Monday, April 26, 2010

Long Sentences

"No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place." –Isaac Babel

Though we prefer different genres, my husband and I sometimes recommend something we like to one another. Lately he hasn’t been recommending much. In fact, he’s been frustrated with his reading selections and has even quit reading a book after only 22 pages. The reason—long sentences.

In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, he showed me a sentence that started in the middle of Page 391 and ended at the top of page 393. I was going to count the words but I kept losing my place. I can tell you, however, there were about 43 commas and 5 semicolons before the period made its appearance.

Though I tried reading the passage, I never made my way through it. It seemed more like an action scene than a stream of consciousness, but I haven’t read the book so I can’t be sure. In other words, I couldn’t figure out why Rushdie didn’t break the thought down into a more readable format. Perhaps that’s simply his voice.

That sentence turned out to be short in comparison to the next one my husband bought to my attention.

In 2666 by Robert Bolaño, a sentence began near the top of page 18 and did not see a period ending it until near the end of page 22. (That’s about the length of my chapters in The Ride.) I tried to read this passage as well. I couldn’t. I couldn’t even keep my interest going long enough to count commas. During a cursory glance, I didn’t notice any semicolons and I saw only one colon.

After encountering that sentence, my husband lost all interest in the book and returned it to the shelf unread.

I can’t help but wonder what makes a writer think it’s necessary to use…a run-on sentence seems like an understatement, but I don’t know what else to call these examples.

I did a minimal amount of research trying to figure out the purpose for long sentences. I couldn’t find any reason. I did discover, however, that long sentences are nothing new. Supposedly, a sentence in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is 823 words long; Ullyses by James Joyce has 4,391 words in one sentence; Jonathan Coe’s, The Rotter’s Club has a 13,955 word sentence; and, The Blah Story, Volume 4, by Nigel Tomm is 732 pages long and consists of only one sentence with 469,375 words.

I don’t think I’ll be picking up a copy Tomm’s book for my husband’s upcoming birthday.

Do long sentences drive you nuts? Can you see any reason to use them? Have you read anything lately by an author who embraces them?

On Saturday, May 1, I’ll be a guest at Karen Cioffi – Writing for Children blog. I’ll be talking about first sentences in books for children. I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit.

Thanks for stopping by today.

Tags: Isaac Babel , Salman Rushdie, Robert Bolano, Nigel Tomm, long sentences, run on sentences,


Elisabeth said...

Hi Jane. I'm prone to the odd long sentence, but for me never extreme, though I can see some merit in them, I simply love the way they run on and on and on.

By the way speaking of first sentences, have you seen Jim Murdoch's post where he discusses this topic among others:

Good luck with your interview on 'firsties' and apologies for that first long sentence here

Alan Orloff said...

Yes. They drive me nuts. I like short sentences. Very short. Even fragments. Matches my attention span. I guess.

Joanne said...

I like an occasional run-on sentence, when it's done perfectly right and fits into the whole thought process going on. I did read one (though nowhere as long as the ones you mention), that I loved so much, I had to log it in the book journal I keep!

Akum said...

I have read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and it's awesome..

Anonymous said...

Funny you should ask. I was going through my MS yesterday and easily chopping up long sentences into three easy to read fluid sentences. Even my editor told me I use long sentnences and need to break them up.

Stephen Tremp

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Long sentences DO drive me nuts! I think it's because they're usually rife with description.

I don't like sentences that were too SHORT either...I'm not the biggest fan of Hemingway for that reason.

I think it's just distracting?

Mystery Writing is Murder

Hart Johnson said...

I happen to think they are trying to show off--that they are proving how smart they are by their ability to correctly DO this. And you know what? They are missing the point IMHO. This particular detail is what makes William Falkner my least favorite classic author. Just because you CAN, doesn't mean you SHOULD. The point of writing is to communicate a story to people, and if they can't keep track because there is no place to stop and digest, they will not GET the story.

