How Long Should A Sentence Be?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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.

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