Saturday, June 18, 2022

Long Sentences Are Just Fine (If You Can Pull Them Off)

Illustration by the author.
When I first became deliberate about becoming a writer I read every book on writing that I could find in the library and bought the ones I thought best so I could study them. More than one of these books wrote about sentence length. Most urged writers to use short sentences. Most also suggested that writing is more interesting when we vary sentence length. One of these authors, if I recall correctly, stated that we shouldn't write sentences longer than 17 words. 

Like many young writers I took these instructions to heart. Hemingway famously wrote short, punchy sentences, right? Wasn't Raymond Carver a "short sentences" kind of guy?

So I was mildly amused the other night as I read an article by Tennessee Williams about how his life had been changed through the sudden fame garnered by his play The Glass Menagerie. The article first appeared in The New York Times. It drew me in immediately, despite the absence of short sentences. In fact, I really wasn't paying attention at all to sentence length because the storytelling was so engaging.

Now check out this sentence.  

No, my experience was not exceptional, but neither was it quite ordinary, and if you are willing to accept the somewhat eclectic proposition that I had not been writing with such an experience in mind--and many people are not willing to believe that a playwright is interested in anything but popular success--there may be some point in comparing the two estates.    

63 words. A paragraph with only one period. But what struck me was the 68-word follow-up paragraph, another single sentence. 

The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.   

The only reason I noticed these two sentences is because I'd listened to a series of lectures on writing longer sentences. The written language is an art form and once you know the rules, it's OK to make your own rules. 

No, that's not the whole of it. I noticed these sentences because I could relate to what he was saying. 

As for Hemingway, he also knew how to vary sentence length. Check out this 125-word sentence that I bookmarked the last time I read For Whom the Bell TollsThe sentence appears at an intense moment in the story. As you read it, there is a feeling of breathlessness as the motorcycle ascends and the sentence ascends with it. 

And as the motorcycle passed the high gray trucks full of troops, gray trucks with high square cabs and square ugly radiators, steadily mounting the road in the dust and the flicking lights of the pursuing staff car, the red star of the army showing in the light when it passed over the tail gates, showing when the light came onto the sides of the dusty truck bodies, as they passed, climbing steadily now, the air colder and the road starting to turn in bends and switchbacks now, the trucks laboring and grinding, some steaming in the light flashes, the motorcycle laboring now too, and Andrés clinging tight to the front seat as they climbed, Andrés thought this ride on a motorcycle was mucho, mucho

For the record, Faulkner has a couple sentences that are more than a thousand words each. 

Are you a writer? Do you restrict yourself with rules about sentence length? What other rules do you bind yourself with? It's never too late to learn a few new tricks. 

1 comment:

Richard Scott said...

Funny you should use an example by Hemmingway, because my father often complained that Hemmingway's sentences were too short. I would never be that dictatorial in sentence length, tho I could see my Eng Lit prof chew me out for being too wordy.

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