The Long and the Short of It

June 17, 2021 § 9 Comments

Last night, in a webinar for Creative Nonfiction, we talked about sentences. What makes them soar lyrically across the page; what makes them stumble awkwardly into your editor’s inbox. Two great questions came in afterward (Thank you Maria-Veronica and Catherine!). First:

What are the most important or key elements that make a long sentence great? In what way can it have as great an impact as a short one?

I love long sentences. The bane of my MFA existence was classmates who “corrected” what they saw as run-on sentences in my work. Thanks for the effort, fellow writers, but 90% of the time I wanted the sentence that long! Maria-Veronica’s question made me think deeply about why. What makes a long, complex, multi-claused sentence not a run-on?

1) Rhythm: the sentence pulls the reader in with flow or beats, often including deliberate repetition.

2) Direction: the sentence spirals deeper into a moment, or the sentence zooms out to show context as part of the immediate moment. If the direction changes, the reader is clearly brought along.

3) Unity: the sentence has one time and one location, unless there’s a specific reason to go elsewhere; or the sentence uses one metaphor and explores it fully. We’re expanding one moment, not compressing a whole bunch of moments into one.

Rhythm:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

– Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Note how the deliberate repetition of “mad”-syllable-syllable establishes rhythmic beats. “To be saved” breaks the pattern and slows us a little as the clauses get longer. Then, repeating “burn” accelerates the sentence through the final, un-punctuated image.

Direction:

On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.

– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow

The sentence starts in a close, intimate moment, then zooms out to the feeling of sexual release and otherworldly expansion. Halfway through, “sliding down a rainbow” navigates the reader from the universe back down toward earth; the things on earth; the people; and the sentence circles back to where we started.

Unity:

He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.

– Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Forty-five words showing and exploring how one man says, “I love you.”

For fun, try rearranging the words in one of the sentences above and seeing how their power diminishes in another order. (These and many other beautiful sentences at https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/)

I’m also a fan of the sentence fragment, judiciously deployed. Catherine asked about one of the samples on my slides, a fragment from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and here’s the whole gorgeous passage:

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.

No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.  

Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

The ten fragments (and two grammatically complete sentences) are showing death, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, as a series of physical experiences flashing into consciousness and then unconsciousness.

Use whatever sentence structures make your story sing on the page. If that’s fragments, great! If that’s run-ons, make ’em work! The important part is knowing what you’re doing—it’s not a fragment because you messed up, it’s a fragment chosen to best deliver that moment of the story. There is no prize for “best grammar” in the publishing world, no golden star for subject-verb agreement, no blue ribbon for adjective order or time served for use of adverbs, but plenty of writers bend language to their will.

Be one of them.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Pre-order Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, or join her June 28 for a free keynote or paid masterclass on writing YA Memoir with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington.

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§ 9 Responses to The Long and the Short of It

  • I wrote a long response that somehow got eaten so before I try again, I am testing the system. Like this.

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this. It’s a great reminder that prose writers as well as poets rely on sound, beats, and images to reach the reader. And that we should love our sentences. Thanks!!

  • I engage in long sentences and my proclivity for them has often been challenged in workshops, including, dismayingly, once by a high school English teacher at a grown up writers’ conference who ought to have known the difference between a “run-on sentence” which is one not correctly punctuated and thematically meandering, and a sentence which may be long and contain a number of subordinate clauses (including parenthetical asides) but says exactly what the author intended it to say, and at the correct length. Sometimes I may follow such a long sentence with a short one. For impact. Or emphasis.

    I also nurse a pet theory that there is some gender bias in this, that male writers are presumed to be engaging in emulation of Kerouac or David Foster Wallace, while female writers are presumed to be going on and on. Don’t come at me – I said pet theory.

  • Suzanne says:

    (Almost) any sentence in any Brian Doyle essay

  • Charlie says:

    Bravo!

    I’ve had long sentences questioned in Creative Writing workshops, and in one case, by the workshop leader who threw out the question “Is this long sentence a good one?” without ever weighing in themselves, which has over the years continued to whittle away at my propensity for and love of creating long sentences. (53 words)

  • One of the stories I taught for years was all about sentences: long and short sentences, lists, repetition and rounding back to the key event, and also the brief sentences of yearning by the POV character in “The Things They Carried” (the short story, not the novel) by Tim O’Brien.

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