Syntax and Sentences: How to Make Your Story Sing

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. The cumulative goal of sentences in fiction should be to please the reader’s inner ear.

Syntax and grammar

To get a handle on the syntax of your sentences, you’ll want to have a basic understanding of grammar. If that’s a subject you didn’t learn in school, spend a little time boning up on the basic parts of speech and how they’re used. By understanding how the cog wheel of grammar drives the syntax, you’ll become more adept at manipulating the story’s voice. Image from Open Clip Art via

If you can improve your ability to shape sentences, your writing will be give readers greater pleasure. Why is that? Because readers “read” with an inner ear. The voice of the story speaks through its sentences, and it’s the story’s voice that engages the reader’s feelings. Researchers at Durham University in the UK have studied this phenomenon, and here’s what one of the participants in their study said:

“It’s not only the pitch or sound, but the rhythm of the speech, and the character’s emotion and movement I get, it’s the whole package, as if I’m watching a film or in the same space.” (Consciousness and Cognitiion 49, 2017, pp. 98-109)

In a previous post I talked about the four elements of voice: syntax, diction, tone, and imagery. In this post I’m going to explore one of the elements–syntax.

Sentences in College Essays

I believe that sentences in fiction differ from sentences in other kinds of writing–newspapers and college essays, for instance. Let’s compare sentences in college essays with those penned by writers of fiction. The sentences below come from College Confidential.

In the excerpt below the writer is talking about how he changed after the birth of his baby