Sentence length is one of the most noticeable features of a writer’s style. Although writers don’t usually set out to write a certain number of words per sentence, they will use certain sentence lengths for specific types or styles of writing.
Journalists tend to write short sentences that are all roughly the same length, which creates a steady rhythm allowing the reader to focus on the content instead of the format. Some fiction writers, like Ernest Hemingway, rely on these concise sentences to create the reporter-like tone in their works of fiction.
Writers, like Virginia Woolf, might do the opposite, and attempt to recreate the stream of human consciousness by using longer, more complex sentences that seem endless. In that style, the writer is using the form of the sentences to mimic the way that thoughts, feelings, and memories blur together in the human mind.
Some writers simply attempt to find a balance between short and long sentences in order to create a rhythm that seems to fit the tone, subject matter, or popular style of writing at the time.
Even though it is hard to know how much of a writer’s style is intentional and how much of it is natural, as readers, we should notice the effect these patterns can have on how we read a story.
We should notice:
Let’s look at some examples.
As we look at each example, remember that we are looking at both the individual sentence lengths as well as the sentence length pattern that the author creates.
EXAMPLE #1: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1844
I have blocked out the words with color and included the word count at the end of each sentence so that we can see the over all sentence length pattern created by Hawthorne.
In the first paragraph of this example, Hawthorne creates a swinging sentence length pattern where the first sentence is quite long (63 words), the second is only 20 words long, and then the third is 61 words long. The last two sentences are about the same length, which creates the erratic pattern that Hawthorne uses for most of the story: long, short, long, medium, medium.
I deliberately left the words visible in the two short sentences of the next paragraph because this is the point when Hawthorne breaks from the pattern he’s used for most of the story.
Notice how the first three sentences are roughly the same length (between 20 and 33 words each). Hawthorne then uses 2 extremely short sentences (9 and 6 words each) to emphasize this moment of horror and panic: the main character, Giovanni, has made the startling realization that his touch and breath are now poisonous! Those short sentences in the middle really stand out, especially when compared to the 50-word sentence that directly follows them.
EXAMPLE #2: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway 1927
Hemingway is known for his concise writing style: he uses short and direct phrasing that is often compared to the writing style of journalism. The narrator comes across like a reporter, and the emphasis is on the action and dialogue, rather than scene or description. We as readers can see the action through what the characters say to each other, but we don’t know every detail of the scene or setting.
In the following example, the two paragraphs I’ve chosen are coincidentally the only full paragraphs; the rest of the short story is entirely made up of dialogue between characters. I’ve blocked out the words with colors (and included the word count) for each individual sentence, so that we can visually see the pattern he creates.
The sentences range from 10 to 36 words in length, which makes the story feel brief, fresh, and uncluttered by description. Notice how the longer sentences are “inside” the paragraph, or sandwiched between shorter sentences, which makes the longer sentences more noticeable; the reader might pause on them, or perhaps even re-read them. The addition of those longer sentences also breaks up the monotony of the shorter sentences.
EXAMPLE #3: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
For the most part, the words have been blocked out by color, and I’ve included the word count for each sentence. Because Virginia Woolf uses longer sentences, I’ve also included the punctuation marks so that we can see the length and structure of each sentence, as well as the overall pattern. I have deliberately left the words visible in the longest sentence in the example, so that we can see the phrases and clauses stacked on top of each other.
Woolf uses commas and semicolons to construct her long, associative sentences. She embeds lists, bits of dialogue, and parenthetical side comments within the larger structure of individual sentences to explore how memories, thoughts, and feelings intersect in the narrator’s mind. Remember that semicolons are used to connect closely related independent clauses, and that both commas and semicolons signal for the reader to pause slightly. The period, which Woolf hardly uses at all, signals a full stop.
Look at the longest sentence (99 words). There is dialogue punctuated with a question mark that would usually signal the end of a sentence, the end of a thought: “Musing among the vegetables?” However, there is no signal to start a new thought, or new sentence because Woolf does not capitalize the first word in the clause following the dialogue: was that it? Readers begin to understand that although there are several complete thoughts within each of Woolf’s long sentences, she uses punctuation and capitalization to group them together. In this way, she takes those complete thoughts and turns them into parts of a whole experience, or association.