Why all long sentences must come to an end

A post at Visible Thread: Why all long sentences must come to an end

In a meta sense, I enjoy the title of this post. Why, yes! All sentences, no matter how long, must eventually come to an end. Either this will happen at the end of the paragraph or at the heat death of the universe, whichever comes first.

Of course, I also think the sentiment expressed is … how shall I put this? … largely wrongheaded.

Here is that sentiment:

Long sentences breed complexity and confusion. Short sentences will resonate more. … A longer sentence is harder to understand than a short one. 

You can click through and read the whole post if you like. I’m pretty sure readers of this blog are not particularly likely to agree that all sentences should be short. However, this turns out to be largely a post about communicating with customers, so that’s not particularly relevant to fiction. This idea is, however, still mostly wrongheaded. In particular, short sentences only have punch in contrast to the longer sentences that surround them. Given a setting of longer sentences, yes, a short sentence may resonate with power. Otherwise, not particularly. Here’s a good post about that: The power of short sentences:

Time and again the shortest sentence in a professional paragraph is brought up against the longest, or at least lodges among some much longer. This smallest sentence is often a basic sentence both grammatically and semantically, stating in simplest terms the central idea of the paragraph. … Narrative prose may be fashioned on a somewhat different principle, a more dramatic one. It is still disposed into paragraphs most of the time, but short sentences when they do appear are less often a condensation of the topic than some narrowed, relaxed point of departure or a slamming start, a later point of rest, an abrupt turn or climax, or a simple close. 

That’s a nice paragraph right there. It’s by Virginia Tufte, in her 1971 book Grammar as Style. I wonder if that is still available. Ah, I see it is, sort of. Outrageous price. Here is a possibly updated version: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, that is actually available. This does sound like an excellent and fun book if you like to look at great sentences. Which of course we all do, right?

I mean, sentences such as this one:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

And, as it happens, the above sentence is also a fantastic illustration of how to write a really long sentence that is also easily understood by the reader, including the so-called modern reader with the presumptive short attention span: It’s a set of dichotomies until you get to the dash. That means the sense of the whole first part of the sentence comes through effortlessly. Only that last bit requires thought.

While on this topic, that one sentence from A Tale of Two Cities also constitutes the entire first paragraph. In this case, that makes for a paragraph of about average length, but of course generally speaking a one-sentence paragraph will be short. Or at least short-ish. Still, starting a book with a single sentence set off as a paragraph by itself can be quite effective, no matter how long that sentence may be.

I start my books with one-sentence paragraphs pretty often. Let me see. Looks like I’ve done this six times, which means about 25% of my books. Here they are:

Tuyo: Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.

Nikoles: Nikoles Ianan’s appetite for vengeance wavered and dimmed and finally wore itself out long before the execution was meant to end.

Tarashana: The first arrow missed only because the gods were kind.

The Mountain of Kept Memory: They were talking about her.

Door Into Light: Three weeks before the spring solstice, one week after the door to Kaches had first appeared in this whimsical, unpredictable, willful house where he had lived for the past month and more, Taudde stood before that door, his hand on the knob, recruiting his nerve to open it.

The White Road of the Moon: There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the town of Tikiy-by-the-water, but only one of them was alive.

Wow, a lot more variation in sentence length than I really expected.

I do think “They were talking about her,” standing all by itself, constitutes a pretty effective first paragraph. But it’s hard to beat the first sentence of Tuyo (in my opinion, which may not be entirely objective). I’ve always liked the first sentence of White Road too, and worked very hard to keep that sentence through every possible revision. That’s why the story starts with this line and then almost immediately provides a flashback: I was willing to put in some background to orient the reader, but only if I could do it in a way that would preserve the first sentence.

Regardless of sentence length, if you’re polishing up a novel, I do recommend trying the first sentence of your book as a paragraph all by itself and seeing how that looks and feels.

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4 thoughts on “Why all long sentences must come to an end”

  1. When I think of long sentences, I think of Robin McKinley and Georgette Heyer. I guess because I notice the structure and length of both their sentences – I am frequently compelled to stop reading to mentally diagram one of their sentences, and at minimum, attach the subject to the verb. When I stop to really think about it, they interject so many diversions and prepositional phrases between the two, it becomes a pretty fuzzy path between actor and action. Not that I don’t enjoy their writing, but I sometimes find the style distracting – it will jar me from the story.

  2. No post on long sentences is complete without A. A. Milne:
    In after-years [Piglet] liked to think that he had been in Very Great Danger during the Terrible Flood, but the only danger he had really been in was in the last half-hour of his imprisonment, when Owl, who had just flown up, sat on a branch of his tree to comfort him, and told him a very long story about an aunt who had once laid a seagull’s egg by mistake, and the story went on and on, rather like this sentence, until Piglet who was listening out of his window without much hope, went to sleep quietly and naturally, slipping slowly out of the window towards the water until he was only hanging on by his toes, at which moment luckily, a sudden loud squawk from Owl, which was really part of the story, being what his aunt said, woke the Piglet up and just gave him time to jerk himself back into safety and say, “How interesting, and did she?” when—well, you can imagine his joy when at last he saw the good ship, The Brain of Pooh (Captain, C. Robin; Ist Mate, P. Bear) coming over the sea to rescue him.

  3. Long sentences tend to hook the things in them more tightly together.

    I note that some long sentences can be prevented by making sure you write down the events in order. This cuts down on the need for subordinating conjunctions that make sequence clear, and so lets them be split up as necessary. (Also, it’s generally better to put them in order even if you decide that “John turned after the door opened” is better as “After the door opened, John turned.”)

  4. Pete, you’re right, that sentence is just fabulous.

    I like long sentences — and with Heyer for sure, I enjoy working my way through her complicated sentences. This is true even though it does pull me out of the story. I’m not that emotionally drawn into Georgette Heyer’s books and enjoy them very much, but almost more at an intellectual level. I hadn’t actually fully realized that until your comment, Mary, and then it was crystal clear.

    Long sentences aren’t something I’ve specifically noticed for McKinley, probably because I *am* more emotionally drawn in with her work.

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