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Amy LeTourneur

Sentence Structure 101

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It’s a “Snooopy happy dance” kind of day. Why? Because today, we’re talking all about sentence structure—what it is, why it’s important, and how to build great sentences for your novel.

I seriously love geeking out on stuff like this, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. So you may be wondering…

Do I really need to worry about sentence structure? Isn’t it more important to craft engaging characters and an enticing plot?

Well, yes, those things are vital to your story. But, frankly, if your sentences suck, your readers won’t care two bits about your carefully crafted plot, because a) they won’t be able to understand it, or b) they will have closed the book long before they get to the good stuff.

As I wrote in my last post about editing:

Every sentence in your novel should adhere to three rules:

    1. It serves a purpose.
    2. Its meaning is clear.
    3. It enhances the flow of the story.

Believe it or not, sentence structure is a primary factor in both the meaning and the flow of your story. So today, we’ll focus on those two items. We’ll talk about flow in a minute, but first, let’s go over some of the nuts and bolts of building great sentences.

What is Sentence Structure?

The writing center at Walden University defines sentence structure in this way: 

Sentence structure refers to the physical nature of a sentence and how the elements of that sentence are presented.

To put it a little more simply, sentences are composed of a few simple building blocks. Sentence structure refers to the way these blocks are arranged. 

Every sentence starts with these basic building blocks: 

  • Independent clauses contain a subject and a verb and form a complete thought.

Maria plays the tuba.

  • Dependent clauses contain a subject and a verb but do not form a complete thought on their own.

Because she loves music

  • Conjunctions (and, or, but…) join clauses together. (comma + conjunction)

Jeff is a runner, but his brother plays baseball.

  • Subordinating conjunctions (because, although, only…) are words or phrases that introduce a dependent clause and connect it to an independent clause.

Even though she eats like a linebacker, Joy still has a slim figure.

Putting these blocks together in different combinations allows you to build sentences that convey the information you want in a manner that both makes sense and is pleasing to the ear.

Types of Sentence Structure

There are four types of sentence structure:

  1. Simple: one independent clause {IC}

Maria plays the tuba. {IC}

  • Compound: two independent clauses joined by a conjunction {C} or semi-colon

Maria plays the tuba {IC}, and {C} her brother plays the piccolo {IC}.

  • Complex: one independent clause and at least one dependent clause {DC} containing a conjunction or subordinating conjunction {SC}

Although both siblings play instruments {DC}, only {SC} Maria is in the marching band {IC}.

  • Compound-complex: multiple independent clauses and at least one dependent clause

Although both siblings play instruments {DC}, only {SC} Maria is in the marching band {IC} because {SC} she loves to perform {IC}.

Is your brain numb from all those brackets? No worries, this section was just for reference. From now on, it’s just plain, simple English.  

Common Problems

Some of the most common problems writers face in the editing phase are run-on sentences and misplaced or dangling modifiers. Let’s look at a few examples so you can fix any you come across in your own manuscript.

Run-on Sentences

Run-on sentences occur when a writer strings several clauses together using punctuation and conjunctions. They tend to be difficult to follow and even harder for readers to enjoy. Take this one, for example:

The well-worn path empties onto the side lawn of the mysterious property, and I jog around the house to gaze up at its front façade, which has decorative iron finials gracing each peak of the gabled roofline, and a rounded tower at one corner of the house boasts floor-to-ceiling windows.    

This sentence meanders and offers too many details for a reader to keep up with. If you come across a run-on sentence in your writing, try breaking it down into simpler sentences by replacing many of the conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions with periods.

The well-worn path empties onto the side lawn of the mysterious property. I jog around the house to gaze up at its front façade. Decorative iron finials grace each peak of the gabled roof line, and the rounded tower at one corner of the house boasts floor-to-ceiling windows.

When fixing run-on sentences, however, be careful not to veer too far in the opposite direction. Cutting the run-on sentence above into four simple sentences would make the passage sound choppy. Ending with a compound sentence, however, makes the passage flow more naturally.

Misplaced Modifiers

modifiers graphic - Work in Progress by Amy LeTourneurAccording to Grammarly, a modifier is a word or phrase that “changes, clarifies, qualifies, or limits a particular word in a sentence in order to add emphasis, explanation, or detail.”

Sounds tricky, right? Here’s a tip to make it easier:

Modifiers often indicate what, where, and how.

For instance:

Joe ate pepperoni pizza in the cafeteria.

What kind of pizza did Joe eat? He ate pepperoni pizza, therefore “pepperoni” modifies “pizza.” And where did Joe eat it? In the cafeteria, so “in the cafeteria” modifies “ate.”  

Modifiers are all fine and dandy…until you put them in the wrong place. These are called misplaced modifiers. For example, let’s take the sentence above and put one of the modifiers where it doesn’t belong:

Joe ate in the cafeteria pepperoni pizza.

