Wednesday, April 25, 2012


This is the second in a 12-part series “Wrongs To Write: Defying Fiction Conviction” by Fort Worth based novelist Jeff Bacot on challenging conventional literary rules in fiction writing. Jeff Bacot is a freelance fiction writer and blogger of unconventional thought. He has written two novels and 17 short stories. He is an active member of The Greater Fort Worth Writers Group. He graduated from Southern Methodist University with two undergraduate degrees (BA, BBA) and one graduate degree (MA).

It’s not how long you make it, it’s how you make it long

No, that’s not what I’m talking about, sorry, but at least now I have your attention. And no, this is not an advertisement for a new cigarette, my photo notwithstanding. So, please indulge me again on my rebellious journey through common fiction edicts. I have something short to say about another “S” word; sentences (no, not sex or smoking). Just sentences, long ones, frighteningly long A$$ sentences. I promise, it won’t take long.
The famous novelist Don DeLillo was once asked what it means to be a writer. He answered simply, “I construct sentences.” Short, straight, to the point he was, but tense, immense and dense in his meaning. Whether we are reading, writing, talking or listening, no one can disagree: a sentence lives. Words, yes, I agree, are the bricks, but sentences are the walls that make the buildings stand. The sentence is the vehicle that does all the heavy lifting, the toughest jobs. It is the life force through which we transmit our stories, our ideas, our nonsense, our truths and our lies. It moves us forward through time and space. It’s the most important and interesting thing we can do as writers: Write good ones, really good ones, one after another. But the long and short of it is; long and short sentences are very different in effectiveness and efficiency. Yes, it’s not how long you make them, it’s how you make them long.

I liken a good sentence to a good home run in baseball. If a batter barely clears the wall in Fenway Park’s (home of the Boston Red Sox) noted left field ‘Green Monster’, the ball has to be hit just about 230 feet. The distance a ball would have to travel in deep center field in that same park, to have the length enough to be a home run, exceeds 400 feet. Either way, a home run hit 1,000 feet over the center field bleachers into the parking lot or just 230 feet to the short left field wall in that ball park, is still a home run, just one home run. The scoring is the same, you get credit for one run (never mind whether someone is on base, and never mind how many Human Growth Hormones the batter might have injected). However, me personally, I kinda like the long bombs better, in football, in baseball and in sentences. Short sentences can be home runs, but generally long ones give us the “wow” factor we want to see and hear. Long home runs, like long sentences, are more indicative of how skillful a professional hitter hits and how skillful a professional writer writes. They simply pack more emotional punch to fans, to opponents, to readers and to me.

The problem with the sentence, and the sea change in size that has occurred in recent years, is that we are now told constantly to “omit needless words” and “shorter is always better”. This ever decreasing length and density of sentences is a function of many things, but in my estimation, it’s primarily the fault of the rapid advent of modern technology, and the A.D.D. nature of the text messaging world in which we now live. The over use of acronyms like OMG and LOL in virtually every Facebook post and text message, frankly just makes me LMFAO! It also makes me WTFBS (that is, “want to break something”.) But, there is nothing I, or we, can do about that, except protest quietly with really clean, well-written, longer sentences; or really good short ones, (like my favorite, “FIGHT THE POWER!”)

Dr. Brooks Landon, a noted lecturer on this subject, and the former Head of The English Department at The University of Iowa said this: “Effective writing is writing that anticipates, shapes and satisfies a reader’s need for information. It gives a reader enough of the information necessary for thoughtful consideration of the writer’s purpose. It anticipates the obvious questions a reader will form. It satisfies the readers need for additional information and implicitly assures the reader is in good hands.” This can only be accomplished by smoothly lengthening the information in the sentences we create. The prose packed into a longer single sentence can be used to much greater depth, purpose and effect than when divided into puny little, A.D.D. segments.

The key to satisfying a reader is to anticipate and fulfill his need for information. This is much easier to accomplish in the form of a longer idea that is formed properly in one longer continuum. Sentences that convey more information operate more efficiently than sentences broken up into even more sentences, that collectively are only offering one proposition. One idea smashed into several different sentences slows movement down, drags pacing and lingers momentum. Sentences that convey more information are simply more effective than those that convey less. A sentence that molds images, ideas and thoughts into clearer focus by adding details and clearer explanations are generally more effective than those that bring forth and offer fewer details. The modern does not agree, but that doesn’t make it right.

Being simple and direct are always good methods to tell a story, but “simple” does not mean “simplistic” and “direct” does not mean “brief”. In my novel On The Hole, I was heavily criticized by an editor for a 120-word Babe Ruth-ian bomb I hit out of the zip code. I’ll let you have a quick read and I will explain the purpose for its length afterwards, or shall I say ‘after words’; many of them:

“It was a powerful visual image that could be enjoyed only in the breath of autumn when the sage smell of the wind was cool in the early dawn hours, while standing on the tee box that morning, Jay had gazed at the dew shimmering on the tightly manicured emerald grass, the dampness creating a faint mist rising up from the moist earth, the tall oak trees serving as backdrop, their leaves in autumnal color change, the stark contrast between the offset hues of the lush grass and the color separations of the amber leaves was sublime, he thought, as he stared at the blushing morning sunrise that peeked down, just over the tree line, just under the motionless white clouds, and winked at him.”

