If the same thought might be expressed in five words rather than ten, it is universally taught that the shorter sentence is preferred. With our culture of sound bite politics, 140 character limits and elevator pitch sales tactics, we have grown to take it for granted that concise is nice.
But if that is always the case, then how is it that a series of short sentences becomes so jarring? Think of any preschool level book: “The cat sat on the mat. The cat has a hat. The cat is black. The cat is sad.” It gets old fast. Why, then, are we so focused on cutting down our word count?
To get our attention advertisements, media, news programs and articles only get a second to grab our attention before we are bombarded with the next solicitation for our attention. They’ve been trained to catch their viewers with compact, dramatic headings or phrases to immediately draw you in. For example, I recently came across a news article who’s title stated that Queen Elizabeth II was nearly shot. Thinking an assassination attempt had been made, I was disappointed to have been duped into reading a mundane story about the queen taking an unexpected midnight stroll- no guns involved. In the pressure to grab your attention consumers are bribed with misleading titles and scandalized headlines. To be fair, most reliable outlets do not use such petty strategies. However ethical the practice may be, it is no doubt that our infinite access to information has led to the necessity of sound bite writing. In media that is.
But when it comes to literature, does it still hold that concise is nice? We already saw how tiresome “the cat on the mat” became. What adult would carry on reading a story written in this manner? Though both outlets use language to engage an audience, mainstream media and literature are two very different species. Even Hemingway, the master of laconic language, resorted to compound sentences now and then.
When writing teachers and authors pass down the wisdom that what can be said using only five words is necessarily preferred over the same idea said with ten words, I believe they intended this to be taken with a grain of salt. Too much of any literary device can kill an otherwise well written story- and yes, sentence length is a literary device. It is a major component of structure and style. Sentence length is used with intention by good writers to support the structure and style within their work. It is never used as a by product.
When we say the shorter the better, we really mean is the shorter the clearer. We don’t want to muddy the waters with extraneous verbs and adjectives. Why say “She sat down in her seat despondently,” when it is so much more impactful to use”She slumped into her chair.”
Generally, when it comes to cutting down sentence length we are getting rid of adjectives and adverbs. We replace them with strong verbs. It gives your writing a new engine, rather than a new paint job. Your writing is driven forward with more power, not dolled up. Basically, it’s the show don’t tell rule all over again.
But it’s not all about cutting to the chase. Long sentences, even the run ons and the ramblers, have their place. You can’t just cut out all of the adjectives and call it good. The power of varying the sentence length in your writing is difficult to explain, but Gary Provost has demonstrated it excellently.
A master of this device knows how to manipulate sentence length for maximum impact. Sentence length does more than control the pacing: It can communicate subconsciously. Consider the beginning of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way:
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V.
The reader can feel the slow meandering of the narrator’s thoughts. We feel slightly disoriented at the series of semicolons, which mimic the lucidity of the imagination as we fall asleep. Proust masterfully engages the reader, while simultaneously lulling him to sleep as each sentence grows longer and longer, as does a dreamer’s breath when first drifting off.
Compare that to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opening of Notes from the Underground:
I have been going on like that for a long time—twenty years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that, at least.
In just a few sentences, Dostoevsky has masterfully etched out his character’s personality. Without giving us a single description of the man himself, the reader feels confident that he knows this character already. With blunt, rough sentences, the narrator exposes himself as terse, matter of fact and cynical.
Now, imagine the effect either of these passages would have if it weren’t for the subconscious role of sentence length. Heck, even try rewriting them. Keep as much of the original as possible- just change the length of the sentence from what the author originally used. It’s just not as good isn’t it?
Practice makes Perfect
Try your hand at this skill by rewriting some scenes you aren’t quite satisfied with. Use long sentences. Use short sentences. Vary the lengths. Build them from short to long or go from long to short. See how each of these styles impacts the effect of the scene.
Sentence length is something you need to play with a lot before you can get a good feel for how it changes your work. Keep working with it and when in doubt refer to this quick guide.
When have you used sentence length to subconsciously effect the reader? Or have you felt it’s use when reading? Share your experience with this strategy below.