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Seeing a hundred colours

In praise of the long sentence

I've been thinking about long sentences. The prevailing orthodoxy, it seems, among many of my fellows - not to mention writing teachers and students - is that short sentences, specially with the simple syntax which they're also likely to have, are 'punchier'. They're striking. Listen! They seem urgent, forceful. They demand to be heard. Readers notice them. Long sentences, on the other hand, go slowly, take too long, bog readers down, bore them.

Really? I think it's nowhere near as simple as that. Let's go up a step or two in scale, for a moment. Fiction is all about what John Gardner calls 'profluence': flow forwards. It's not just bog-standard, plot-heavy commercial page-turners who need to give the reader a reason to keep reading, it's every story ever written. An early discovery for any fiction writers is that a scene needs a shape (the Hollywood derived term is arc, but let's not get fancy): a beginning, middle and end. It springs from a certain point and the action - what's said and done - results in something having changed in plot, character, feeling, whatever, by the end of the scene. And for the next scene to be convincing, it needs to have been seeded in this scene. It then springs out of those seeds, flowers, and so on. If there isn't a change, if the next scene isn't set up (or a later one, of course: I'm abstracting the essentials here), the scene shouldn't be there, because it's stalling or at least pausing the book.

Similarly with sentences. Short sentences don't flow. Yes, the next one may develop it. But at each full stop the reader, well, stops. There are several unfortunate consequences of the short sentence. One: rhythmically and therefore mentally the reader has to start up again each time. They may choose not to. Two: because you can't easily link each sentence grammatically and logically to the next, you're relying on the reader to make the connections: to move the story on, to provide their own profluence. Some will, some won't, but none will do it as well and reliably as when you, the writer, provide it. And Three: it's boring to read/hear for any length of time, just as is a single drum beat instead of the stress and slack, the interlocking rhythms of our human existence.

My natural sentence is long because, for me, a sentence needs movement as much as a plot does, and since that runs against one 'rule', I've had to think about it. Of course there's a place for short sentences, but unless there's a positive reason to stop dead every few words, I want every sentence to move the reader on to a very slightly different place from where we started. And that end provides the natural jumping-off point for the next sentence to move the reader on to a very slightly different... You get the idea.

Now, long sentences don't have to be pompous or involved or demand that the reader hangs onto the beginning so they can understand the end, they can be casual, or lollopy, or just read quite naturally and without calling attention to themselves. But you do have to learn to structure and control them, and I sometimes wonder if some of the teacher-level orthodoxy is because so many beginner writers have so little sense of how to construct a decent one. It's easier just to tell them to keep it short. But as anyone who's been hanging round the blog for a while knows, I don't believe that the fact that's something's hard to do well means we shouldn't do it, teach it, and flourish the results in the face of the rule-bound.

We're not talking about a string of grammatically separate sentences spliced with commas instead of full stops. Well, actually, we might be, if it's right for the voice, but we're also talking about a full set of subordinate and dependant clauses and so on, so constructed that they don't zig-zag back, as un-practised attempts to 'vary' sentences will, but develop thought and feeling through themselves and carry them on to the next one. We're also talking about making good use of semi-colons, and if you don't feel confident in using punctuation, this is a good site

One of John Gardner's exercises is to write "three effective long sentences: each at least one full typed page (250 words), each involving a different emotion (for example, anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy). Purpose: control of tone in a complex sentence."

Okay, go on, do it. Yes, really, 250 words. Meanwhile, here's one I did earlier. Or rather two, and just a bit shorter. Both voices in The Mathematics of Love have long sentences, but my adult, educated 1820s soldier Stephen's voice -

The gas-lamps in the auditorium were somewhat dimmed, which drew the eye more strongly to the stage than in the oil- and candlelit theatres of my youth, but what could be seen onstage, in the white, hissing brilliance of the new light, were darned hose, paint that failed to make dull eyes bright, and smiles that smeared in the heat.

- is very different from my 15 year old, under-educated Anna in 1976:

They were tiny of course like all the other negs I'd looked at, but different because I was looking at them in one curling strip and all still wet: clear lavender-coloured shadows and dark skies, trees and pillars and windows and faces caught click after click, coiling and springing down the film one after the other so that all the distance and time between them was pressed into plain, pale bands of almost nothing.


2nd September 2015: edited to add a fantastic paragraph from Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which my friend and fellow long-sentence fan Debi Alper passed on. It consists of precisely two sentences. It's also an education in the use of psychic distance:

I retrieved both mini-bottles of gin and mixed them with hot water from the tap and sat in the brocade chair by the window, glass dangling from my fingertips, watching the hours slide: barely awake, a half-dreaming state, solemn winter light tilting from wall to wall in parallelograms that slipped to the carpet and narrowed until they faded out to nothing and it was dinnertime, and my stomach ached and my throat was raw with bile and there I still sat, in the dark. It was nothing I hadn't thought of, plenty, and in far less taxing circumstances; the urge shook me grandly and unpredictably, a poisonous whisper that never wholly left me, that on some days lingered just on the threshold of my hearing, but on others roared up uncontrollably into a sort of lurid visionary frenzy, why I wasn't sure, sometimes even a bad move or a gruesome dinner party could trigger it, short term boredom and long term pain, temporary panic and permanent desperation striking all at once and flaring up in such an ashen desolate light that I saw, really saw, looking back down the years and with all the clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it was intolerably and permanently fucked and nothing had ever been good or okay, unbearable claustrophobia of the soul, the windowless room, no way out, waves of shame and horror, leave me alone, my mother dead on a marble floor, stop it stop it, muttering aloud to myself in elevators, in cabs, leave me alone, I want to die, a cold, intelligent, self-immolating fury that had – more than once – driven me upstairs in a resolute fog to swallow indiscriminate combos of whatever booze and pills I happened to have on hand: only tolerance and ineptitude that I'd botched it, unpleasantly surprised when I woke up though relieved for Hobie that he hadn't had to find me.