Friday, July 17, 2009

Loooooonnnnnnnngggggggggg Sentences, and why I love them.

by Pat Gulley

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst first line was announced recently on: and very funny the winner and runners-up are. Seems they are all massive sentences, punctuated oddly with multiple ideas on one subjects scrabbled together.

Side note: If you go to the site to read them, before doing so scroll down the home page to 2007 Bad Sex In Fiction Award for the laugh/scare of your life. Never mind that this stuff actually got published, it sort of makes your eyes cross in wonder how the world population got so high if this is considered reasonably good sex.

But I digress, which I’m sure you expect from me by now, so back to the subject I’d like to talk about: Very Long Sentences.

This is frequently a topic of discussion on many lists and is the subject of many panels at cons. The general view is that they are bad, almost evil, here in the US, and the above contest seems to be consistently won by those putting them forward at their worst. I don’t think the Brits agree with us. They feel good punctuation can overcome anything. I agree, and I like looking for and discovering the well written mile-long sentence.

So, surprise, surprise, when I was given a book I was sure I did not want to read, but being desperate one afternoon, I picked up Joy Fielding’s STILL LIFE and had a very pleasant surprise in the first line. It just blew me away. It told you so much in one sentence and set the scene for the whole first chapter that I read the chapter without stopping to question anything. Then I went back and reread that first sentence about 5 times studying and dissecting, and trying hard to learn something. Oh, and there were three sentences in that first paragraph.

Yes, I admit to loving those sentences. And I know several people who do too. We consider ourselves secret addicts, and we're probably like many British writers because they have no qualms about writing those paragraph length sentences. However, an American author who does a great job with them is Caleb Carr. His two Alienist books have a multitude of those let-me-tell-you-a-story-between-two-periods type sentences, much to my delight. A Canadian, who is so-so—but I’d read his St-Cyr and Kohler books no matter how many times I have to go back and figure his lengthies out—is J. Robert Janes.

So the question is: Why are they so disliked, and by whom? A writing teacher I once asked professed to liking them, but never advocating them because few students got them right—probably making her job harder—and she felt simple sentences allowed Them to express themselves more easily. I suppose fast readers and skimmers might dislike them if they have to stop and read more carefully. And since editors and agents have to read so quickly, maybe that’s why they prefer simple sentences.

So what do you think of long, long sentences? And why do you think those who dislike them, really hate them? And do you write long sentences, then go back and chop them up?

Oh, about STILL LIFE. It’s considered a mystery, but I have to say not the kind I’m interested in. After the first few chapters, I admit to skimming—looking for more of those sentences too—but the story just didn’t engage me. It’s about a woman in a coma, who could hear everything going on around her and came to realize her 'accident' wasn't. I would say that if you are in a bookstore, though, it is well worth picking the book up to read that first sentence, and then judge for yourself if the whole book is for you. The book is well written and smooth flowing.


Joyce said...

I don't care for long sentences, maybe because I'm one of those fast readers. I don't like writing long sentences, either. I don't even like a lot of description--give me a sentence or two to set the scene and that's plenty.

Jennie Bentley said...

I tend to write longish sentences - sentences with another sentence in the middle - separated by hyphens. Since I write first person, it becomes a very chatty, stream of consciousness style, much like people talk. I don't think it's difficult to read at all, though. I prefer long sentences to short when I'm reading, since anything too short becomes sparse and choppy to me. I feel like the proper rhythm isn't there. But that may be just me.

Joyce said...

I don't think your sentences are long, Jennie. In the words of Goldilocks, they're "just right."

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Maybe we don't like them because we had to diagram sentences in school? :)

James Joyce and Faulkner wrote long sentences, but no one edited them! On the other end of the spectrum was Hemingway.

I think I'm somewhere in between.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jennie Bentley said...

Awww! Thank you, Joyce. Maybe they're not as long as I think they are, but I do know they're not short. Of course, some are short...

