A Dash of Style: The Period, part 2

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

In last month's excerpt from my book, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, we discussed different ways to use the period. This time, we'll examine a few of the dangers of overuse.

There is a major distinction between using periods heavily for a stylistic purpose (as explored in last week's installment) and overusing them, which results in poor writing. Newspaper and magazine writers tend to slip into this style, since this is how they've been trained to write. In book form, though, overusing periods is displeasing, as it creates a feeling of choppiness.

With each new sentence, a reader prepares to ride a wave, to entertain a new thought and have it carried through to its proper end. Readers don't want the wave to crash before they've had a proper ride. If jerked in and out of new thoughts, they will feel jostled, and be less likely to dig in for the long haul. Beginning a new sentence is a microcosm of beginning a new book: it takes effort. The effort is minute, but it's there. With several hundred pages before them, readers do not want to have to stop and start every few words. They want to settle in.

For example:

He talked to the manager. She recommended a book. He looked through it. He liked it. He bought it.

Such a series of short sentences feels childlike--particularly if the content is banal, as it is here. Most writers will not resort to such extremes, yet there are times in a work when they can get tired and slip. They might get caught up in the plot, characters, scene, and in the excitement not realize they overuse periods. Upon editing, it is important to keep an eye open for a cluster of short sentences doing stylistic damage.

The real threat is not a sentence being short, but being short on content. A short sentence, if handled well, can convey more than an entire page--likewise, a long sentence can convey nothing. One must be watchful for short sentences that, in context, convey little, are incomplete thoughts, and that are unsatisfying. Sentences mustn't lean too heavily on each other, at least not without a purpose.

Perhaps more significant (and subtle) is learning to identify when a long sentence is too short--when a period comes too quickly in a longer sentence. Just because a sentence is long doesn't mean it's long enough. It can affect readers only slightly, or even unconsciously. But the effect adds up. It is the crack in the windshield that starts to spread.

A short sentence can be satisfactory. But being satisfactory is not your goal as a writer; your goal is to be a master of the form. To do so means to agonize over every sentence and to ask yourself, among other things, if it needs to be longer. It might need to be longer in its own right, such as:

She bought a dress.
She used her last penny to buy the dress for her mother.

Or it could need to be longer as a result of combining it with what follows (or what came before). Such as:

She bought a dress. It was from her favorite store.
She bought a dress from her favorite store.

Neither of these is necessarily "correct." Either example could work. It all depends on context, and on the effect you are trying to achieve. What's important is that, whatever route you decide to take, you do so as a result of deliberate choice.

How to underuse it

Just as authors have used the period to great effect, so have authors deliberately underused it (creating longer sentences) to great effect. Sometimes a certain effect can only be evoked by a long sentence--sometimes it is even necessary. A few possibilities:

* Long sentences--like short sentences--can work well at the beginning or ending of a chapter or book, for the same reasons as those outlined above: beginnings and endings allow poetic license, and a longer opening or ending can engage readers, allow them to settle in (or out). Like the opening and closing shots of a film (which are often much longer), readers are open for anything at those precious moments, and thus more willing to allow an unusual style. (We'll show an example of this later, from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!)

* A stream-of-consciousness effect (thoughts unravelling on the page in real time) can be achieved by using a longer sentence:

I woke up this morning and knew what I had to do but then the phone rang and it was Shirley and she was on to her favorite topic and before I knew it I was hungry and burnt the toast again and had to go out for breakfast which left me no time at all to look at the paper.

As you can see, stream of consciousness is chaotic; it unravels uncensored and thus has an authentic feel. Few devices help create this effect more than the absence of the period. But this style is also suffocating. Unless there's an excellent reason, it should only be used in special cases.

* Long sentences (like short sentences) can be used to help capture a viewpoint. For example, they could portray an obsessive character, one whose mind wanders and who thinks in a way that can only be conveyed by long sentences:

I counted 29 pounds, but my manager told me it was 28 and that I was a dollar short, a dollar short, but I counted 29 and I counted three times and I don't trust him and I don't think I was a dollar short, even though he said it was, I know because I counted, I counted three times.

