Syntax and Sentences: How to Make Your Story Sing

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. The cumulative goal of sentences in fiction should be to please the reader’s inner ear.

Syntax and grammar

To get a handle on the syntax of your sentences, you’ll want to have a basic understanding of grammar. If that’s a subject you didn’t learn in school, spend a little time boning up on the basic parts of speech and how they’re used. By understanding how the cog wheel of grammar drives the syntax, you’ll become more adept at manipulating the story’s voice. Image from Open Clip Art via

If you can improve your ability to shape sentences, your writing will be give readers greater pleasure. Why is that? Because readers “read” with an inner ear. The voice of the story speaks through its sentences, and it’s the story’s voice that engages the reader’s feelings. Researchers at Durham University in the UK have studied this phenomenon, and here’s what one of the participants in their study said:

“It’s not only the pitch or sound, but the rhythm of the speech, and the character’s emotion and movement I get, it’s the whole package, as if I’m watching a film or in the same space.” (Consciousness and Cognitiion 49, 2017, pp. 98-109)

In a previous post I talked about the four elements of voice: syntax, diction, tone, and imagery. In this post I’m going to explore one of the elements–syntax.

Sentences in College Essays

I believe that sentences in fiction differ from sentences in other kinds of writing–newspapers and college essays, for instance. Let’s compare sentences in college essays with those penned by writers of fiction. The sentences below come from College Confidential.

In the excerpt below the writer is talking about how he changed after the birth of his baby sister. In the first sentence he uses an active verb. Life changed. “Life” (a noun) is the subject of the sentence. “Changed” (a verb) is part of the sentence’s predicate. In the second sentence the subject is “role” (a noun). The predicate is composed of the being verb “was” as well as the predicate nominative–the phrase “that of helpful assistant.” The phrase acts like a single word.

Daily life quickly changed for me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Initially, my big-brother role was mostly that of helpful assistant, who dutifully gave her a bottle or held her.

Here’s a longer passage. The subject and simple predicate of the first sentence are “I work.” The second sentence has a subject-verb-object construction: “I-obtained-position.” The third sentence is back to subject-verb-object: “I-spent-summer.” The fourth sentence is also one with a S-V-O construction: “I-have devoted-bulk.” Note that the subject always falls at the beginning of the sentence.

I work as a research assistant in the Department of Neurosurgery’s lab at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. I obtained this coveted position as a high school student, only through dogged persistence…I spent my first summer absorbing information and directly applying it to my diverse list of assigned tasks, aiming for mastery and efficiency. Since then, I have devoted the bulk of my life to research.

Sounds good, you’re probably thinking, and indeed, yes, the writing in both passages is grammatically correct. Readers can follow the logic.

How Do Sentences in Fiction Differ?

Sentences in fiction must do more than present a coherent argument. Fictional sentences must accomplish several things simultaneously. They must create images in the reader’s mind and do the following:

  • advance the plot;
  • reveal character;
  • impart history;
  • and provide a window into the character’s thoughts.

Most of all, though, the sentences must ignite the reader’s desire to engage emotionally with the story’s voice. In the essays above, didn’t you find the voice “flat?” Though the writing accomplished its goal, the second excerpt had a da dum da dum quality.

Hemingway’s Compound Sentences

Hemingway strings independent clauses together with ands. Such sentences are called “compound” sentences: [S-V] and [S-V] and [S-V]. With compound sentences, ands link clauses that could stand on their own. (An independent clause is one that has a subject and verb.) Here’s an example:

[They sat down at the table] and [the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley] and [the man looked at her and at the table].–Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”

Writers in the Hemingway tradition include Tobias Wolff, Kent Haruf, and Tim O’Brien. What they borrowed from Hemingway was the structure of his compound sentences and his rhythmic repetition.

Adverbial Phrases Establish a Rhythm

Folks often say that Hemingway “never” used adverbs. That’s not quite true. Yes, as a cub reporter for the Toronto Star, he learned to strip out unnecessary words. However, when he later began to write fiction, he frequently began his sentences with adverbial phrases.

Down the road through the trees he could see the white of the Bean house on its piles over the water.–Ernest Hemingway

“Down the road” and “through the trees” are adverbial phrases. Two adverbial phrases set the scene. Three adverbial phrases end it. (An adverbial phrase is simply two or more words that act as an adverb. These word combos are often prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, its object, and any modifiers.) Syntactically speaking, a prepositional phrase can be used either as an adjective (a word or phrase that modifies a noun) or as an adverb (a word or phrase that modifies a verb, or sometimes an adjective).

Adverbial phrases tell who, what, where, when, and why. Grammatically speaking, and in the case of the examples here, adverbial phrases are made up of prepositions and objects of the preposition.

