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Sentence Length in Children's and YA Books

posted Feb 20, 2013, 11:11 AM by Christine Brower-Cohen   [ updated Feb 22, 2013, 10:44 AM ]
February 20, 2013
As teachers, we stress to our students the importance of writing clear, concise sentences.  We focus on avoiding fragments and run-ons, and  varying sentence structure.  Yet, we read quality pieces of literature which have endured the test of time, and often contain the very things we teach our students to avoid.  Why?  And from students, we get, "Why can the author write like that, and I can't?" 
Well, the simple answer is, when you can do it as well as these award-winning authors do, you can write sentences any way you wish. 
The more complicated answer is that the sentence structure must serve the story. 
For example, in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time,  look at how she uses fragments to create the stoccato rhythm of the planet:
       "This was so.  As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball.   As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with
     the ball caught the ball.  Down came the ropes.  Down came the balls.  Over and over again.  Up.  Down.  All in rhythm.  All identical.  Like
     the houses.  Like the paths.  Like the flowers."  p.103
Conversely, look at how Zilpha Keatley Snyder uses a run-on to show all that was happening simultaneously during the Ceremony for the Dead in The Egypt Game:
        "And so, while Toby staggered around the altar, beating his chest with wild-eyed abondon, sprinkling real ashes - left over from Set's
      sacrificial fire in his hair, and wailing like a wounded electric guitar; and while right behind him, April and Melanie did more or less the
      same things, just about as realistically, except they were using imaginary ashes - because to a girl even the death of a pharaoh isn't worth
      a dirty head; and while Elizabeth did everything April and Melanie did, only softer; and while even Marshall marched with solemn assurance,
      thumping his chest firmly with the hand that wasn't holding Security, and making a noise like a stuck recording, Ken brought up the rear. " 
     p. 137-138
Just look at how many commas there are in that sentence.  Ironically, it is the complete lack of a comma before the conjunction in Kate DiCamillo's opening line of Because of Winn-Dixie, that makes the dog such a surprise:
        "My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some 
          white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. "
        p. 1
So, experiment with different sentence lengths and structures and see which one best serves your story.  Which structure furthers the plot, builds suspense and keeps the reader turning pages?
Happy reading and writing,
Christine Brower-Cohen