This is highly stylistic, and can't be maintained for long without driving readers crazy. But the long sentence here captures a breathless, neurotic feeling that short sentences could not.

* If you find yourself having difficulty differentiating the viewpoints and narration styles of two characters in your work, one solution is simply to shorten the sentences of one character and lengthen those of the other. The difference will be immediately apparent. This is a quick fix, and won't always be appropriate, but the principle is important, as it demonstrates the power inherent in the placement of a period. In his brilliant novel, The River Warren, modern author Kent Meyers portrays multiple character viewpoints, changing his style radically (and his use of the period) each time he does. Here's an example from his character Pop Bottle Pete's viewpoint:

Winter is cold. Not summer. Summer is when I find the bottles. And rocks. Rocks are like bottles.

Compare this to his other character Jeff Gruber's viewpoint:

Twelve miles from Cloten on my way back from Duluth I stopped my car at a wayside rest on top of the bluffs above the river and looked down at the valley.

The drastic difference in sentence length helps establish the two different viewpoints.

* Intention. In the hands of a master, long sentences can reflect the very purpose and intention of the work. Consider this example from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, which is also the opening sentence of the novel:

From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that--a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Qunetin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

This single sentence lets us know we will be embarking on a read unlike any other, one that defies all rules. Faulkner doesn't let up, maintaining the style throughout the text. Considered one of the great novels of the 20th century, this is truly a work synonymous with its placement of the period. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be a disaster (and I wouldn't recommend it), yet Faulkner pulls it off. The style becomes one and the same with its characters, locale, time period: a heavy world, like the sentences, suffocating to enter and suffocating to survive.

Let's look at another Faulkner example, this one from his short story "That Evening Sun":

Monday is no different from any other weekday in Jefferson now. The streets are paved now, and the telephone and electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees--the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms--to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially-made motor cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparitionlike behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like tearing silk, and even the Negro women who still take in white people's washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

In the second, incredibly long, sentence, Faulkner encapsulates all of Monday, makes us experience the routine of the entire day. He also uses the excuse of describing a Monday to actually describe an entire town, the changes it's undergoing, the habits of its people, and even the race relations. Note also the tremendous contrast in length between the first and second sentence, which proves that Faulkner has deliberately chosen to lengthen this particular sentence.

The main point is that there must be a reason for such usage. It cannot be done haphazardly, or merely for the sake of being stylistic. If you do employ it, your chances of success are greater if you limit it to a short stretch--for example, for a minor character. Most writers grasp this, and will not craft overly long sentences. What the everyday writer can take away from this is to become aware of the subtle effect of a sentence that goes slightly too long, and the cumulative effect this will have on the work. Most of the time the question writers need to ask themselves is: is this sentence one thought too long? Can this one sentence be broken down into two? (Just as you must ask if two shorter sentences can be combined.) Are there multiple ideas--particularly powerful ideas--in one sentence? Is there a risk of something getting lost in its length? Is it worth the risk? Is the period too powerful a divider? Should you instead resort to lesser dividers, such as the colon or semicolon?


* Imagine a character who thinks in short sentences. Who would this be? Why would such a character think this way? Capture his or her viewpoint on the page, using short sentences. Do the short sentences help bring out who the character is? Do they make the text feel one and the same with the character? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your writing?

* Choose a short sentence from your work, ideally one already in a cluster of short sentences. Find a way to make it longer without combining it with the material preceding or following it--in other words, add to the idea in the sentence. See how far you can stretch it. Could there be any more to this idea before you go on to the next sentence? Are you harvesting individual sentences for all they're worth? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

* Choose a series of short sentences from your work, possibly in an area where you feel the action moves too quickly. Combine two sentences, adding material to each if need be. Then combine three. How does it change the flow of the paragraph? Of the scene? What do you gain? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

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