I only have one kind of really long sentence I can enjoy, and it is 'train of thought to the expression confusion'--FOR THAT, a long sentence with a lot of clauses is absolutely perfect.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Yes, long sentences drive me nuts! And often they contain really big words, making them even more difficult to read. Trust me, no long sentences in my books.

Laura S. said...

I don't like long sentences either! Though the semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark, I don't like when they're used in long sentences. Once sentence taking up three pages is WAY overdone!

I can't think of any recent book I've read with long sentences. A lot of classic novels have them, though. Maybe that's why some classics are hard to read.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Oh, my, I do not like long sentences. In fact I've been chided for too many fragments in my work. lol. Still too many short sentences mess with the pacing as well. So it's a fine line. Cheers~

Elspeth Futcher said...

I suspect the tradition of writing sentences has changed over time - some of Jane Austen's sentences run for an entire paragraph. These days it's all about short and concise. The pendulum may swing back the other way at some point.

Arlee Bird said...

And I was talking about "vacuous verbosity" in my post today. Those sentences take the cake. I wonder if these authors are just trying to show off in some way? I sometimes will write a long sentence just to keep some action flowing, but never one as long as you describe. I don't like to read long sentences unless they are flowing so well that I'm am drawn right through them and don't notice that they are long.

A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post

Helen Ginger said...

I want my sentences to be short enough that by the time I finish it, I still remember how it started.

Straight From Hel

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Elisabeth – thanks for the link, I enjoyed the blog post. When I run across a long sentence that I’ve written, I discover it’s usually because I used a comma when I should have used a period.

I know just what you mean, Alan.

Joanne, I love the idea of a book journal. I have a feeling if a run-on sentence is well-written, I don’t notice them.

A.K. – In spite of the super long sentence, my husband also enjoyed the book, but he did say it would be quite sometime before he read another of Rushdie's.

Stephen – Evidently if you are Rushdie or Bolano, your editor lets you do anything you want!

That’s a good point, Elizabeth. I’m going to have to go back and look at those two sentences to see if it’s description that stopped me from reading them.

I think you have a good point, Watery Tart. I do think using sentences like that may be part of an ego trip. I’ve also agree they can work well for train of though scenes.

Diane, I didn’t get far enough to see how many long words they used in their long sentences. I think I’ll go back and look.

Laura - good point about the classics.

Nancy, you’re right, a good novel has a nice balance of short and long (within reason) sentences. There’s an art form to it.

Elspeth, it does appear that sentences have changed over the years. Maybe the trend has already started to swing back in the direction of long sentences.

Well put, Karen!

Arlee, I’m on my way to read about “vacuous verbosity.” It sounds like the perfect description for the long sentences I mentioned today.

So true, Helen! I love the way you worded it.

Carol Kilgore said...

I KNEW there was a reason I prefer genre books! Short. Now.

joe doaks-Author said...

Hi, Jane. Nice to visit here again with one of my favorite bloggers!

I was really aware of sentence length until my second book (yet to be published.) In book one, I made them as long as they needed to be. I think (and now desperately hope) they're of average length in book one.

In book two, I was more aware of length...and lots of other things as well. I think in general my second book is just better than the it probably should be.

Best Wishes, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

DazyDayWriter said...

Wasn't Faulkner famous for horribly long sentences? Check out my sister's book (Lisa C. Hickman) at (see books and authors page) re Faulkner and Joan Williams. They had a very intriguing relationship for many years! At any rate, as a poet, primarily, I tend to like brevity. Great post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that long sentences usually slow the pace down. It's something that a reader will pick up subconsciously.

They only make me mad if they are ludicrously long or if they are used incorrectly/without purpose.

- Dominique

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Me, too, Carole!

Welcome back, Galen. Hope you caught lots of fish! I happen to think average length is good for a sentence.

