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Posted, Jun. 29, 2004
Updated, Jun. 29, 2004


QuickLink: A65975

Writing Tool #12: Control the Pace

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Control the pace of the story by varying sentence length.

Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, an effect that Don Fry calls "steady advance." Or slam on the brakes.

The writer controls the pace of the story, slow or fast or in between, and uses sentences of varying lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story. While these metaphors of sound and speed may seem vague to the aspiring writer, they are grounded in useful tools and practical questions. How long is the sentence? Where is the comma and the period? How many periods appear in the paragraph?

Writers name three good reasons to slow the pace of a story:

  1. To simplify the complex.
  2. To create suspense.
  3. To focus on the emotional truth.

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Consider this unusual lead to a story about the city government budget:

Do you live in St. Petersburg? Want to help spend $548 million?

It's money you paid in taxes and fees to the government. You elected the City Council to office, and as your representatives, they're ready to listen to your ideas on how to spend it.

Mayor Rick Baker and his staff have figured out how they'd like to spend the money. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Baker will ask the City Council to agree with him. And council members will talk about their ideas.

You have the right to speak at the meeting, too. Each resident gets three minutes to tell the mayor and council members what he or she thinks.

But why would you stand up?

Because how the city spends its money affects lots of things you care about.

Not every journalist likes this approach to government writing, but its author, Bryan Gilmer, gets credit for an effect I call "radical clarity." Gilmer eases the reader into this story with a sequence of short sentences and paragraphs. All the stopping points give the reader the time and space to comprehend. Yet there is enough variation to imitate the patterns of normal conversation.

But clarity is not the only reason to write short sentences. Let's look at suspense and emotional power, what some people call the "Jesus wept" effect. To express Jesus's profound sadness at learning of the death of his friend Lazarus, the Gospel writer uses the shortest possible sentence. Two words. Subject and verb. "Jesus wept."

I learned the power of sentence length when I read a famous essay by Norman Mailer, "The Death of Benny Paret." Mailer has often written about boxing, and in this essay he reports on how prizefighter Emile Griffith beat Benny Paret to death in the ring after Paret questioned Griffith's manhood.

Mailer's account is riveting, placing us at ringside to witness the terrible event:

Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him 18 right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.

Notice the rhythm Mailer achieves by beginning that paragraph with three short sentences, culminating in a long sentence filled with metaphors of action and violence.

As it becomes clearer and clearer that Paret is fatally injured, Mailer's sentences get shorter and shorter:

The house doctor jumped into the ring. He knelt. He pried Paret's eyelid open. He looked at the eyeball staring out. He let the lid snap shut. But they saved Paret long enough to take him to a hospital where he lingered for days. He was in a coma. He never came out of it. If he lived, he would have been a vegetable. His brain was smashed.

All that drama. All that raw emotional power. All those short sentences.

In a 1985 book, Gary Provost created this tour de force to demonstrate what happens when the writer experiments with sentences of different lengths: 

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.

And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals -- sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences.

Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear.

Don't just write words. Write music.
Bug - Writer's Toolbox
Workshop:

  1. Review some of your recent stories to examine your sentence length. Either by combining sentences or cutting them in half, see if you can establish a rhythm that suits your tone and topic.
  2. When reading your favorite authors become more aware of variation of sentence length. Mark off some very short sentences, and very long ones, that you find effective.
  3. Most writers think that a series of short sentences speeds up the reader, but I'm arguing that they slow the reader down, that all those periods are stop signs. Discuss this effect with colleagues and see if you can reach a consensus.
  4. Read some children's books, especially for very young children, to see if you can gauge the effect of sentence length variation on the reader.

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