Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.
Jeanne has run the Odyssey Writing Workshop for the last 26 years, and this year announced the breakthrough new program Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Jeanne’s article below, “The Compelling, Emotional Complex Sentence,”originally appeared at Writer Unboxed on January 17, 2020.
If you’re like me, you struggle to find the best sentence structure to express each idea in your story. Would a long sentence that draws readers in be best? Or a short one that carries impact? Would it be stronger to have one independent clause with several dependent clauses attached? Or would two independent clauses better convey the situation?
Thus I was very excited to come across a claim that the complex sentence has a special ability to convey depths in a story.
I found this claim in the fascinating book Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison. The book mainly talks about alternative plot structures, but it has a chapter on words and sentences.
Intrigued by this claim, I began to pull short stories and novels off the shelves and search for complex sentences. And I was very excited by what I discovered.
Before I can share that with you, though, we need to do a quick grammar review, so it’s clear exactly what a complex sentence is and why it has this special power.
A Journey Down the Rabbit Hole
A sentence conveys an idea. Different sentence structures help you convey different types of ideas.
There are four main types of sentence structures. The simplest is the
Simple sentence: A sentence with one independent clause.
Okay, but what is an independent clause?
Independent clause: A clause that contains a complete subject and predicate and can stand on its own as a sentence.
A simple sentence is great for conveying a simple idea: one action, thought, or piece of information.
He went to the store.
She loved writing, reading, and eating.
The house stood high on the hill.
A structure that’s a little more complicated is the
Compound sentence: A sentence with two or more independent clauses connected by coordinating conjunctions, semicolons, or dashes.
I love coordinating conjunctions because there are only seven of them in the English language, so they’re easy to memorize.
Coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet
A compound sentence works well to convey an idea that has two or more parts of equal importance.
Jane likes hot dogs, and I like hamburgers.
The group laughed, for he wasn’t wearing pants.
She loved to bake cakes, but they tasted awful, so I told her I was gluten intolerant.
I went to the store; she stayed home.
Now we’re up to the intriguing complex sentence.
Complex sentence: A sentence that has one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. Usually these are connected to the independent clause by subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns.
Let’s look more closely at the grammatical terms in that definition.
Dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause): A clause that has a noun and verb but can’t stand on its own as a sentence.
Why can’t it stand on its own? In general, a dependent clause does not state a complete idea. Since a sentence is an idea, an incomplete idea makes for an incomplete sentence.
More specifically, there are several grammatical reasons a clause may be dependent, but the ones we’re focused on here are subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns. One of these words or phrases can prevent the clause from being independent.
The definition of subordinating conjunction (a conjunction that introduces a dependent or subordinate clause) is not very helpful. So let’s look at some examples:
Subordinating conjunctions: after, although, as, as if, as though, because, before, despite, even if, even though, how, if, once, since, so that, than, that, though, unless, until, when, where, whether, while, etc.
These words or phrases introduce a dependent clause and relate it to an independent clause. They may indicate cause (because, as, since, so that), concession (although, though), condition (if, in case, unless), comparison (than), place (where), or time (once, before, after, while, when).
Let’s look at some examples of dependent clauses that begin with subordinating conjunctions:
Although Jane likes steak.
Because he wasn’t wearing pants.
After I ate breakfast.
I think you can sense that these are all incomplete ideas. While they each have a subject and verb, they are not independent clauses. They can’t stand on their own.
Before we turn these into complex sentences, let’s review the other term in the complex sentence definition.
Relative pronoun: a word that introduces a dependent clause and connects it to a noun or pronoun in an independent clause. Relative pronouns are that, which, whichever, whatever, who, whoever, whom, whose, whomever.
Here are some examples of dependent clauses that begin with relative pronouns:
That Jack built.
Who specialized in house calls.
Which had photos of Elijah Wood on it.
As you can see, these are incomplete ideas and incomplete sentences.
So let’s put it all together, adding an independent clause to each dependent clause to create a complex sentence:
Although Jane likes steak, I like hamburgers.
The group laughed because he wasn’t wearing pants.
I washed the dishes after I ate breakfast.
This is the house that Jack built.
My father was a doctor who specialized in house calls.
Jane sat at her desk, which had photos of Elijah Wood on it.
While we’re just dipping our toe into the complex sentence pool, these examples reveal that the complex sentence combines two or more parts more intimately than the compound sentence, because one part is dependent on the other part.
While complex sentences can be compelling and emotional, every complex sentence does not necessarily have those qualities. These are pretty unexciting complex sentences. But they give you an idea of how complex sentences are formed.
If you’ve been counting, you know we’ve only covered three types of sentences. There’s one more type we need to cover before we’re ready for the big excitement.
Compound-Complex Sentence: A sentence that has at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause.
