How Long Should A Sentence Be?

by James Scott Bell

Riffing off of Kris’s post on paragraphs and pacing, I want to drill down into the length of sentences. Kris touched on it, quoting Ronald Tobias: “Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive.”

We all know thriller writers favor short sentences. And maybe today, as attention spans constrict ever … Squirrel! … more, all genres (save “literary”) may lean toward lean.

But an intriguing article over at Literary Hub makes an impassioned plea for the “long and complicated sentence.” The author, Joe Moran, writes:

The style guides say: keep your sentences short. Write cleanly, cut as many words as you can, and don’t overburden your reader’s short-term memory by delaying the arrival of the full stop. But sometimes a sentence just needs to be long…

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two…A long sentence can seem thrillingly out of breath, deliciously tantalizing, so long as we feel the writer is still in charge…

Every writer is a poet by default and every sentence a little poem. The longer the sentence, the more closely it resembles poetry, or should do.

That last point reminded me of what the great John D. MacDonald once said he strived for. He wanted “a bit of magic in [the] prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing.”

MacDonald was clear, however, that he wanted those sentences to serve the story, never yank the reader out of it. That’s the essential principle in my view. The prose is the servant of the story, not the other way around.

Moran goes on:

For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

I agree that a great long sentence should be a look at life with more “alertness.” But you have to watch it with the “dazzle” part. You don’t want the reader stopping to think, Who does this joker think he is? Just get on with it! As Moran rightly notes:

A long sentence too should be a beautiful, indelible gift. It should give pleasure without provisos, not buttonhole and bedazzle the reader with virtuosity.

The way to do that is to make sure the sentence is consistent with the narrative voice.

But suppose you write in a lean, mean style. Would there ever be occasion for you to consider a long sentence? Yes—to show us the inner life of a character in moments of high emotional intensity. For example:

Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy was one of the great noir pulp writers, part of the Black Mask crew. His most famous novel is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He had an innate power in his prose, and most of the time it’s as hardboiled as a twenty-minute egg. But every now and then he’ll pull you in with style for the purpose of illustrating heightened emotion.

Here is a passage from his 1938 novel, I Should Have Stayed Home. We’re in the first chapter, and desperation is squeezing the narrator, a struggling actor in Hollywood. He’s been cooped up all day in his little apartment and has to get out. He charges out into the night. Note how the sound of the sentences gives the impression of someone walking fast and agitated.

On Vine Street I went north towards Hollywood Boulevard, crossing Sunset, passing the drive-in stand where the old Paramount lot used to be, seeing young girls and boys in uniform hopping cars, and seeing too, in my mind, the ironic smiles on the faces of Wallace Reid and Valentino and all the other old-time stars who used to work on this very spot, and who now looked down, pitying these girls and boys for working at jobs in Hollywood they might just as well be working at in Waxahachie or Evanston or Albany; thinking if they were going to do this, there was no point in their coming out here in the first place.

The Brown Derby, the sign said, and I crossed the street, not wanting to pass directly in front, hating the place and all the celebrities in it (only because they were celebrities, something I was not), hating the people standing in front, waiting with autograph books, thinking: You’ll be lighting for my autograph one of these days, missing Mona terribly now, more than I had all afternoon, because passing this place that was full of stars made me more than ever want to be a star myself and made me more than ever aware of how impossible this was alone, without her help.

Not only does this provide a window into the narrator’s inner life, it also weaves in the description of place and a bit of exposition, too. Triple duty.

So don’t be afraid to expand the occasional sentence if the moment is right. If it doesn’t work out, you can hit the delete key. But if it does work, you’ve hit the delight key—for you and the reader both.

25 thoughts on “How Long Should A Sentence Be?

  1. As long as those sentences aren’t the mainstay of the book, they can work (although I’m not fond of parentheses, being more of an em-dash person), and I noticed both a semi colon and colon, which I try to avoid.
    Had one of my critique partners written something like your examples, I probably would have flagged it with “long, convoluted sentence.”
    But, as always, you hit it spot on pointing out these narrative sentences need to be consistent with voice, and as someone who writes in Deep POV, they should be consistent with character voice even more than the author’s.
    Varying sentence length is important or the prose gets “sing-song.” SmartEdit has a check for sentence length.

    • I’m with you on the semis and full colons, Terry. Also I do prefer the em-dash to the parenthesis), though I do note that Mr. Stephen King uses parentheses without hesitation.

      The important thing, as you note, is the use of sentence length for variety.

