Syntax: Sentence Organization and Voice Creation
Most writers know syntax is the way the words in a sentence are organized. When they examine their sentence organization, writers often only look for clarity to make sure their point is coherent. What they don’t consider as frequently is how the way a sentence is arranged builds both their authorial voice and the voices of their characters.
Parataxis: Simple Sentence Structure
Parataxis are short, simple sentences. Even when combined, they remain simple because only coordinating clauses (two sentences that could be their own independent sentences) are used. Here, the same two paratactic phrases are shown written three different ways.
1. Ellie wanted a cookie. She slid the chair to the counter.
2. Ellie wanted a cookie, so she slid the chair to the counter.
3. Ellie wanted a cookie: She slid the chair to the counter.
Whether the sentences are combined using a conjunction like “so” or left apart, they stay simple with a short, choppy rhythm. When mixed among longer, more complex sentences, paratactic sentences stand out and often function as a punch of direct information. They are particularly useful in action scenes. The quick, staccato nature of this syntax mimics the fast breathing and heart beat characters and readers experience in tense, dangerous, or exhilarating situations.
Paratactic sentences are useful when an author needs to build a naïve, childlike, or impartial voice. These sentences are not the syntax of someone delving into the depths of a situation or subject; they are the quick, shallow observations of someone reporting what’s happening around them without a judgement or the thoughts of someone incapable of deep consideration, at least in that moment. Patrik Ourednik uses parataxis to keep opinions at bay in Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. The facts he chooses to report and the syntax he uses prevent judgement of the sometimes horrific events he covers. He states:
People traveled in sealed freight cars that remained closed throughout the journey and they had no where to go to the toilet, and, when someone died, the corpse remained in the car. Some concentration camps were intended for labor and others for extermination of the Jews (34).
Even though the first sentence is a run-on, it is a run-on composed of paratactic phrases. The thoughts are short recitations of facts that get straight to the point. This builds an omniscient and impartial point of view, tone, and voice.
A character who primarily speaks through paratactic sentences will be seen as direct and, depending on the delivery of the phrase, either cold and distant or volatile and not in control. Giving a character short, simple sentences can help differentiate their voice from other characters.
Hypotaxis: Complex Sentence Structure
The opposite of parataxis, hypotactic sentences are long and complex. They contain dependent clauses (phrases that can’t be their own sentences) as well as independent clauses. Here are the paratactic sentences from earlier rewritten to represent a different character:
The scent of melting chocolate and baking butter made Eleanor’s mouth water, but her new diet did not allow the gooey goodness of cookies, not even fresh morsels destined for her grumbling, ungrateful uncle.
The complex nature of Eleanor’s desire to eat the cookie would not come through as strongly in a string of short, simple phrases. The hypotactic syntax mimics her desire to consume the cookies both for their deliciousness and to avoid giving them to her undeserving uncle. Therefore, hypotactic sentences are particularly useful in creating multifaceted comparisons and extensive, detailed scene-setting. The endless, intricate nature of hypotaxis compels the reader to steep themselves into the setting, story, and moment where a character experiences wonder or overwhelm, or meanders through a new environment.
Because hypotactic sentences are long and complex, they are useful when building a philosophical, well-educated, or verbose voice. These are the sentences of a deep thinker, eloquent speaker, or pompous ass depending on the tone and point of view. They belong to someone who seeks to understand the world, their situation, or their field; not to someone uninterested in the subject or their surroundings. While this style of sentence is common in all genres, it is particularly popular in literary fiction. In Laird Hunt’s Neverhome the narrator says:
When one of the women who rung her hands asked him if he had seen her darling boy in the fights, he did not answer but he did gulp and look away, and when, in that retreat, his eyes found mine and jumped like they had had yellow-jacket stingers shoved into their centers, I knew I could still have my hope (159).
In this moment the reader sees the male character empathize with a women who went insane after losing her son in the war and recognize the point of view character. The long, complicated sentence works in tandem with the evolution of his emotions and understanding of the situation. This adds another layer to his character while showing the perceptiveness of the narrator.
A character might speak through hypotactic sentences to convey a more nuanced or complicated point, to work through a thought-process out loud, or to show connections between subjects and theories. They could also be long-winded and trying to appear smarter than they are. While at first glance, hypotaxis might seem indirect, it can be more the point the sentence is making is not simple than the character is being evasive or indirect.
Advice from an Editor on Building Voice with Syntax
Earlier I mentioned most writers don’t think this deeply about the organization of their sentences and that’s fine. Your choice in using a paratactic or hypotactic sentence is probably intuitive, and your preference for one over the other is a part of your authorial style and voice. However, there are times when adjusting your syntax can benefit your piece.
If you receive feedback saying your characters sound the same, look at their syntax. Do all of your characters construct sentences and therefore speak in the same way? Are they all using short, simple sentences or long complex ones? If so, change one character’s way of organizing their sentences and see what it does for their voice. I’m not saying go full Yoda on your characters. Even a subtle difference in sentence/speech length and word choice can differentiate your characters’ voices.
You may also want to change the length and complexity of your sentences based on the tone and pace you are trying to set. Long, intricate sentences slow your pacing; short, direct sentences speed it up. If you are writing a novel, you will need sections of fast and slow pacing, so adjust your syntax accordingly. If you are writing a short story, you might only need one pace.
Both paratactic and hypotactic sentences have their place. You can manipulate your character’s voice, build your authorial voice, and control your story’s pacing through syntax. As the author, it is up to you to decide if long, complex sentences or short simple sentences will Ignite Your Ink.
What type of sentences do you tend to write? Try rewriting a paragraph of your work in progress using the opposite type and let me know what it does to the voice of your piece in the comments below. Point of view also affects the voices in your story. For a free chart comparing the points of view, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink blog.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.