This type of sentence contains both the qualities of a compound sentence (more than one independent clause) and the qualities of a complex sentence (an independent clause and a dependent clause). Here are some examples:
The group laughed because he wasn’t wearing pants, so he ran for the house.
I washed the dishes after I ate breakfast, and the sink drain clogged.
This is the house that Jack built, and you can tell he has no experience.
Though Mitchell prefers science fiction, he read The Lord of the Rings, and he enjoyed it very much.
Now that we can recognize the four types, let’s look at how some great authors use these types, and particularly the complex sentence, to create powerful effects.
Pacing, Excitement, Entrapment
I learned some really interesting things looking at some passages from Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Read the passage through first and try to be aware of the pacing of the sentences and how they make you feel. Which sentence feels like the climax of the passage? Then look at each sentence and see if you can identify what type it is. Then scroll down to see how I’ve labeled the sentences.
In this passage, Frank Dunning is about to kill his wife and children. First-person narrator Jake enters Frank’s house to try to stop him.
I turned my head and saw ten-year-old Harry Dunning standing in the door of a small water closet in the far corner of the kitchen. He was dressed in buckskin and carrying his air rifle in one hand. With the other he was pulling at his fly. Then Doris Dunning screamed again. The other two boys were yelling. There was a thud—a heavy, sickening sound—and the scream was cut off.
For me, this passage moves very quickly. The sentences generally get shorter until the last one, which forms the climax of this passage.
All of the sentences are simple sentences except for the last, which is a compound sentence. The simple sentences allow the passage to move quickly, and the shortening lengths accelerate the speed. The compound sentence at the end creates a slight slowing as we reach the climax, so we linger on that horrible event. That seems very effective.
Later in the scene, Jake attempts to shoot Frank, who has been attacking his family with a sledgehammer. Read the passage twice and consider the same issues discussed above.
He slung the sledge back and brought it around in a whistling horizontal arc. I bent at the knees, ducking as I did it, and although the twenty-pound head seemed to miss me entirely—I felt no pain, not then,—a wave of heat flashed across the top of my head. The gun flew out of my hand, struck the wall, and bounced into the corner. Something warm was running down the side of my face. Did I understand that he’d clipped me just enough to tear a six-inch-long gash in my scalp? That he’d missed either knocking me unconscious or outright killing me by maybe as little as an eighth of an inch? I can’t say. All of this happened in less than a minute; maybe it was only thirty seconds. Life turns on a dime, and when it does, it turns fast.
For me, this is a very exciting passage, one that’s difficult to study because it sucks me in so strongly. The first sentence is simple, which makes the action move quickly and feel very powerful. There’s no stopping that sledge.
The second sentence is compound-complex, with three independent clauses and one dependent clause (“although the . . . “). The complexity of the sentence slows us down and entraps us in this moment, making us experience it with heightened intensity. If you’ve ever been in a crisis, you know that events can often seem slowed down, and many thoughts can go through your mind; the compound-complex sentence helps to convey that feeling. The action, slowed pace, and heightened intensity make this sentence the climax of the passage, the moment of greatest excitement and involvement. We also have a hint of the future, since the sledge only seems to miss Jake. Often, in complex sentences, the past collides with the present, or the present with the future.
The third and fourth sentences are simple, speeding up the action.
The fifth sentence (“Did I understand . . .”) is complex, bringing together the present moment and his future knowledge, increasing the stakes as we realize the extent of his injury. While Jake is reflecting here and through the rest of the passage, we continue to feel suspense because we’re dying to know how the confrontation with Frank is going to end.
The sixth sentence is a fragment, the seventh simple, the eighth compound, and the ninth complex. That final sentence expands upon an idea Jake has stated earlier, so this creates a tie between past and present, and we’re now gaining greater insight into what these rapid turns in life actually mean.
Frank swings and misses, getting the sledgehammer stuck in the wall. Jake tells the child Troy to take his little sister out of the house. See what you think of this passage:
But before he could get her out, someone first filled the door and then came stumbling in, knocking Troy Dunning and the little girl to the floor. I barely had time to see this, because Frank had pulled the sledge free and was coming for me. I backed up, shoving Harry into the kitchen with one hand.
The first two sentences are complex; the third is simple. For me, these first two sentences feel slow; I’m struggling to process and understand, which is just what Jake is doing. So the pace created by the sentence structures mirrors what’s happening with the protagonist. I feel trapped in the moment with him. The slowness also makes me anxious that Jake is moving too slowly to save Harry, increasing suspense. The first sentence is the longest/slowest. The second one moves a bit quicker, and then with the third simple sentence, the pace speeds up more. Jake has stopped trying to understand and is now reacting, so we feel events moving ahead and the faster speed is appropriate.
