Sunday, December 27, 2009

Voice - Long or Short?

As I've been rereading my Steampunk from NaNo, I find myself thinking a lot about voice. Not my characters' voices, but mine.

I believe one of the ways voice is showcased is in length - length of sentences, phrases, paragraphs and chapters.

My sentences vary in length, but I do use a lot of short, tight sentences, and more than my share of sentence fragments. I like the effect. I know some people believe fragments should never be used. It's one of those grey areas. I think I know the rules well enough to break them for effect & emphasis. Will readers agree? Don't know yet. :)

My paragraphs tend to be short as well. Obviously they vary in length as needed, but I do include a lot of one or two sentence paragraphs.

This tendency of mine extends to chapters as well. Again, there is a fair amount of variety, but I have more short chapters than long.

I believe this is part of my voice as an author. When I look at some of my favourite reads, I find I enjoy variety. Some of my faves lean towards long sentences, paragraphs and chapters, while others run towards short with more fragments. As I read widely, I'm not terribly surprised at the variety of styles I've found!

When you look at your writing, do you find you have a preference for long or short? Do you think this affects your voice?

48 comments:

  1. I think I'm with you...I prefer shorter paragraphs and I actually like the fragments. I think it makes things flow better and sentences aren't jam packed with unnecessary words. It might be the 'wrong' way to do it, but it's the 'right' way for me!
    So, I guess my voice is short. :)

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  2. I tend to write more short sentences and have short paragraphs. Somehow that seems to flow better for me. However, I'm like you and tend to read authors that write both ways.

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  3. Julie - Hooray! Another fragment lover :) I do like the feel and the flow of tight writing.

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  4. Mason - I wonder if short is currently more popular. We'll see how the responses here turn out. I know Tolkein & LM Montgomery (Anne of GG) - 2 of my faves - are very long. They were published years ago. Maybe the fashion has changed.

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  5. I write short sentences, short paragraphs and short chapters. I think some of this is because I'm not very good with commas :)

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  6. Natalie - LOL! I tend to love my commas, but I can certainly understand your viewpoint! :)

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  7. I tend to write short or medium-length sentences. When I first started writing, I wrote extremely long sentences because I was influenced by the classics. Once I grew into my own style, shorter sentences fit me best.

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  8. Medeia - the classics are definitely influential! I think many of us have read and loved them. Yet, we mostly seem to favour short (at least so far!). Interesting!

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  9. I use a lot of fragments especially in dialogue, and try to keep paragraphs short. But I think you're right, Jemi, the shorter paragraphs are a more contemporary style. I love Jane Austen, but some of those paragraphs! Yikes!

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  10. VR - Definitely! I think Anne of GG's first sentence is almost an entire page long. Times they are a-changin'. :)

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  11. Like you I think I vary. My preference would lean towards short, but at times I get in the groove of a scene and find I've gabbed for a long while.

    Short and strong I think is my ultimate writing goal.

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  12. Tamika - Yes - my middle chapters are longer because of the groove. :)

    At the beginning and end, the pace is quicker and those chapters tend to be very short.

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  13. I like to use shorter sentences to make strong points. I think short sentences grab and focus a reader's attention well. Otherwise, I vary a lot. I love fragments, but I also love fluent, snakelike sentences. And yes, I do think it's about voice. :-)

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  14. Shannon - I agree - shorter grabs my attention as well.

    I love your snakelike sentence description - very apt! :)

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  15. Oh man I am SUCH a fan of short :-) And I LOVE sentence fragments. I think it's because I (sometimes) tend to skim longer sections when I read books, I try to write as few of them as possible in my own work.

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  16. Sara - Fragments have a lot of fans today :) I wonder if so many of us are pressed for time that shorter is easier on the reader. And the writer. Hmmm. Good food for thought!

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  17. It depends on the mood I'm trying to impart. I wrote one piece in the voice of depression (meaning: main character was in and out of a mental hospital), so the sentence structure mimicked her ability to speak - short sentences for numbness and short thoughts. Other moods and other characters might not lend themselves to this pattern.
    The genre can also speak to this...Though I must say finding your own style is wonderful. I look forward to reading some of your writing, Jemi!

