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We resumed our way, until we finally exited the woods and reached a valley. Two ridges stood on both sides, meeting together on the far horizon. In the middle was a river, its quiet surface perfectly reflecting the moon in the sky. There were no trees. Only bushes and autumn-colored shrubs.

In the passage above, this part:

Where were no trees.

I wrote it so I have a short sentence in a paragraph full of long ones. The next sentence is connected to it. So I could have written:

There were no trees: only bushes and autumn-colored shrubs.

This makes more sense grammatically, but I'll end up with sentences of almost the same length.

I could also write:

In the middle was a river. Its quiet surface perfectly reflected the moon in the sky.

Which puts me in the same dilemma.

What should take precedence? Rhythm or clarity?

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1) You just said you exited the woods. So drop the part about no trees. 2) Describe the ridges. Are they barren and rocky, or grassy and dotted with bushes and shrubs, or covered with bushes and shrubs? Is the land wild, or cultivated, or grazed? If not wild, what is being farmed or raised? Are there any houses? 3) If there are ridges on both sides with a river down the middle, then where were the woods? Did the river spring up out of nowhere, or did your travelers come down one ridge? –  dmm Apr 22 at 19:54
    
Nit picking: "Two ridges stood on both sides" - seems to say 2 on the left and 2 on the right. If you leave out the "Two", it works - "Ridges stood on either side". Or "between two ridges, a river flowed". –  Joe Apr 22 at 22:23
    
It's kind of the wrong question. Whatever you write has to "work" for the reader. They have to understand what you're telling them and they have to feel what it means. How that gets accomplished will vary for every situation. There is no "right" answer. Clarity addresses the first issue. Rhythm, word choice, sentence structure, and lots of other things affect the second one. –  Joe Apr 22 at 22:30
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2 Answers 2

Splitting up the sentences didn't alter the rhythm substantially. However, it did alter the meaning, in the sense that it sounds as if you are trying to emphasize that there were no trees and only bushes. Using very short sentence fragments can alter rhythm, but it does this by adding emphasis to elements. Within your. Writing. I don't think that was your intention, since that sounds normal for a valley on the outskirts of a woods.

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Sentence length is pacing, and a component of rhythm, and sets up subtle expectations, whether for more of the same or something different. After three long sentences, a short and simply declarative one produces a certain affect, and feels good, rhythmically. But breaking the pattern and changing the rhythm also changes the emphasis, and (as I hear it) gives those words a higher level of significance than the more purely descriptive words and phrases of the previous sentences. Their meaning changes, however subtly. And if a change in rhythm brings about a change in meaning, then rhythm or clarity is not an either/or question.

In this case, I think the best solution would be to use a dash instead of a period, and keep it one sentence. This would let you retain most of the emphasis effect of the four single-syllable words at the start of the sentence, without creating a grammatical issue. You could accomplish similar with a semicolon, but it lacks the urgency of the dash (at least in part because it's less visually dramatic), and doesn't visually set off the words that follow. It might also feel a little "stuffy" in what seems like a relatively "poetic" context.

If you wanted to keep it two sentences, then (again to my ear), the word 'Only' feels too rhythmically soft to begin a new sentence following that short one, and so you might consider changing it to 'Just', which has a harder tone, and would better work as a bridge between the crispness of the previous words, and the longer, slower pace that returns for the rest of the sentence. It's still grammatically questionable, but that might be easier to buy if the rhythm and sound of the words help justify it.

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