These passages from King show us how complex sentences can slow pace, create a sense of entrapment, and provide an intense climax to a paragraph or scene.
Emotion and Collision
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury takes his complex sentences even further.
In this passage, the protagonist, Guy Montag, whose job is to burn the homes of people who are hiding books, has been turned in by his wife as having books of his own. Montag’s boss, Beatty, orders him to burn his own house down with a flame thrower. This passage may take a couple of reads:
A great nuzzling gout of fire leapt out to lap at the books and knock them against the wall. He stepped into the bedroom and fired twice and the twin beds went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain. He burned the bedroom walls and the cosmetics chest because he wanted to change everything, the chairs, the tables, and in the dining room the silverware and plastic dishes, everything that showed that he had lived here in this empty house with a strange woman who would forget him tomorrow, who had gone and quite forgotten him already, listening to her Seashell Radio pour in on her and in on her as she rode across town, alone. And as before, it was good to burn, he felt himself gush out in the fire, snatch, rend, rip in half with flame, and put away the senseless problem. If there was no solution, well then now there was no problem, either. Fire was best for everything!
What an amazing passage. Here are the sentence structures:
First sentence: simple
Second sentence: compound-complex
Third sentence: complex
Fourth sentence: compound-complex (and a run-on sentence)
Fifth sentence: complex
Sixth sentence: simple
I think you can feel the clear, forceful action of that first, simple sentence. The second sentence, compound-complex, connects the present and the past with than. This takes us deeper into the situation, so we realize Montag is not just burning his house; he’s burning his marriage and his old life. This builds to the third sentence, which has one independent clause and five dependent clauses. Complexity times five. This sucks us into his gout of emotion and forms the climax of this passage. Past, present, and future all collide in this sentence. It also has the most vivid showing, with strong sensory details.
The fourth sentence also brings together both past and present, but we can feel the intensity dialed down from that incredible third sentence. The sentence ends more with thought than emotion. The fifth sentence continues that progression as he tries to banish his upset. The simplicity of the final sentence fits his attempt to dismiss his problems with this assertion.
After Montag burns down his house, Beatty asks for the flamethrower back:
“Hand it over, Guy,” said Beatty with a fixed smile.
And then he was a shrieking blaze, a jumping, sprawling, gibbering mannikin, no longer human or known, all writhing flame on the lawn as Montag shot one continuous pulse of liquid fire on him. There was a hiss like a great mouthful of spittle banging a red-hot stove, a bubbling and frothing as if salt had been poured over a monstrous black snail to cause a terrible liquefaction and a boiling over of yellow foam. Montag shut his eyes, shouted, shouted, and fought to get his hands at his ears to clamp and to cut away the sound. Beatty flopped over and over and over, and at last twisted in on himself like a charred wax doll and lay silent.
First sentence: simple
Second sentence (first sentence of new para): complex
Third sentence: complex
Fourth sentence: simple
Fifth sentence: simple
The second sentence presents us with the puzzling image of Beatty on fire, because we haven’t been told that Montag turned the flamethrower on him. That information comes in the dependent clause ending the sentence, creating a shock as we (and Montag) realize what he’s doing. Here, the present is colliding with the present. The third sentence provides a series of horrific images, a collision of images. The complex second and third sentences form the climax of this passage and have the most vivid showing. The last two sentences are simple, reducing the intensity and providing a sense of resolution at the end.
What We Learned in the Rabbit Hole
So what have we discovered about the use of complex sentences?
1. Complex sentences can slow pace to enmesh readers in a situation
2. Complex sentences can sweep readers up in intense, complex, extended emotion
3. Complex sentences can convey the climax, the peak of emotion, action, and excitement in a passage
4. Multi-complex sentences (with more than one dependent clause) can be even more powerful
5. Vivid showing can add to the emotional power of the complex sentence
6. Complex sentences usually have simple or compound sentences before and after
7. Complex sentences often come in the middle of a paragraph with sentences building up and conveying after effects
8. A passage can build up to a complex sentence at the end like a climax or realization
9. A passage can begin with a complex sentence and follow with after effects
10. More than one in a row can make readers feel the character’s struggle
11. Complex sentences can tie the past and present or present and future or even the present and present together to provide insight, revelation, or realization
12. Complex sentences don’t belong in passages where you want things to move swiftly ahead
The complex (and compound-complex) sentence is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. When used with care and skill, it can create some of the most memorable and emotional moments in a story. But let’s not forget the trusty simple and compound sentences. They, too, serve important purposes. Only by finding the best sentence structure for each idea can an author maximize a story’s impact.
In a passage where you’re trying to convey strong emotion, are you using a complex sentence as the climax of that paragraph? If so, can you strengthen your complex sentence to achieve some of the effects listed here? If not, can you revise to create a complex sentence as the climax of the passage?