Prose Tips: the Psychology of the Short Sentence

Intentional sentence construction is vital to good writing.  Knowing what you’re doing with your sentences and why you’re doing it is absolutely essential to making the desired impact on your reader. Writers all have different sentence styles, ranging from sparse and cryptic to long and flowing. I prefer short, punchy sentences in general, with longer, more complicated ones taking the limelight where I want some poetry in my writing or else during more contemplative scenes. No one way is perfect, but shorter sentences can bring a dramatic impact that longer sentences often lack.

Readers subconsciously pause when they see the period in a sentence. This pause can emphasize subtext or emotion nicely. Use shorter sentences and back-load them when you want high emotional impact. Readers will process the sentence for a moment more than they might otherwise.

Long sentences (and long paragraphs) can be tempting to skim. Shorter sentences can help your readers stay engaged, because that briefest of pauses between sentences allows a moment to refocus. Be aware that this refocusing happens, and use it to your advantage.

Shorter sentences prompt readers to keep reading, especially sentences with only a handful of words. Because what they are reading now is so brief, it’s just a fraction easier to be wondering “What happens next?” Lining up all these punchy, short sentences together can speed your reader along and heighten the urge to find out what happens in the next paragraph, the next page, the next chapter. They automatically increase the pace of action scenes, as well.

Short sentences are less likely to contain unnecessary words. Because you’re focusing on paring down the thought to something punchy and brief, it’s easier to see what you can cut. Words and phrases like “that”, “there are/is”, and other word clutter are more likely to be tossed out. Additionally, short sentences have a smaller chance of being confusing than long sentences.

Another benefit of short sentences is the flip-side of the point above- as you write your short sentences, you might not only be separating a long sentence into two sentences; you might be reducing your words and turning your thought into something more concise. Conciseness lends itself to subtext- and subtext is a beautiful thing. People aren’t always transparent in what they say and do, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Narrators can use the subject inherent to a great short sentence to full effect, as well. This treats the reader as if they’re intelligent enough to notice and process the subtext, and it makes your characters deeper and more realistic.

A word of warning: Variety is key here. An entire paragraph of four-word sentences would probably bore the most dedicated reader. Be careful that you feed your reader a variety- no one wants the same meal every day, so mix it up.  Long sentences can be a gorgeous, winding adventure full of voice. Don’t avoid them. Just use long and short sentences in the places where the pacing and subject matter are prime for them.

How do you decide what type of sentence to use for which moment? Do you have a specific style, or do you go with your gut on a case-by-case basis? Tell me what you love about short sentences.

A companion post in praise of the long sentence is in the works.

10 thoughts on “Prose Tips: the Psychology of the Short Sentence

  1. very interesting and good tips. I also agree that there is no right or wrong way. I published my first mystery last year and a reviewer called my sentences short and choppy. I’m not sure if I would agree with her. I think that is a matter of style.

  2. What an excellent post. I am a fan of the short sentence, too. I usually decide how long my sentences will be based on my characters. I find that their voice lends itself well to certain types of sentences. Not to say that character A only speaks in four word sentences all the time, but that’s her starting point.

    Wanted to remind you that the pitch contest with Tricia Lawrence is this Friday, June 29th! I’m having a “Critique My Query” hop now until then, if you want more betas before the contest. Hope to see you playing along! You can read all about it here!

  3. You hit it when you said variety is the key. I love the power the writer has in the choice. Sentence length is definitely a literary technique. I think I write from the gut on this one, and the short staccato rhythm can really punch home a point. I love a sentence MLK, Jr. used in Letter from Birmingham Jail. It covers more than half a page and lists the injustices African Americans face each day as he explains why he can’t wait for the injustices to go away. His use of a sentence that goes on and on is driving home the point that the injustices also go on and on. Brilliant.

  4. Very interesting post! I try and mix it up – to use short sentences to make a point or have it stand out. I try and be aware where I could combine sentences. Very good point that cutting unnecessary words can lead to shorter sentences. Great post!

  5. I’ve been told my style is terse, which can be a good or a bad thing. I abhor the act of drafting since the sentences are so rough and unstylized. The process of going back in and cutting words has always been what has hooked me into writing. Short sentences don’t mess around!

  6. When I write, my choice is long sentences, due to the neverending stream of consciousness that I face in my mind.

    However, I agree. (See what I did there? *grin*) Audiences are drawn in by shorter sentences because of what is not being said. The audience is captivated, and that’s the beauty of short sentences. Also, it allows you to be dramatic and slightly cliché, which is always fun.

    I’ve definitely enjoyed your post tonight 🙂

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