In this sentence, “pepperoni pizza” seems to modify “in the cafeteria,” but that doesn’t make sense. Since “pepperoni pizza” tells the reader what Joe ate, that phrase should be closer to “ate,” as in the original sentence above.

Dangling Modifiers

According to this self-teaching unit from Towson State University, “a dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that is not clearly or logically related to the word or words it modifies (i.e. is placed next to).”

In other words, a dangling modifier is one that is not placed near the word it is intended to modify. For instance:

Joe ate pizza in the cafeteria with pepperoni.

The modifier “pepperoni” logically belongs with “pizza,” but the structure of this sentence doesn’t make that clear. In this case, “with pepperoni” is a dangling modifier. Instead, the sentence should read:

Joe ate pizza with pepperoni in the cafeteria.

Or to make it even more concise:

Joe ate pepperoni pizza in the cafeteria.

You’ll find many more examples of misplaced and dangling modifiers in the self-teaching unit linked above.

Get in the Rhythm

In his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Gary Provost wrote perhaps the most brilliant example of story rhythm I’ve ever come across. (see graphic ⬇)

Graphic with Gary Provost quote - Work in Progress blog by Amy LeTourneurThis simple yet profound tip was revolutionary for me. Before reading this, I knew intuitively that good writing has a certain rhythm, but I had never thought of writing as music before.

In the same way a good song captures a listener’s heart, well-crafted sentences carry readers along on a stream of words, helping your story seep into their bones and move their spirit. And that, I believe, is what we writers strive for with every word we write.

But how do you make your writing flow like music? As Mr. Provost suggested, you do this by varying the length (and, therefore, the structure) of your sentences.

If you’re still drafting your novel, then don’t worry about sentence length and structure too much at this point; just focus on spilling the bones of the story onto the page. But when you hit the editing phase, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and mold your rough composition into a musical masterpiece.

Let’s talk about a few ways you can do this.  

Fixing Trouble Sentences

Sometimes, you come across a sentence that doesn’t sound quite right, but you just can’t put your finger on why. When this happens, play around with the building blocks (clauses and conjunctions and so forth) until you find a structure that has a more natural rhythm.  

Let’s go through some examples:

Gloria doesn’t know how to tell Brad how she feels because she never learned how to express her emotions when she was a child growing up with a domineering father in south Texas who thought children were meant to be seen and not heard.

This sentence is wordy, disjointed, and (if you want to be nit-picky) out of chronological order. By separating it into multiple sentences and tweaking some of the wording, we can give the passage a better flow.

When she was a child growing up in south Texas, Gloria never learned how to express her emotions. Her domineering father drilled into her that children were meant to be seen and not heard. So now, as an adult, she doesn’t know how to tell Brad how she feels.

By moving building blocks and adding (or removing) words and phrases, you can give any passage more clarity and rhythm.

Here’s another one:

Happy Jack is the name of the little dachshund that jumps up on Mia’s lap and leaves muddy pawprints all over her brand-new Prada skirt. But Mia loves dogs, so she gives him a good scratch behind his floppy ears. And Happy Jack’s gorgeous owner looks like he could be easy to love, too.   

This passage is stilted and awkward, so let’s move some things around to improve the rhythm:

Happy Jack. That’s the name his owner hollers as the little dachshund leaps into Mia’s lap, leaving muddy pawprints all over her brand-new Prada skirt. Instead of freaking out, she gives the pup a good scratch behind his floppy ears. She’s never met a dog she didn’t love—and Happy Jack’s tall-dark-and-delicious owner looks like he could be easy to love, too.

Notice the em-dash in the last sentence? It joins two related thoughts and adds a little pause between them (rather than a hard stop, as a period would do). Punctuation can enhance the flow of your story as much as (or more than) moving clauses around does. Punctuation is a big topic, so we’ll cover it in depth in a future post. (The thought makes me giddy!)

Is it Really Worth All This Work?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  

While fixing troublesome sentences often calls for a tremendous amount of time and effort, your novel (and your readers) will thank you for it. Well-crafted sentences are every bit as important as interesting settings, engaging characters, and a compelling storyline. And when your sentences flow one into the other without missing a beat, they’ll take hold of your readers and carry them from “It was a dark and stormy night…” to “The End” in one sitting.

And how awesome is that?

Penny for your thoughts…

Do you have a sentence or passage in your novel that has you stumped? Post your most troublesome sentences in the comments below, and I’ll give them a go!   

Next time on Work in Progress:

Mark your calendars for my next post, part one in my series on beta reading—why you need beta readers, where to find them, how to run beta rounds, and so much more. Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!


In case you missed it: Ready to start editing (or already knee-deep in it)? In this post on editing, I break the process down into nine steps to make it easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

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6 thoughts on “Sentence Structure 101”

  1. Words flowing like a sweet melody is exciting to me. I desire was to make them flow, and now I am learning that I can make them sing. This is wonderful news

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