Writers always talk about the importance of sentence variety in writing, but they never say which sentence type one should use for a specific scenario. So when do I use simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex?

And how about the following example "He rang the doorbell and looked around at the garden." Do the 2 actions occur at the same time or did he ring the doorbell first before he looked around at the garden?

2 Answers 2


Narration consists of many factors. I am going to focus on three of them, but the total list is extensive.

The first factor is point of view. Who is telling the story? To whom are they telling it? Is the narrator (one or more) telling the story as a remembrance of past events (past tense) or as they happen (present tense)? Why are they telling the story? Is the narrator a reliable story teller or just as confused as the typical politician? Is their view of what happened limited or omniscient?

None of these decisions need be explicitly revealed in the story, but you as the author must have clear answers tucked away as you write. Otherwise, the story meanders and the reader wonders what is going on (but not in a good way).

The second factor is narrative distance. The story may stand off and describe a character as cold, tired, and hungry. This is decried by writing authorities as telling the reader what is happening. Or the story may zoom in and describe the shivers, aches, and stomach grumbles. The narration shows the reader what is going on, and lets the reader handle the characterization.

Personally, I like stories that change the focus from time to time. I do not need the story to show me everything. The simple statement, "The protagonist drove to the store" is just as useful as a detailed description of the visceral pleasure of navigating ten miles of traffic and the frustration of parking. Unless that traffic is a factor. Then it matters. A lot.

The third factor is narrative speed. Perhaps the intent at the beginning of the story is to paint a picture of good friends, excellent food, quality wine, served on a warm summer day in a lush park of greenery and secluded walks where the cares of the world are far away. Then a car appears. Driving fast. Too fast. Panic and screams, cut off too soon. Two bodies, dead. Others injured. The sudden smell of fear. The world of comfort and serenity is forever gone, replaced in a few seconds by anger and regret that will linger for a generation.

The writer has to choose how fast the reader should absorb the material. A long sentence with many clauses will slow the reader down; it takes time to parse the sentence, store it away in short term memory, and then analyze the meaning, using knowledge and experience common to the expected audience. A short, crisp sentence is consumed in a single mental bite. It may take more sentences to get from point A to point B, but the reader will have a sense that things are moving. Things happen. Then more things happen. Then they end. Similar advice applies to paragraphs.

Put all of this (and many more factors) together and you have the voice that is (hopefully) uniquely your own. That is the key. How do you want to sound? What are you comfortable writing? I assume that you will be writing many pages. Writing in a voice that seems proper, rather than in a voice more natural to you, is just one more drag on getting the words on the page.

Write what you write. Find readers who enjoy that writing. All the rest of the "rules of writing" are mere commentary.


To answer your question, I'd suggest that you go with the flow, the rhythm of the sentences you create. Try establishing a rhyme scheme for your sentences when you use certain words. I tend to do this when I use the word, "then." For instance, in dialogue, I have always had the habit in doing the following:

"Wow!" He says.

My friends nods.

"Wow!" He then says again.

My friend has a certain look in his eye, a look of skepticism.

Sometimes, I would do this:

"He then lifts the cup but before he does - SPLAT! He puts the cup down to then..."

There's a rhythm to this sentence when I use the word, "then."

Almost parallel.

Some readers, about one person, didn't like my use of the word then but they were just trying to find something wrong with my writing to justify me paying them more. I heard of their scheme by a friend. I have thus ignored their feedback and found a person who gave me honest and sincere feedback without trying to stiff me for money. They said my use of the word, "then," didn't distract from the story. My sentence structure was 5 out of 5 she told me, assessing, but she did point it out in another story I wrote. I trust her feedback.

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    I find using "then" in a story written in the present tense a little off-putting, and your example with the cup lifting is quite jarring to read. Mar 18, 2020 at 11:40
  • Well, you're entitled to your opinion. Writing in present tense is an awesome way of writing and it helped me, but it wouldn't help you. You do you and I'll do me.
    – user42900
    Mar 18, 2020 at 22:39
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    I am not saying writing in the present tense is not a great way of writing. I am saying that your use of it it not. Mar 19, 2020 at 7:56
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    I am not sure why you are drawing up a straw man that my comment, which began with "I find", should be making objective sense. While the sentence structure in your answer could use some objective improvement, I suppose, I have not claimed anything objective regarding your use of the word "then", and I am not sure why you're claiming that I am. Mar 19, 2020 at 13:23
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    I am not sure why you feel the need to point out that my opinions are my own subjective opinions. That's obviously true, and you pointing it out just comes off as very defensive. Mar 19, 2020 at 14:12

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