Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Power and Style of Words in Heightening Tension

Before we get to today’s post, my deepest wishes that everyone in the path of Hurricane Isaac has remained safe and suffered as little damage to their property as possible.

Also, please be aware that, starting in September, I’ll only post on Mondays and Fridays. Due to the sheer amount of work I have right now, posting three times a week has proved an increasing challenge, and I would rather give you all quality rather than quantity. To that end, enjoy my last Wednesday post, at least for now.

Yesterday, I read a post on Amy Raby’s blog that was filled with urgency, speed, and tension. It got me wondering how much of that came from her word choice and how much was simply her subject. So, today, we’re going to do a little investigation.

First, go read Amy’s post here. Come right back and we’ll see if we can figure out what gives it that urgency and tension.

Okay, now that you’ve read Amy’s post, let’s take a look at measurable factors: variations in word, sentence, and paragraph length. For comparison, I found an encyclopedia article on recliners and analyzed its first nine paragraphs, the same number in Amy’s post. I picked this piece because it isn’t nearly as urgent or tension filled.

Variations in Word Length:

It’s commonly said that shorter words infuse a work with faster pacing. To test this, I counted the number of occurrences of each word of certain lengths. Where Amy’s post and the recliner article diverge most are these: Words between 1 and 4 characters comprise 69% of Amy’s post and only 49% of the recliner article. Words between 5 to 8 characters comprised 25% of Amy’s post and 30% of the recline post. And words of 9 or more characters comprised 6% of Amy’s post and 21% of the recliner article. If you look at the percentages for short words (1-4 characters) and long words (9 characters and higher), there is a clear distinction, a 20 point difference for short words and a 15 point difference for long words. Amy’s post used a much greater proportion of short words and the recliner article a notably higher occurrence of long words. This suggest that word length really does play a major role in the tension and pacing of a piece.

Variations in Sentence Length:

Amy’s post contained 48 sentences while the recliner article’s first nine paragraphs used 29. However, fewer sentences do not necessarily mean that those sentences were shorter because of variations in paragraph length, which we’ll get to next. Amy has a mean number of approximately 12 words per sentence. The recliner article has 19. Again, this suggests that sentence length also really plays a role in tension and pacing.

Variations in Paragraph Length:

Before we get into this, I want to clarify that Amy’s second paragraph appears alongside a picture. This shortens the lines in most of this paragraph to about ¼ of their normal length, so my calculations make adjustments accordingly. Also, a series of short lines like this increases the pacing as well. I did not include final paragraph lines in these figures that are only composed of one or two words.

Amy’s average paragraph length was 4.5 lines and 5 sentences. The recliner article was 5 lines and 3 sentences. Naturally, font, size, and space allotted for the text greatly impact the number of lines in a paragraph. However, this is important because, visually, number of lines gives greatly impacts the impression of length. But the real test comes down to number of sentences. If you’re dealing with similar line lengths as these two pieces are, sentence length plays a greater role. In this, Amy’s average of 5 sentences per paragraph suggests swifter pacing.

Subject Choice:

Though this aspect of a piece is much more subjective, it plays an important role in the perception of how much a work engages. If you really love furniture and history and have little interest in writing, the recliner article might appear far more entertaining. But if you had two subjects that you held similar amounts of interest in, the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs would become that much more important in determining which you found most engaging.

A further note on this: Types of pieces demand different pacing. Fiction relies on swifter progress through a story. Academic articles are more concerned with appearing unquestionably knowledgeable, so pacing gets shoved in the trunk where it can’t even enjoy a view from the back seat. Consider what type of work you’re writing when planning pacing.


  1. How cool! I don't think anyone's ever analyzed my writing at this kind of deep level before :)