In Defense of Long Sentences

Composition classes have been lauding the short sweet sentence for about 80 years. I’m not going to tell you the short, sweet and tight is bad. It isn’t. I love it. I employ a consciously clipped style myself quite a bit. It’s very effective for the gritty, brutal narrative and it affords a great deal of space for the reader to root around it.

It’s been Hemingway vs Faulkner in the world series of wordsmithery forever.  But if you actually go  looking, Hemingway wrote some very long sentences and Faulkner wrote some very pithy short ones. And that’s probably why, even after all this time, they are still both considered the paragons of literary style. Because, although they are each known for their radically different sentence constructions, they both knew when to switch gears and break their own stylistic paradigm to good effect.

The popularity of the short sweet sentence arose with the emergence of journalistic style.  Just the facts, ma’am and no purple prose. Journalistic writing evolved the way it did, partly due to technological limitations and partly for clarity. When news stories were transmitted by telegraph, there was a lot of drop-out. The shorter the sentence, the less likely it would be cut off. Hence the inverted pyramid format. And, hard as it is to believe now, literacy was still relatively low at the dawn of the 20th Century. The press was part of a move towards democratization of information, particularly in the US, and that effort included writing in plain, easy to read language.

Now, of course, it’s simply a matter of acclimatization to style. Also, you see the preference for short sentences and unadorned language more often in certain genres than others. Thrillers and any other fiction that relies heavily on action tends to preference the short and sweet. Unless the writer is very skilled, too many subclauses can gum up the tension and slow down the pace.

Let me offer you an alternative. Here, from the master of the short sentence, is a long one, pure action, with all the tension and fluidity you could ever hope for:

George was coming down in the telemark position, kneeling, one leg forward and bent, the other trailing, his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow, and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.

Yup, that was Hemingway with a 75 word sentence.  Did the sub-clauses slow it down?

There is a place for short, staccato sentences in erotic fiction, but when I encounter erotic writing devoid of any long sentences, I find it effective but not affective. My intellect engages, but my emotions don’t. Lots of erotica leaves me not very high and literally bone dry. And writing style is often the prime culprit.

Long sentences with a kernel main clause and subsequent sub-clauses that elaborate on the main one are a way to pull the reader into the moment affectively. They offer substance and texture, engaging the emotions and the senses. It complicates ‘the facts’ with the meat of human experience; it offers shades of meaning to what is happening in the story.

Yes, I said it! The Antichrist of all post-modern literary theory. Post-constructivist theory demands that the author only proposes the situation and that readers make the meaning themselves.  As much as I admire Barthes, I think – like all the French theorists – he over-stated his case in order to engender debate.  Yes, readers participate in the meaning-making process, but I think good writers do more than simply provide a venue for that to happen. They do offer meaning, and readers personalize that meaning.

The problem with long sentences is that there are a lot of words in them to misuse. Run-on sentences are often painful because they’re poorly constructed. The reader loses her grasp on the kernel clause, even on the subject itself, and can’t remember what all this modification was actually modifying.

Well written long sentences should enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject, not lose it. The addition of subclauses, either free modifiers or bound ones, should deepen the in-the-moment ‘thereness’ of the reader instead of jerking him out of the narrative in a tizzy of ‘lost-the-plotness.’

No matter what composition teachers tell you, language is not like mathematics. In mathematics elegance is based on simplicity and compactness. But language is an additive beast. The more details you get, the more you know.  I’m not saying that the mot juste is not important. But when language gets too clean, too pithy, too simple, it can lose its humanity. It can also lose its rhythm.

This is particularly true when it comes to writing sex scenes with a view to arousing the reader. Literary fiction writers will often stick to a description of the mechanics in a sex scene. It’s about as sexy as jumping jacks or watching dogs fuck. The whole thing is rendered like a series of short, sharp stabs. All showing and no telling. If they’re scared of being accused of purple prose at any time, they’re terrified of being accused of it during a sex scene.

But erotica writers know better. When you write a good sex scene, you fuck the reader. And good erotic fiction writers are, at least mentally, accomplished lovers. They vary the pace by varying the length of their sentences. They vary the sensory experience by glancing the subject in some sentences and going in for the hard and deep plunder in others. They’re not under the illusion that a ripped body and a 8″ cock used artlessly is going to ever compete with the delicious rollercoaster ride of a well-executed mindfuck. A hot quickie is pleasant, but a good erotic literary mindfuck is a memorable thing. It requires that you make ingress into the reader’s affective mind, not just their imagination of the narrative physical event.

The chief problem with long sentences is that people feel they need to use prepositions and pronouns. If they don’t bind all those sub-clauses together, it won’t be logical.  So, you get this:

He pressed his open mouth over her left breast, then he stroked the tip of his searing tongue around her nipple in a circular fashion before sucking the entire area into his mouth, afterwards leaving the indentation of his teeth behind on her skin.

Admit it, you felt the need to take a deep breath, right?  It’s cludgy.

You need to trust that your reader is smart and with you. They understand that the progression of words is the progression of events, and they know enough about anatomy and how tit sucking works not to need half that crap.

Pressing an open mouth to her breast, he circled her nipple with a searing tongue, and sucked hard, marking her skin with his teeth.

You can’t get rid of every pronoun or every preposition, but you really don’t need most of them.  Although a good deal shorter, it’s still 75 words long – the outer limit of what is considered a long sentence by composition teachers.  I admit to having written much longer sentences than this and I could easily slow down the pace and be languid in my description of this, using more adjectives, an adverb or two if needed. It depends on how I want the reader to experience this piece of intimacy.

Sentence length should be about depth of knowledge and pace. Just as there is a place for the short, hot, meaningless fuck, there’s a place for the long, slow, eviscerating, annihilation  of the flesh. And your ability to execute either of these depends on your ability to be flexible in the way you construct your sentences.

If you’re up for it, there is rather deeper examination of the topic of sentences and especially of modifying sub-clauses written by Frances Christensen. “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” linked here. It’s a pdf file.

2 Thoughts on “In Defense of Long Sentences

  1. After years of a lot of people correcting my use of long sentences, sometimes I catch myself truncating what I wanted to say out of habit. It’s honestly a shame that so much of current literary do this type things have decided that only short n sweet is “correct”. It makes me sad. There is so much room for so much style.

  2. It’s sometimes occurred to me that writing well is often about having confidence in one’s ability to do so. I think that people who write well trust their ear for language and allow themselves to modify the rhythm of the text according to what’s happening and what feels right. And crucially, they check their work afterwords. I’m not talking about professional writers here but everybody else. Some people seem to have no idea about how their words sound to anyone else.

    In my job (which involves technical writing) it’s almost always about short unadorned sentences. I think I’m going to allow myself more leeway in sentence length, though. It’s still the human reader I’m writing for, and I usually need to demonstrate a point or argue a case. Thank you for your defence of the long sentence; you’ve given me a nice lift in confidence in using them.

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