In Defense of Short Sentences

short elfBack in broadcast journalism school, I was taught that the shorter and simpler the sentence structure, the better. Subject-verb-object ruled the day. Semicolons were verboten. I was told to count the words in my sentences to make sure I had no more than twenty words in each. (I’ve since heard the new rule is ten words per sentence. Yikes.) It made sense to keep sentence structure simple because we were writing for the ear – and a pretty distracted ear at that, given that the audience is probably either getting the kids off to school or driving to work in rush-hour traffic, with the radio as background noise.

Now that I write fiction, my sentence structure has gotten a little more involved. Narrative passages replete with adjectives and adverbs are fine (although I still try to go easy on the adverbs, preferring active verbs instead). I might even throw in a modifying clause here and there. But I find that short, punchy, subject-verb-object sentences still have their place.

It all has to do with what you’re trying to accomplish in the scene you’re writing. A complex sentence takes longer to read; a paragraph full of complex sentences, even longer. If what you’re after is lyrical prose that makes your reader stop to savor every nuance, then complex sentences will suit you just fine.

But if you want to move the action along, the use of short sentences will help your reader race through to the end. Like this:

The timer counted down. He scanned the wires attached to the bomb. Every second counted. He wiggled the green one. She shrieked in alarm. He clipped the orange one instead. The timer stopped. She sagged against him in relief.

Conversely, you can also use short sentences to signal the passage of time:

Jerry stood on Mrs. McGillicuddy’s front porch. He rang the bell, and waited. No answer. He pushed the bell again, and waited. Still no answer. Could the bell be out of order? He knocked. Now he heard a dog barking inside, but still no one came to the door. After another moment, he gave up. But just as he turned to take a step off the porch, the door opened.

Here, the short sentences almost punctuate the scene. The commas after “bell” and “again” also help to slow the reader down; they’re not necessary in terms of grammar, but they help to stretch things out by making the reader pause just that extra little bit.

Of course, short sentences work great for snappy dialogue, too. Think of an old screwball comedy, where the dialogue comes fast and furious and the laughs roll in, one on top of the other – like in this scene from “Some Like It Hot”:

So when you’re slapping your story into shape, don’t forget: shorter can be sweeter.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

33 thoughts on “In Defense of Short Sentences”

  1. Good thoughts, Lynne. Stories usually need variety, but I keep in mind that a lot of people read my stories on their phones.Short, punchy sentences seem to work best on that device. I can’t write an entire book picturing someone reading it on an iPhone, but I do keep it in mind. My reviews often state that the book “read fast,” and I attribute that to short, digestible sentences as well.

    1. Thanks, Lois. The thing about complex sentences is that they still have to flow. I’m with you — if I have to go back multiple times to figure out what the author was trying to say, it throws me out of the story.

  2. I am a huge fan of the short sentence. The tough part is finding that balance between short and long to create mood and feeling within your stories. It is always more than just the words we use, but also how we use our words.

  3. Good advice. Short sentences are definitely important for any work. All short sentences would feel too choppy, but you definitely need to mix some in. They’re especially good, like you mentioned, in speeding up the pace.

  4. Writing good dialogue is definitely an art. In real life we rarely talk in clauses, partly because holding a long, complicated sound in your head is much harder than seeing the same thing written down. And thank you for the video clip – haven’t seen that wonderful old movie in decades!

  5. When I was doing newspaper work, my editor taught me to mix the lengths up. People get tired of either one if you use it to the exclusion of the other. I think your “defuse the bomb” scene is too choppy, and the short sentences actually stop the movement of the eye across the page, and slow it down. They worked much better in the second example. If you have a couple of longer sentences and bring in a short one, it really gives that last sentence punch.

    1. Agree completely. I see a lot of writers buy into the idea that shorter is always better and end up with a machine-gun cadence. As you say, too many periods.
      As with SO MUCH of this stuff, it’s all about how the writers deals with things. We’ve all read stories that are composed of a single sentence, and often not aware of it as we read.

      1. Thanks for the opposing view, guys. 🙂

        Sorry, Lin — I’ve read Faulkner, and I found myself gasping for air by the time he got to a period. Different strokes for different folks, as they used to say. 🙂

  6. Once upon a time, the average length of my sentences were rivaling others’ paragraph-lengths! But now, I am more considerate – I force to pause myself, at least once in every three lines, and that reflects on the prose as well 🙂

  7. You have to give some changes in pace, by varying sentence length.

    Short. Sharp. Great for action. Great for tension. But not for mood-setting or description. How can one convey the slow sunset, the languid bobbing of boats in a marina, the wilderness isolation of a desert in exciting, choppy bursts of 10-word sentences? I suspect the pressure for declining sentence-length is to compensate for shortening attention-spans.

    I realize that iphone-readers have their own needs, but not every reader is so pressured. The standard, the norm, should not be set at the level which best suits only a section of readers.

    Conversation is a separate issue. Snappy backchat is fine, but not every character is going to be hyperactive. Varying speaking rates help identify the speaker without overburdening the text with speech tags. If the speeches are all very short, tagging cam use as much wordcount as the actual words spoken.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Andy. You’re right — every sentence needn’t be short. Writing fiction requires the use of some different muscles than does writing for broadcasting. Describing a scene, or a character, lends itself to longer sentences.

    And everybody has their own style. If longer sentences work for you, go for it. My post was intended only to highlight some of the situations in which short sentences can be useful.

    As for tagging fiction, a conversation between two people might need only a few tags — no matter how long each bit of dialogue is. 😉

    1. Every speech doesn’t need a tag, but not every writer knows that… On the other hand it takes reader skill to track who is speaking if a sharp, witty, snappy exchange continues for a long time with too few tags..

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