    MicheleSouthernCityMysteries

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  18. Michele - great points! Genres do have their own voices as well. What works in one, will not necessarily work in another.

    I love the different voices of my characters as well - I'll have to focus on that in another post :)

    Thanks!

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  19. Jemi, I too use short paragraphs and fragments! Whew-- thought I was the only one. :) I like to reason it out like this: People don't think in complete sentences. They think in fragments. So for me, sometimes (okay alot of times) it conveys just what needs to be said.

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  20. TK - isn't it nice to know we're not alone? :)

    I agree - I think in bursts as well. Another way our society has changed over the past few years/decades.

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  21. None of us can avoid Hemingway. His style, whether we like it or not, has influenced generations of writers (witness as example the current anti-adverb sentiment). I think today's writing tends toward short and concise, but let's not go too far and do what Dan Brown did to bug me so mightily in "Angels and Demons," and use a single adverb as a sentence (gah!).

    Personally, I find my sentence length changing depending upon the subject matter. Is it strange that when I write from a female POV I tend to write longer sentences? 'Cause I do. My male-POV pieces have shorter and choppier sentences.

    (N.B.: that probably says more about my own psychology than anything else, but hey... :)

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  22. Simon, I must admit I use of adverbs. Regardless of the current trend to avoid them at all cost, and that it's a sign of 'poor' writing, I still use them (sparingly).

    (Now that I've admitted that I feel much better! :D)

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  23. Simon - Hemingway has certainly influenced more than his share of writers! I agree that males and females tend to have different flows to their writing. We are very different beings! :)

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  24. TK - LOL! Adverbs aren't completely evil! I think it's quite okay to use them when you need them :)

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  25. I do a little of both, I think - but it depends on whose perspective I'm writing from and what the scenario is. For example, my novel is written from the POV of a high school girl, so sometimes her sentences are a bit longer and more convoluted than normal. If I were writing as a boy, I would use shorter, more to-the-point sentences. But I enjoy both!

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  26. I like both, but if I see a book with very little "white space," I pass on it totally. I enjoy dialogue too much to take on a book that's just narrative.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  27. Anne - great point - teenage girls use some of the most convoluted sentences on the planet :)

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  28. Elizabeth - yes - I enjoy reading and writing dialogue as well. It's where the characters really come to life.

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  29. I'm a Fragment Queen. I use them, especially in dialogue and interior monologue because that's how people speak and think. It's part of an author's voice. (And I get lost in long, convoluted, 'literary' sentences!)

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  30. Terry - LOL :) Another fragment fan! They do work particularly well in dialogue, don't they?

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  31. Not only do I think it reflects my voice, but it influences the pacing. Shorter, choppier sentences lead to faster pacing. Shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences get read faster. I lean toward that because in YA I don't want to lose someone behind a really long sentence or paragraph.

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  32. My paragraphs definately are short as many people simply do not like to read long paragraphs. Its a turn off for many and they end up scanning pages, skipping pages, or setting the book down.

    I also vary my sentences, but try to keep them short as a general rule of thumb.

    Stephen Tremp

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  33. I like fragments, but I feel the need to mix it up a little. Short and choppy all the time annoys me. The Hunger Games is filled with fragments, but not all the time--done quite well, actually. YA can probably handle shorter sentences, fragments, and short paragraphs, especially in first person, as the characters are usually teens, and that makes sense to me. Long and drawn out eloquence probably works better in...well, only in Tolstoy and the like probably. Actually, it can be very annoying.

    All that said, I think the voice needs to fit not just you as an author, but the genre and the voice/tone of the characters. Great post!

    Hope you're having a wonderful holiday season.

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  34. Elana - yes! In YA especially, shorter is probably better. Kids/teens like a fast pace and moving action. This NaNo is YA and I'm finding the same thing.

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  35. Stephen - yes, I think short is definitely a pattern here. Fast moving is apparently in fashion right now :)

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  36. Carol - Thanks :) Hope you're having a great holiday as well - I've been having a fabulous time!