There should be a combination of long and short, for balance, obviously. All long sentences would be horrible, but all short sentences just becomes too choppy for me. I'm all about the rhythm, and short sentence after short sentence before too staccato for me, to use a musical term. One of these days I need to write a blog or article about the music of words...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

This, from Wiki: "Lee Child (born 1954, Coventry, England) is the pen name of British thriller writer Jim Grant [1]. His wife Jane[2] is a New Yorker[3] and they currently live in New York state. His first novel, Killing Floor, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel."

The first thing I noticed about The Killing Floor was it's short choppy sentences. I found it a bit distracting at first. After a while, I got into the rhythm and rather enjoyed it.

Funny thing is, Lee Child is British.

I generally don't like longish sentences. At least not strung together. I deal with them on a day-to-day basis in reading laws and regulations. I'm not a fan of overly short ones, either. I don't mind em-dashes at all.

Patg said...

Granted, 'just right' length is the best for all of us, but those well punctuated, all telling ones are like, well, like, little love notes to me. No explanations on that subject!
I dislike long descriptions of anything too, especially the scenery. Gag! After I get a vague idea of the place, I skip them--long or short.
No, an good long sentence never includes worthless descriptions.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I didn't really have time to think this through earlier.

The sentence length has a lot to do with the book's pacing. I write thrillers. Pace is fast, sentences tend to be short. Same with an action scene. The last thing you want to do in an action scene is slow the reader down with a string of long sentences.

On the other hand, if I want to slow the pace and let the reader catch his/her breath; make them think about the importance of the scene or some complex detail, I will deliberately use longer sentences.

The author needs to control the flow of the story.

Jennie Bentley said...

You're a smart cookie, Freddy. I'm sure I probably do some of this myself, without thinking about it, but I honestly don't think about the length of my sentences as I'm writing them, and I don't consider whether the length of my sentence matches the mood of what I'm writing at the moment.

That's just one long sentence, btw. Is it too long?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

No Jennie, this is a long sentence. Funny I just started revieing a lease agreement for environmental language and ran upon this. And you wonder why I like short sentences.

"Environmental Laws" means any and all laws, rules, regulations, regulatory agency guidance and policies, ordinances, applicable court decisions, and airport guidance documents, directives, policies (whether enacted by any local, state or federal governmental authority, or by FWACAA) now in effect or hereafter enacted that deal with the regulation or protection of the environment (including the ambient air, ground water, surface water and land, including subsurface land and soil), or with the
generation, handling, storage, disposal or use of chemicals or substances that could be detrimental to human health, the workplace, the public welfare, or the environment.

Jennie Bentley said...

You're right, Will. That is a long sentence. I understood it perfectly, though. And I'm afraid I've written a few like that, though not - hopefully - quite as dry.

Lee Lofland said...

Well I'm sure my blog posts (if you visited the site) this week were a big hit (tons of sarcasm here) with you lovers of long sentences.

Gloria Alden said...

I have to admit that I tend to
write long sentences. My writing
friend who edited both my books
would laugh at them and suggest
ways to break them up. I don't
have any trouble reading long
sentences, either. I read in a
writing book somewhere that there
should be a mixture of long and
short sentences. I try to stick
to that if possible, but I don't
let it interfere with the flow or
the pacing. Gloria Alden

Gloria Alden said...

I tend to use a lot of long
sentences. A writer friend of
mine who edited my first two
books laughed at them. Mostly, though, I mix long and short
sentences,and of course, it
depends on the scene and the
action. It's all about pacing.
Gloria Alden

Patg said...

Wilfred, I loved that sentence.
Read it, read it again to take it apart and read it again.
Great Fun.
Action scenes are tricky for long sentences, however if they are just a list of actions being strung together--that doesn't really qualify for the long sentences I'm thinking of. The 'list' sentence is easy to zip through.

Joyce said...

Lee, you conveyed more in those one word sentences than some people could in a page long sentence.

Guys, if you haven't read Lee's blog posts this week, go over there NOW. That's an order!

Anonymous said...

Long sentences!! :) "Good punctuation can overcome anything." A wonderful quote for a life motto, bumper stick, tee-shirt, and the permission to do the long sentence!

jo p