This scene was written to convey the beauty of one short moment and its lasting impact on the character. But, in order to properly understand that brief moment, and the massive amount of detail and imagery that had to be crammed into it, required a long A$$ sentence. A really long uninterrupted one. To have broken this up, would have shrunk its importance and diluted the moment.

The red ink notes my editor put next it said “self-indulgent and rhetorically inflated.” Of course it is! With the exception of text messages, everything I write could be categorized as such. Dude, that’s what I do, I said to myself after reading his comment. I make stuff up for a living, lie for effect, spare nothing of importance, gorge it all with details, and then shine the chrome and fatten up the characters even more during the revision process. I inflate and indulge all of my stories, because that’s what people like to read and honestly, that’s what I like to write. (That said, I am a firm believer in the mantra of Stephen King, who said, “Second Draft Equals First Draft Minus 10%.” Sometimes a story diet and an exhausting detail thinning boot camp workout is necessary for a plot to keep moving forward. But I digress, the story diet does not require shortening good sentences. It requires trashing bad ones; trust me, I write a lot of them.)

One of my favorite quotes is by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said:

“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words; their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart."

I guess I might have rewritten it in about eight words to say something like, “Happiness is spoken from the heart, not words.” But, it just sounds a lot more dignified, powerful and cool in his 35 word beauty.

William Faulkner, in his book Absalom! Absalom! wrote a properly punctuated sentence of 1,287 words. Yes, I said 1,287 words and a sentence with correct grammar and punctuation. Yikes. That’s not what I’m suggesting. A sentence of that length is called…well, I don’t think there is a word for that, at least not a word I want to say here. And, “self-indulgent and rhetorically inflated” would be way too kind. But there are many common literary and writing texts that propose no sentence should exceed 25 words unless necessary, and never ever more than 40 words. I don’t completely disagree with these figures, sentences should be kept to under 15-20 words, for the most part. But never employing a good, long, descriptive, clean, clear, well-crafted sentence just handcuffs potential creativity and density of meaning for any writer. When these arbitrary numbers limit detail in a story that demands MORE not LESS, it weakens the ability to make a clear point and thus, create a good story.

I rewrote the above scene I referenced earlier into four 25-30 word component segments, and it bombed. Badly! I mean it just sucked the oxygen from the room. There was simply no way to effectively segment all that sensory input in that one brief moment into an efficient and focused division of sentences. One long sentence screamed at me to keep adding details in order not to break the momentum or diminish the power of the vision and image for that character in that moment in time.

Many point to Hemingway and his simple and short style. However, some research on the subject uncovered no less than 24 examples of 100 word sentences that he created in a few of his stories. I’m willing to bet that he wrote a bunch of 50 word whoppers as well. And he’s known primarily for his brevity. Really? If he can get away with it, then so can I and so can you.

So, don’t be afraid to add layers to your sentences, add depth to the hollow, interest to the boredom, tenants in the vacancy, width to the expanse, space to the sky, and length to boring brevity. It’s not after all, how long you make it…it’s how you make it long. And if your editor tells you to “omit needless words” and “write shorter sentences”, just smile and give him a long breathy sigh, then respond with the shortest and most beautiful complete sentence ever written. “No.”


Jeff Turner said...

As always, very good stuff sir.

Thorne Anderson said...

The 26-40 words for sentences are good guidelines. They encourage the writer to impart clarity. Have you read sentences where there were so many phrases that you had to pause and take a breath or you had to go back to the beginning of the sentence to try and understand what the author was saying? There should be balance in writing and using both long and short sentences does this. If you want lyrical write long. If you want suspense write short sentences. There's a reason and a place for both. If an editor told me to cut some words from a sentence, I would pay attention. Writing tight is better than being all over the place.

George said...

Nothing not to appreciate or learn from in this La lecon de Jeff. I have an inkling some notes were on your fingertips, but likewise lots of research and time went into this post. Thank you for the work putting together another Ace Offering on our blog buffet.

...and the photo--brings back memories of the classic Benson and Hedges 100mm cigarette ad campaign, launched long, long before you were properly potty trained.

Cal said...

It's my opinion that every word in a sentence and paragraph should move the story forward. If the story dictates a more descriptive paragraph you might want to add some layers. If you want action, write short. Simple as that. You can have both types of sentences. However, no sentence should be so long that it takes up an entire paragraph.

Ruby Johnson said...

I think variety is important in sentence structure because too much uniformity results in boredom of the reader. But, deciding how and when to vary sentence length is not always easy. Is there a "just right" length for a particular sentence or idea? It really depends on your intended audience and the type of writing you are doing.In my opinion, frequent alternation in sentence length makes for more memorable writing.After one or more "long sentences", a short sentence can deliver just the right punch.

Fiona said...

It amazes me that people get so caught up in all these "rules". Good for you, Jeff, for pointing out that they don't need to.

A novel of nothing but short staccato sentences is tedious to read but one with nothing but endlessly undulating sentences can quickly become tiresome.

Getting the balance is key and that balance will vary given your style and subject matter and the overall effect you are trying to achieve.

There's no doubt that long sentences in the hands of inexperienced writers (and even in the hands of some experienced ones) can become hopelessly convoluted and lose their thread of meaning. Because I record audio books I am acutely aware of that and often think if only the authors had read their work out aloud, they may have realised themselves. But that's not an argument against using them at all.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you, Jeff. It's not about the size of the dog in the fight, right?

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