In last month's installment of my book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, we discussed a few of the potential dangers of overusing the period. In this month's installment, we'll examine a few of the dangers of underuse, and also begin to look at the role of context in punctuation.
If reading a series of too-short sentences is like travelling in choppy waters, then reading a series of too-long sentences is like riding a wave that rolls and rolls but never, satisfyingly, crashes. Most readers feel as if they're gasping for breath when reading long sentences; they have a harder time following the idea and are more likely to put a book down sooner.
Nobody wants to read a sentence like this, one that never ends, that goes on and on without giving readers a rest between thoughts or ideas or a chance to catch their breath and go on to the next sentence which could seem like a distant goal by the time this sentence is finished.
There are many reasons a writer might fall into the trap of crafting too-long sentences:
* On the simplest level, the writer may not know how to end a sentence, may not have properly grasped that a sentence serves primarily to put forth a single idea. Too-long sentences are often the result of a writer trying to cram too many ideas into a single sentence.
* A writer might craft too-long sentences out of a fear of letting a sentence conclude, an insecurity that the sentence is not complete enough in its own right, that the idea put forth is not satisfying enough. Such writers want to throw up a smokescreen of multiple ideas, so that no one can accuse them of being insubstantial.
* Academics and scholars tend to use long sentences, as they are used to reading longer sentences themselves. They are able to retain many concepts in one sitting, to hang on to a concept while it twists and turns through many other concepts; their mistake is assuming that a lay reader can do the same (or even wants to). This is rarely the case.
* Sometimes too-long sentences are employed simply for effect, by young writers experimenting with the form, for example, trying to mimic Faulkner. In such a case, they mistake style for being stylistic, and call attention to the writing instead of the content.
* Too-long sentences might be created out of a desire to sound more sophisticated. Some writers fear crafting shorter sentences will make their text read childlike, so they overcompensate, increasing sentence length until they end up doing stylistic damage in the reverse direction.
Regardless of your motive, you must realize that nothing is gained by lengthening a sentence just for the sake of it--on the contrary, you lose. Less is more. Years ago, readers had a greater attention span and a greater capacity to easily ride the twists and turns of a long sentence. Today, less so. Modern-day readers do not want to exercise their brain through paragraph-long sentences, and the ideas put forth in such sentences will likely be lost. Writing is about simplicity and clarity, and the best way to achieve this is to allow each thought its own sentence.
One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is evaluating a sentence in its own right, instead of in context with the sentences around it. In the midst of a series of long sentences, a short sentence can be needed, whether for impact, for variety, or to make a thought stand out. Likewise, in the midst of a paragraph of short sentences, a long sentence can be needed, whether to add variety, fluidity, or to trim the edges off a childlike feel. Conversely, sometimes a shorter (or longer) sentence is needed precisely because it is surrounded by shorter (or longer) sentences, in order to maintain consistency. You set the bar when you dictate the style, and you must be prepared to offer at least a modicum of uniformity--or to break it with good intention. A long sentence subconsciously suggests a long one will follow; if a short sentence follows, it will be in the spotlight. Sometimes this is preferable, if you want to emphasize a point. But it must be deliberate. Ultimately, you must remember that a sentence is only short or long in context. In the world of Camus' The Stranger, an eight-word sentence can be long; in the world of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, a hundred-word sentence can be short.
Alternatively, writers can get blinded by context. One can get caught up in the context of a paragraph or scene and not stop to consider if that sentence stands well on its own. Sentences help each other hide: one can get away with a short sentence amid a cluster of short sentences. Don't allow yourself to get blinded by your own momentum; just as you must evaluate each sentence in context, so must you put a magnifying glass to each sentence in its own right.
This is a conundrum for the writer. On the one hand, you must establish a certain style and maintain it, which means that if writing long sentences you must continue to write long sentences, and if writing short sentences you must continue to write short sentences; on the other hand, long sentence after long sentence (or short sentence after short sentence) quickly becomes staid, lifeless. Stylistic variety is not only wanted, but needed, for all of the reasons outlined above. Such variety, though, doesn't give you an excuse for avoiding establishing an overall style, such as Camus did for The Stranger or Faulkner did for Absalom, Absalom! You must find a way to establish your style, but then break it when need be, offering constant variety to keep the prose lively and unexpected. It is a delicate balance, and one you must perpetually struggle with.
Consider the following example from James Joyce's short story, "Araby":
When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas.
Look at what Joyce does here for stylistic variety. His first five sentences are short, and his sixth sentence is, in comparison, incredibly long, nearly five times longer than the sentences that preceded it. In the hands of a master like Joyce, this is not accidental. The sixth sentence talks about the time they spent playing, and its length conveys the feeling of their getting lost in play, of their play stretching forever. Indeed, the final sentence confirms this, informing us that it is dark by the time they finished. By varying his sentence length here, he is able to subtly compare and contrast these images, to build up to an important image, and then come back down from it. For Joyce, stylistic context is paramount.
You must also consider the placement of a punctuation mark in the context of other punctuation marks around it. Period placement takes on a whole new meaning when commas, semicolons, colons, and dashes (discussed in later chapters of my book) are nearby. These friends of the period can rescue it, can serve as rest stops along the way. By allowing the reader a chance to rest, a semicolon, for example, can take the pressure off a period, make it no longer feel like a distant objective on the horizon. Consider Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese, "Sonnet 22":
When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point--what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think.
The contrast of that final sentence is amazing, especially following on the heels of such a long and stylistically varied sentence.
* Choose a long sentence from your script, ideally one already in a cluster of long sentences. To decide if it needs shortening, consider the following: does it contain several ideas? Is it hard to grasp? Is it hard to catch one's breath? Does its length match other sentence lengths? Find a way to shorten it, without combining it with the material in the sentence preceding or following it. How much can you shorten it? Was there any extraneous material here? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?
* Choose a series of long sentences from your script, ideally in a place where the pace slows. Choose two sentences with similar ideas and find a way to combine them, shortening each in the process. Now try it with three sentences. What did you have to sacrifice in order to combine them? 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?