point. The first part of the sentence ‘After twenty years’ is the dependent clause since it cannot stand alone as a sentence on its own while the second part, ‘he still loved her’ is the simple sentence in disguise.

Compound-Complex sentences are the same way. They usually have two simple sentences hidden with a dependent clause or two. These are the true danger of the writing world and if you aren’t careful, then you’ll be rambling. Avoid the rambling! Since I’m on a roll for making sentences up, I’ll do another one. ‘Although I hate shopping, my mother loves it, so we went to the mall today.’ The first part is the dependent, while the next two parts can be broken into two separate sentences.

But knowing the different sentences and how they are put together doesn’t necessarily make them effective. The content is also very important. You can’t just throw a paragraph of random sentences together and call it a story. They have to connect and flow. My tip on how to make sure they flow is to read them to yourself out loud. Trust me; you’ll hear any choppiness or inconsistencies in your sentences when you’re saying them out loud.

I like pie. I also like birds. I like being outside. When these three sentences are strung together, they’re very bland and choppy. It’s like being stuck in stop and go traffic. Instead, you want a smooth sounding sentence so that your readers don’t get bored. I like pie, birds, and being outside. Now the upgraded version isn’t much more interesting but it reads easier and doesn’t sound as bad.

As an author, you’re going to be biased to your own writing. Everyone is, even if they don’t think it’s that good. After hours of staring at your own work, you’ll be blind to the issues in your sentences and the structure. You need a fresh set of eyes. I know it’s hard but find someone you trust to look over your work. Not only will you get a break but they’ll catch things that you never would have even thought about. Get yourself a partner in crime like Maura is for me.

Go with what feels right and don’t be afraid to admit to your mistakes.

Happy writing y’all!

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