  2. The greatest sentences, whether short or long are the ones that you read rapidly without any thought to their length. I can’t say I pay attention to sentence length when I read UNLESS the author is trying to be too clever. When they try to get too cute, it stands out like a sore thumb.

    As a writer, with this advice in mind I just took a look at the first page of the new WIP I just started. I don’t have any overly long sentences, but I see I do need to vary the sentence rhythm. So thanks. I’ve made a note to myself to do that in revision.

    • Good eye, BK. Vary the rhythm from time to time. But also, as you say, don’t get “too cute.” This is why writing is not just a craft, but an art.

      Let’s see AI try to write beautiful sentences!

    • Give yourself a chance, Priscilla! In my workshops I teach “the page-long sentence” exercise. Take an emotional moment in your scene and in a fresh document write 250-300 words without stopping, and without punctuation, letting the emotions carry you wherever they go. Look it over later. You’ll see some good stuff you can use.

  3. My favorite piece of music is Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. It starts with a powerful Allegro movement, then the most beautiful Adagio ever written, then a thrilling Rondo. At the conclusion, you know you’ve been on a journey that was worth taking. And you want to go back and revisit it to see all the things you missed the first time.
    Somehow, I think a book is similar to a symphony. Within each major movement there are changes in rhythm. Surprising staccato sections interrupt long, flowing passages. But the whole piece is designed to move the listener (or reader) along the story line, evoking different emotional responses through the cadence and choice of instruments (or words).
    Does that make any sense?

    • Kay, that makes perfect sense. Fiction is primarily an emotional experience (or should be). I often think of the sound of my sentences, especially at the end.

  4. I wrote a detective short story a while back that juxtapositioned the character’s sedentary action (drinking at a bar) with long sentences to show his thoughts. This wasn’t some clever move on my part, it just came out. I realized that the long sentences helped define the character. I used my usual shorter sentences with other characters and general narrative. I was pleased with the effect. It was a good way to control the pacing. With a little practice I intend to incorporate this technique in my future work, where it works.
    Like JSB, I’m a big fan of classical noir. Maybe I got it from there.

    Thanks for this post. I always look forward to my Sunday morning and your TKZ column and a cup of dark brown, pungent, hot liquid or two.

  5. I’ve been on vacation from my day job this week while we opened my new show. In between running lines I was watching Oscar winning movies. One of them was The Color Purple. I had never read the book, so I did. That book seems to break every Thou Shalt Not in the book. I wonder if anyone ever told Alice Walker that would never be published because of all the misspellings and bad grammar. I wonder if we tie ourselves up to the point of strangulation trying to do everything perfectly to please the critics instead of just telling a good story the way it needs to be told.

  6. Thanks for this great post, Jim.

    I’m finding, that as a newbie, pacing is one of the nuances of writing that is taking me the longest to learn. Your article (and Kris’s on paragraph length) were exactly what I needed as I finish the rough draft of my WIP and move into editing mode.

    Your book on endings was great. I’ve read it three times already. Thanks for all your teaching.

  7. For those who are new to writing, don’t sweat the length of the sentences. Just write. Sentence length and various style issues are part of the rewriting process. It’s also part of the growth process of being a writer. The more you write, the more you sound like you.

    I believe that sentences should vary in length in most instances. Too many long sentences are boring. Too many short sentences come across as a tire with a bump on it. Content. Thud! Content. Thud! Content. Thud! Too many noun then verb sentences have the same problem.

    The advice I always give on sentences is that, if you are in the viewpoint character’s head, you will rarely go wrong on sentence length or content. If your character is dodging bullets, he won’t be thinking long, deep thoughts. If he’s staring at the clue board in the precinct, he won’t be thinking short, choppy thoughts.

    • Keeping things consistent with POV is key for sure, Marilynn. I’d just add a proviso that it’s sometimes highly effective to go “slo-mo” with thoughts even in action scenes. I recall Lee Child taking two pages to describe what went into one punch!

      What’s so great about our craft is that it is infinitely creative and if something doesn’t work, we can learn how to fix it.

  8. I’m a bit of a fan of the long sentence and have been known to indulge in a few em dashes along the way. I like varying the pace and cadence of my writing and find that reading aloud is the best way to determine if a long sentence works or if it’s just unwieldy and needs to be chopped:)

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  10. In English class, we were taught to avoid “run-on sentences.” Now we find that they, like so many other things we were warned against, have their place when used properly. I’ve been trying to learn this thing called writing for over a decade, and wonder if I’ll ever arrive. Hint–no, I need to keep on learning. Thanks for sharing, Jim.

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