Dazy Day Writer, talent must run in your family. I’ve visited SunnyRoomStudios. On my next visit I’ll make sure I look at the books and authors page. Thanks.

Dominique, so true. Long sentences definitely slow the pace down…in 2666 one lead to a grounding halt by the reader.

Anonymous said...

I wonder though, would you ever end your story with a long sentence? I'm not sure that's been done (and if it has, it's definitely not too popular a method).

I guess it would seem like cutting your story off rather than ending it properly.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I hate reading really long sentences -- they take me completely out of a story and set me to playing editor.

On the other hand, I've been chastised by my critique group for writing long sentences (like four lines long, not four pages) so maybe it's a "story-telling faster than we edit" problem?

Marvin D Wilson said...

Looooong sentences DO drive me nuts. I'm like, can I take a breath somewhere, please?

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Another vote here for shortening long sentences! I just don't see why it's necessary. You're not a more clever writer because you use fewer full stops, just as you're not more clever for using difficult words. I'm not against elaborate punctuation or language, but if it irritates the reader it probably hasn't worked.

(And I can't read Salman Rushdie without wanting to get out the scissors.)

Ann Best said...

I once read this: "Short words are words of might." How about paraphrasing: "Short sentences are sentences of might." I just finished reading an awesome YA novel called Kit's Wilderness that's filled with short sentences and sentence fragments that simply...glitter. I don't know how else to describe it. Every sentence, every fragment is a gem. I personally like the shorter sentence.

Carol Kilgore said...

Hi Jane - I'm back again. Just put a comma after my previous last sentence, and keep reading :)

Something's waiting for you at my blog.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

I just finished Columbine, a long book with very short sentences. He should try that one, I'll bet he finishes it. It was good, too.

The Daring Novelist said...

And I thought a half-page sentence was a lot!

The only reason I can see for using a long sentence in a modern novel is experimental. Stream of consciousness would fit long rambling sentences.

I've read a lot of those classics with very long sentences, and not been bothered by them (at least the half a page ones) but I don't see that they were at all necessary to the art of the language.

Maryannwrites said...

One of the reasons I gave up on reading Joyce in college was the long run-on sentences. Perhaps because I have a slight problem with dyslexia and would get lost in all those words. I really think that even literary writers should give the reader a chance to take a break. Imagine trying to find a place to pause in reading that book that was one sentence for the entire book.

Eeleen Lee said...

I love what Truman Capote said about Jack Kerouac's prose: "Thats not writing! Thats typing!!"

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Good question, Dominique. I’m going to have to pay more attention to the last sentence in a book.

Patricia, I’ve been known to write some long sentences as well. Most of the time when I rewrite them, they sound much better as shorter sentences.

Right, Marvin. Those breaths are very important.

Dirtywhitecandy, according to this unofficial poll here in the comments section, long sentences do seem to irritate more readers than not. Seems like writers would take that into consideration.

Ann, what a compliment to an author to say that her sentences and fragments glitter.

Thanks for the award Carol.

KarenG, thanks for the book recommendation

The Daring Novelist, I guess that Tomm’s must be experimental as I can’t imagine too many publishers would be thrilled about a book with a 732 page sentence.

I can’t imagine, Maryann! I try to read to an end of a chapter before putting a book down. In some of these books, I’d never make it to the end of a sentence.

Ee Leen Lee, I haven’t heard that quote but I love it!

Grammy said...

Hello, Jane, Sometimes I write a sentence that is maybe 3 lines long, and if I go back and read it, I may make into 2 or 3 sentences. I don't really like long ones either. One does tend to lose the thread that way. Very good description here.

Maraya/Suzanne St. Onge said...

Hi Jane,
New Maraya.writer here (aka Suzanne St.Onge) Well new, to lots of stuff. Thought I'd left a comment but it evaporated. Thanks for you and your husband's knowledge, your examples and love of literature.

Enid Wilson said...

35 words are max for me!

Really Angelic

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world