    I agree with the voice tending to change with genre and target group. I didn't notice that about Hunger Games - guess I was too caught up in the story. I'll have to go back and have a look at the voice/style. It was a great book :)

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  37. I think variety is the spice of life. When you speak of fragments I think about "The Shipping News", and Annie used them profusely, on top of the bargain, she won the Pulitzer prize, so never say never to fragments. The trick is to keep the flow working, rules be damned!

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  38. Elizabeth - I like your thinking :)

    I think you're right about the flow - it really is important to ensure it works!

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  39. Wow, Jemi, lots of comments! This is a popular post.

    I tend to vary both sentence length and paragraph length. My work seems to flow better if I do. I've read books with shorter S&Ps and like them very much. Longer S&Ps don't hold my attention unless the author is very, very good. (Stephen King, for example.)

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  40. I agree that one's own personal style often tends toward shorter sentences or longer sentences, but it's often advisable to amend that style to varying degrees.

    Shorter sentences have more effect when relaying tension than longer ones do, to the extent that longer sentences can often kill the mood, whereas longer sentences are useful in expository paragraphs.

    That can sometimes be hard going for the reader, but is preferable to having masses of short sentences that don't really convey the descriptive narrative very well, and tend to bore the reader more quickly.

    I think the question of 'voice' is a separate one to that of 'style' - the voice of a piece varies even more, often due to the genre, the setting or the period of the work, and has a lot more factors involved than just length of sentence or of paragraph.

    For example, I'd readily use the longer form: "it is..." as part of dialogue for characters in a historical or fantasy setting, whereas I think I'd tend to use "it's..." in most cases if the character was in a modern day setting, (unless of course the statement was emphasizing the 'is' to directly refute "it isn't!")

    I write in the sci-fi and fantasy genres and without even trying, the overall voice of the pieces differs between the two. It's difficult writing genre crossover pieces of course, or when featuring modern day characters in a fantasy environment, because it's hard to get the blend right and to determine when and where the 'voice' should differ.

    Again though, especially in terms of dialogue, the question of sentence length arises. Historical/Fantasy characters may well indulge in flowery, prosaic speech, and the author can get away with that; in fact it's probably expected, but we often emphasize the modern-day, real-world aspect of dialogue by making use of shorter sentences and indeed sentence fragments, because that's the way people speak in many cases, these days.

    In short: style is one thing; it's nice to have a recognisable style, but we should try to be flexible and let the voice suit the setting to a certain extent.

    Sorry for waffling on Jemi, but I wanted to point out that particular aspect.

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  41. Suzette - Thanks!

    I agree, unless it's one of my favourite rereads or a really good author, long sentences & paragraphs can make it harder to keep my attention.

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  42. Dave - interesting comments! :)

    I think sentence structure is part of the voice in writing, but it certainly isn't the "be all and end all" of voice. Voice is so many things in combination.

    I agree that genre and time periods do affect the length of sentences and paragraphs. As does the target audience. My Steampunk is YA. I've been conscious of both the speech patterns of the time period and the reading habits of my intended audience. It's a fun challenge to create a story that is true to the first without alienating the second.

    Great discussion :)

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  43. I'm a fragment writer for some characters. It just seems to work well. I do write in short paragraphs as a general rule, but my sentences tend to be longer. Of course I write for kids, so the short paragraphs and chapters aren't as obvious there. The longer sentences can get me in to trouble with my chapter books, however.

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  44. Cat - The target audience definitely affects the sentence and paragraph length. I think your natural rhythm and story-telling voice make your long sentences very easy to read. I don't think they'll be a problem at all!

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  45. Variety is good. I like playing with sentence length variation in dialogue--it can say so much about a character.

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  46. Jean - yup! Variety is definitely a great spice to add :) And, yes, it adds so much to characters!

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  47. I try to keep it short. There's method in my maddness. It's a whole lot easier to add things in than it is to take things out. ;)

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  48. Nisa - Great point :) You're right - it's so much easier to add than subtract!

    Thanks so much for dropping by!!

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