Sentence Flow

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David writes:

I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on how to flow from sentence to sentence. I feel mine can be a bit jumpy as I tell the story.

Much is written about “transition sentences,” that is, sentences that bridge paragraphs, but that’s not what this question is about.

This question is about what a writer can do to avoid writing paragraphs that all progress to a beat of dumpty-dumpty-dump.

Two things contribute to the flow of sentences within a paragraph:
1. sentence length
2. logical progression of thought

In browsing my shelves for examples, I realized that some very popular writers don’t seem to share David’s concern regarding “jumpy” narration.

Here’s a typical paragraph from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code:

Langdon and Sophie stepped into another world. The small room before them looked like a lavish sitting room at a fine hotel. Gone were the metal and rivets, replaced with oriental carpets, dark oak furniture, and cushioned chairs. On the broad desk in the middle of the room, two crystal glasses sat beside an opened bottle of Perrier, its bubbles still fizzing. A pewter pot of coffee steamed beside it.

Not a complex sentence in sight. It doesn’t seem to matter if Brown is being reflective or describing action. Most of his sentences are simple or compound. Here and there the reader comes across a noun clause introduced by that, or a an adverb clause introduced by as or as if. Mostly it’s dumpty-dumpty-dump.

Yes, Dan Brown is a wildly successful writer and I’m happy for him. His gift, however, is story-telling, not writing style.

Here are two examples from a novel by a writer who is both an effective story-teller and a fine stylist. The first is a paragraph in which the narrator is reflecting on his life. He is attending the opera with his employer.

I suppose I had once aspired to come here and walk among these beautiful, elegant people as one of their own, but that had been long ago, before all my dreams had been dashed like porcelain on paving stones. Now that I was finally here, I felt all the more like a Welsh collier’s brat, as if I were still twelve, nose running, and starting to outgrow my brother’s cast-offs. I was in the right place at the wrong time. Such was the refrain of my life.– Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

The first sentence is long and leisurely, suggesting reflection. It contains no fewer than four clauses and numerous phrases. The second sentence has multiple clauses and phrases, but the last two are simple sentences, brusquely bringing the introspection back to the present moment.

The second example is from an action paragraph in which the narrator is about to be murdered.

The cross spun in a circle, and when it stopped, a pistol was clapped to my head. It was my own revolver. I recognized the filed-down sight. I closed my eyes and felt surprisingly at ease. I was ready to die now. I gave it all over. At that point, I would have preferred a bullet to slow death. –Ibid.

The first sentence has three clauses joined by the most commonplace conjunctions and and when. The loosely joined clauses suggest a spinning motion. The next two sentences are simple and staccato. Short sentences take the reader along rapidly. They convey the breathlessness felt by the man in danger. The next sentence has two clauses, but they are short and, again, joined by the nearly invisible and. The next three sentences are simple. With the length of the sentences the writer has conveyed both the fear and resignation felt by the narrator.

The writer striving for a pleasantly flowing style will vary sentence length and kind, crafting length to thought.

Here are some joining words with which to introduce subordinate clauses.

Subordinate conjunctions
after, although, as, as if, as long as, as much as,
as soon as, as though, because, before, even if, even though,
how, if, inasmuch, in order that, lest, now, provided (that), 
since, so that, than, that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, while,

Conjunctive adverbs
accordingly, also, anyway, again, besides, certainly, consequently,
contrarily, finally, further, furthermore, elsewhere, hence,
henceforth, however, in contrast, incidentally, indeed, instead,
likewise, meanwhile, moreover, namely, nevertheless, next,
nonetheless, now, otherwise, rather, similarly, so, subsequently,
still, that is, then, thereafter, therefore, thus, undoubtedly, yet

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8 thoughts on “Sentence Flow”

  1. I so much like what you said about Dan Brown’s lack of style in writing. His method of writing appears to reflect the way many other novels have been written for the last few years, and I believe this is partly a result of reading on the Internet.

    Chunk writing, and scanning instead of reading is accepted by many as the norm. This style, or lack thereof provides a form of instant gratification, reading without thinking or bringing anything to the book.

    I am a Freemason, and Brown’s book “National Treasure” is the only book he has written that I’ve read. I simply could not find an interest in the others, primarily due to his poor writing. As an aside, this book is also without merit in accuracy. We had fun with it, but as Masons we know it to be not much more than fantasy.

    Thanks for an excellent post. I hope we see more of the same about style in writing.

  2. Thank you for the post and the amazing site, this is not relative but if anyone can answer me, I will really appreciate it:
    Is it correct to say:
    Someone is limited enough not to prove something.
    Or is it:
    Someone is limited enough to prove something.
    Someone is limited to prove…? Without the “enough”
    Meaning that they can not prove it?

  3. I would reword it.
    He (or she) does not have the expertise to prove (whatever it is). Obviously, there are various other ways to fine tune the meaning.

  4. Well, written with clear examples. Yes, the Dan Brown novel my book club read was boring after the first few chapters like a formula movie. An as for style–yep, you nailed it.

    Thanks! Deborah

  5. I am a new Writer and an appretice to the Art/trade;
    I found this article very help full and the website, brilliant.

    It has all i the tips i need as a new born.

    Thank You!!!

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