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Okay. I’ll stop the grammar review.

Although Hemingway rarely used adverbs themselves–meaning words that modify verbs and that commonly end in “ly”–he frequently employed adverbial phrases. These phrases helped him establish his sentence rhythms and served up a constant stream of images to satisfy the reader’s mind’s eye.

Tim O’Brien’s Prepositional Phrases

I don’t especially like it when writers overload their sentences with prepositional/adverbial phrases. Three or more prepositional phrases, placed end-to-end, wear me out. However, in the hands of a writer as gifted as Tim O’Brien, the poetic cadence invites me to relax and “go with the flow.” [I’m underlining the prepositional/adverbial phrases below.]

There were many trees, mostly pine and birch, and there was the dock and the boathouse and the narrow dirt road that came through the forest and ended in polished gray rocks at the shore below the cottage.–Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods

O’Brien may have placed the “and ended” in there to keep there from having four prepositional phrases in a row.

Rhythm and Syntax in Berriault’s Complex Sentences

One of my favorite writers is Gina Berriault, National Book Award winner and author of Women In Their Beds. I love the complexity of her stories and her ability to shape sentences. If Hemingway stands for simplicity of syntax, Berriault stands at the opposite extreme, though not as far out as James Joyce or William Faulkner.

Berriault has complete control over syntax. Because of that, she is able to pack in all the things I suggested fiction writers could potentially include in their sentences: plot, images, character, history, and thoughts. When I began studying how she did this, I made rough notes for myself. I wanted a reminder of how she tucked in so much descriptive detail and background info. Here are my notes, followed by an example of Berriault’s writing.

sub. clause/two participial phrases/main clause/compound sentence with coordinating conjunction/sub. conjunction/relative clause; distant past (specifics of it) in which he habitually does something/back to present and how he’d handled the old temptation/handled the reemergence of self-pity

Not since he fell down somebody’s stairs six years ago, cracking a vertebra and breaking his guitar in its case, had he taken a drink, not even wine, and he had taken none tonight though everybody was awash around him, but he felt now that drunkenness again, that old exaltation of misery.

Berriault’s writing is not self-conscious or overly literary. You might need to reread a sentence once in a while to make sure you got it all, but the syntax isn’t experimental. Her sentences don’t sound exactly like spoken speech. However, they’re comprehensible to the voice that speaks inside our heads.

James Baldwin’s Syntax

There all sorts of options for you to develop a voice and syntax that’s right for your story. If your preference is for natural speech patterns, then take a look at James Baldwin’s fiction.

James Baldwin from Jeremy Barnes on Vimeo.

The example below comes from James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues.”

First person narrator—natural speech rhythms; example of how to use a character’s thoughts; a character in emotional turmoil. Immediate tension when they speak.

The courtyard was almost deserted by the time I got downstairs. I saw this boy standing in the shadow of a doorway, looking just like Sonny. I almost called his name. Then I saw that it wasn’t Sonny, but somebody we used to know, a boy from around our block. He’d been Sonny’s friend. He’d never been mine, having been too young for me, and, anyway, I’d never liked him. And now, even though he was a grown-up man, he still hung around that block, still spent hours on the street corners, was always high and raggy.

How Do I Use Examples Like These?

When you’re writing a first draft, you’re not going to agonize about syntax. However, when you’re in the revision stage, then you can absolutely strengthen the voice of your story by paying attention to its rhythms. Move clauses around. Play with the ands. Learn when repetition works in your story’s favor and when it works against the tone you hope to achieve.

Notice that in each of these examples, we’ve come quite far from the sentences used in college essays. If you’re still writing those kinds of sentences, you can have fun trying out other models.

I keep a cheat-sheet of sentences and short passages I admire. I use these examples for all sorts of purposes, from experimenting with voice to figuring out how to embed characters’ thoughts. If you’d like to take a look, you can download it here.

An even better idea would be for you to create your own cheat-sheet. Pick short examples from writers you admire. Try to figure out how they’re achieving effects you’d like to be achieving, too. You don’t have to be fixated on grammar to do this. Just copy the sentences you admire. By doing so you’ll tune your ear to the nuances of voice and syntax.



2 Responses to “Syntax and Sentences: How to Make Your Story Sing”

  1. E. Denise Billups says:

    Marylee, I hope your home is safe in California. Thank you for a wonderful piece. I love reading your informative articles!!

    • Hi and thanks for the supportive words. Yes, I and my house survived the fires. My home town, Santa Rosa, is in mourning for all those lost lives, lost dreams, and lost loved ones. Given how fast the fire spread, it amazes me that the loss of life wasn’t even greater.

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