Sunday, April 1, 2012

Variety & Sound in Writing

When my writer dad read the first draft of my first chapter over two years ago, he was quick to point out many flaws that largely boiled down to two things: variety and sound. I've never forgotten his advice. Since then, the first thing I do, after writing a new chapter, is read it back for these two important elements. And when I revise, I check my words again and again and again. I'm never satisfied, but the combing through really helps to strengthen my story.

So let's talk about variety and sound.

Variety is our friend! If sentences are all constructed the same way, our reader brains start to feel like they're stuck on repeat. The regular rhythms disengage us, or worse, put us to sleep.

Here are some tips for adding variety to your writing. (Disclaimer: It's okay to break any of these rules if you're waxing poetic, but do so sparingly.)

  • Start sentences with different words. Make sure they don't all begin with the same pronoun (I, he, she) or word (the, someone's name, etc.). I occasionally let two same starting words in a row slip. But three in a row is a definite no-no.
  • Mix up your sentence structures. Don't write all of them in noun-verb order. Try starting with a verb, a prepositional phrase, or some other kind of dependent clause. Use fragmented sentences where appropriate and not confusing. Sometimes use a question, rather than a statement. (A word of caution: Don't go too crazy. About two-thirds of the time, you'll want to stick with noun-verb structure and not beginning your sentences with a dependent clause. But often, perhaps every three to four sentences, you can mix things up. It depends on the intensity and context of the scene you're writing. Try to feel out what's right.)
  • Vary your sentence lengths. If all your sentences are long and comma-ridden, your pacing will suffer. In contrast, if they're all short and basic in structure, your prose will be simplistic and lacking in feeling. Sentence lengths should reflect the rhythm and emotion of your scene. Fast-paced action scenes generally need shorter sentences. Your character is moving quickly, whether physically or emotionally, and they don't have time or capacity to think about things in detail. Likewise, scenes with drawn-out tension or reflection justify longer sentences. Your character is probably over-analyzing and absorbing everything. In both instances, however, you'll want to break up the cadence and add an occasional sentence of different length to add variety.
  • Don't get stuck on the same word. Every writer is guilty of this, especially in first drafts, but I often see published books where a noticeable word is used more than once, and too close in succession. For very unique words or phrases, once in a book is enough. But anything beyond a basic word (the, in, to, was, etc.) shouldn't be used twice on a page, or sometimes the same chapter. Read your work aloud, just looking for overused words. Your beta readers are also good at catching these for you. If replacing a word becomes too long-winded or unclear, don't fret, just repeat the word.
  • Vary your dialogue tagging techniques. "Said" is not invisible. Don't overuse it. Try replacing dialogue tags at least half the time with beats. (Ex: Mary twirled her hair around her finger. "I would love to." We know Mary is talking.) If two characters are talking back and forth, dialogue tags or beats are unnecessary after the initial setup. But don't exhaust your reader by omitting dialogue tags altogether. Just use them with care.
  • Vary your emotional intensity. Make sure all your chapters aren't at the same emotional pitch. It's overbearing if your character is always crying (or laughing or whatever). Even when your character is in anguish, a moment of wry lightheartedness is appreciated, and vice verse. Create an emotional arc over your whole book, then do so for each character, scene, chapter--and even within the chapter, down to the paragraph and sentence level.

Sound goes hand-in-hand with variety and has to do with the feel and flow of a scene. I believe if you follow the suggestions above, then read your chapter again and lose yourself to its emotion, you'll be able to detect if the sound of your writing rings true to your character's experience. This is my ultimate test when polishing a chapter. Does it fall right on my ears? You can also read your chapter aloud or have a friend read it to you. Do whatever it takes.

A caution about sound: Be careful not to lose yourself completely to the beauty of your words. My first drafts are always guilty of this. I go back and cut out at least a fourth of what I've written. It may be pretty or poetic, but it often doesn't serve the overall story and makes the pacing drag.

So these are my tips for variety and sound. How do you handle these elements in your own writing? I'd love to add your suggestions to my bag of tricks!


  1. These are all great reminders. You should seriously write a book. Haha. I mean like a writing craft book. I like your explanations and examples. So helpful!

  2. Great post! I remember learning this about my writing. It really opened my eyes. :)

  3. Brilliant as always. I've been guilty of each one of these. What helps me see them most is to read my story outloud. Or even better, have my kindle do it for me in that machanical voice.

  4. This is great advice! I'm definitely guilty of needing to mix up my sentences. I'm especially aware of it now though, so I like to think I avoid it a lot more than I used to. I'll most certainly take on board some of this advice when I next come to edit. Sometimes it's so easy to forget how crucial sound and variety can be in writing, so thank you for the reminder.

    1. Welcome to my blog, Fiona! I think all writers are guilty of these things. I could pick to death the sound and variety in my writing. At some point I have to blow it a kiss, wish it good luck, and say goodbye. :-)