Stray Thoughts on Long Sentences

My writerly posts seem to have been few and far between lately. Possibly because my brain hasn’t been working or has been infected by a case of ‘wombatitis’, which is a lesser known but still virulent strain of laziness. But I have taken some tablets (okay, half a block of choclit) to combat the wombatitis and am now thinking again (albeit slowly – more choclit STAT!).

When I was a younger writer I would happily try to pack as many words into a sentence as I could. Indeed some of my sentences were the literary equivalents of clown cars. All those words crammed up against each other, shoehorned in so none of them could breathe. The reader (hell, the writer) would finish a sentence and would have lost track of what the whole thing was about, because the idea itself was lost about five miles back, right at the beginning of the sentence.

I like to think that time, wisdom and (possibly) increased laziness have shown me the error of my ways. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I still get ‘listy’ with it. I just can’t help stringing four descriptive phrases together because I can’t quite decide which one is prettiest (I am working on that with the help of a therapist) – but I am very conscious nowadays of the efficacy of short sentences. What a pity I didn’t just use one. Oh well. The fact is that the more words the writer puts between an idea and the reader, the slower the story moves. The slower the story moves, the grumpier the reader will get. A grumpy reader is bad. A grumpy reader will not return for your next book or short story. A grumpy reader will track you down at a con and demand back the hours you stole from them[i].

My first drafts are always wordy because that’s the stage of ‘brain-vomit’, when everything goes on the page and everything (well, almost) is forgivable. I even occasionally indulge in ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ at first draft stage, but carefully excise them from the second draft. When I’m reading first drafts, I sometimes wonder who put on the profanity soundtrack – then I realise that I’m the one swearing because the sentences are so loooooooong and just awful. So, let us give sincere and humble thanks for the magical process that is ‘editing’, or ‘revision’, or ‘rewriting’, or whatever else you’d like to call it.

When editing one of the things I try to do is make my sentences as short and sharp as possible, without sacrificing the rhythms I like so much in language. When critting other people’s work one of my most frequent comments is “Why use eight words when four or five will do?” This can lead to beatings and stuff getting thrown, but I’m rather good at ducking. Things that drag a sentence out are phrases like “He began to think about”, “She recalled how she had thought”. If there is an action a character is taking then just have her/him take it – don’t ‘commentate’ them into it. That’s always a sign that the writer is thinking their own way into the story. Just like a scene where every single action is described. “He put his hand on the door knob. He turned the door knob. The door swung open. He took four steps across the threshold. He turned around. He closed the door. He turned around again to face the room.” *sigh* How about “He entered the room”? I am reviewing a book at the moment and the text is littered with these kinds of literary slowdowns – and the disturbing thing is that they got past an editor at a reputable publishing house. No, no, I won’t say which one. No. No, no, sending me choclit won’t change my mind.  

Who is good at short sentences? Well, the author who springs to mind is Thomas Harris. In particular, look at Red Dragon, his first Hannibal novel. The prose is clean, precise and incisive. Not a word goes astray, not one ounce of fat on his language. “Graham was angry. Crawford was right, of course. Graham was a natural procrastinator, and he knew it. Long ago in school he had made up for it with speed. He was not in school now.” In addition to being a fantastically concise character sketch, this is also a wonderful example of the effective use of short, sharp sentences. (He also gives us stuff like this “Men have no confidence in whispers”, which just rocks, but I’ll talk about making apposite observations another day.)

“So, Angela,” I hear you ask, “are there any exceptions to the ‘long sentences are evil’ motto which you surely have embroidered on a cushion?” Why, yes, there are. I stumbled across one recently. Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen has a stunning baroque tone about it. The writing is dense and complex, the sentences are long and winding and have a wealth of information folded inside. They are like the Chinese boxes of sentences. The important thing to note is this: Captain VanderMeer is a master of his art. Because Jeff understands not only sentence structure, but also the rhythm required of a sentence, where its natural pauses are to be found. Or as my friend Peter Ball (who has a bigger brain than I) says “he structures them in such a way that there’s either a natural point to pause and process meaning or a rhythm and structure that’s pleasurable to read when divorced from immediate interpretation”. Bravo – couldn’t have said it better myself.

When I read a VanderMeer sentence I feel I am unwrapping something – not that I’m having to swim through treacle to get at meaning. Each word is relevant and carefully chosen, each word reveals something the reader needs to know. This from the novella Dradin, In Love: “Watching her, his blood simmering within him, Dradin wondered if he was dreaming her, she a haloed, burning vision of salvation, soon to disappear mirage-like, so that he might once more be cocooned within his fever, in the jungle, in the darkness.” Long sentence, not one wasted word, everything is relevant. There are more – lots of ‘em, in fact. I’d recommend going and finding a copy of City of Saints and Madmen and just seeing how it’s done.

That’s another thing about writing – sure, it’s fine to break the rules, to do something new, but man, shouldn’t you know what the rules are first? Captain VanderMeer can break the rules because he knows what they are. He understands sentences. One day, I hope to understand them well enough to try and do what he does. Until then, dear readers, short sentences are my friends.






[i] In this case, all you can do is (a) run, (b) apologise, (c) offer choclit, or (d) a combination of all three.

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0 Responses to Stray Thoughts on Long Sentences

  1. Flinthart says:

    “I am reviewing a book at the moment and the text is littered with these kinds of literary slowdowns – and the disturbing thing is that they got past an editor at a reputable publishing house.”

    Sadly, I stopped being surprised by things like that a couple of years ago at least. And it’s not just one publishing house.

    As for the short vs long sentence thing — I’ve never been good at the long, languid, Vandermeerian sentence myself, and I’ve envied those who are. But I note that there is an opposite condition, in which short, declarative sentences fill the page, and I find that reading such works gives me a feeling not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head with a nerf-bat. Thud! Thud! Thud!

    An excellent example — if you can bear to subject yourself to the pain — lies in Elron Hubbard’s “Battlefield Earth Crap*” You can pick pretty much any page at random out of the five or six hundred in that pile of tree-murderings, and be assured of the Cranial Nerf-Bat Experience.

    The middle ground, I think, lies in that key-word you mentioned near the beginning of your post: rhythm. Short sentences for certain effects, long sentences for others, and combinations of both to provide a subtle ‘weighting’ of ideas and images.

    I can see your point about the criticism process, though. Given how difficult it is just to get to the point where your everyday prose doesn’t make noises like a giant tin bathtub full of stinky water with the plug summarily yanked out — well, being able to recognize and appreciate language-rhythms in your own work has got to be tricky, at best. And listening to somebody else tell you that you messed up the rhythmic structure… heh. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever tried to tell anybody that.

    * “Battlefield Earth Crap” was not Hubbard’s chosen title. But it is the only title by which I will ever willingly refer to that material.

  2. angelaslatter says:

    Yep, you’re right – it’s the getting the right combination. I guess the point I failed to make was that mixing is best – just as too many short-sharps will give you a headache, too many long-and-windings will make you nod off.

  3. Ah, but it is the beginning of your last paragraph that pulls it all together —

    “…it’s fine to break the rules, to do something new, but man, shouldn’t you know what the rules are first?”

    I can’t believe how many times I have said pretty much those exact same words.

    – marty

  4. angelaslatter says:

    Frustrating, isn’t it? 🙂