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Style: Chapter 1, Section 2: Long Sentences


For an introduction to these essays on style, click here.)

 

In my last style post (section 1), I got into the art of writing short, simple sentences. While there’s no question that we can do a lot with these kinds of sentences, the fun really begins when we start working with longer sentences.

 

The word “long” is, of course, ambiguous. What I should do is determine the average sentence length in The Penguin Book of the Modern Short Story, and then come up with some quantitative measure of what I mean by long (or short), something like the top (or bottom) quartile in a box & whiskers plot. But, for my convenience (and to avoid excess nerdiness), let’s just sort of trust our eyes (and ears). Hopefully, we’ll know a long one when we see one (or hear one).

 

I should also add, before getting started, that for those of us who enjoy experimental writing, the offerings in the Penguin book are pretty tame. There are no Molly Bloom thirty-six-page single-sentence soliloquies, no endless Faulknerian dandies. All of which makes the Penguin book seem kind of, well, flaccid. But such is the state of fiction these days. We must take what we can get.

 

So here we go. As before, examples will be from The Penguin Book of the Modern Short Story, ed. John Freeman (New York: Penguin Press, 2021). Take your time with these examples; many of them are (appropriately enough!) quite long, and I think they’re worth savoring, one word at a time.

 

Long “Flowing” Sentences

I’ll start with what I call long “flowing” sentences. These are sentences that require few, if any, pauses (or breaths). They’re usually free, or nearly free, of punctuation. We’ll see quite a bit of polysyndeton (covered in detail in my last post) in these examples; I’ll embolden the important (clause-connecting) “and”s below:

 

We started off toward the Little Knife River and Mandaree in Fort Berthold and then we found ourselves down in Wakpala somehow and then suddenly we were over in Montana on the Rocky Boys and yet the summer was not even half over. —Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible,” 41

 

The above sentence is a grammatical run-on (four clauses, missing commas before conjunctions), but the style is so intentional and the language is so fluid that we immediately forgive Erdrich for any grammatical transgressions. It’s extremely stylish. Hemingway and others wrote like this for days and days and days (and days).

 

Here’s another polysyndetic gem, this one from one of the masters of style. See if you can read it in one breath:

 

So they went to the movies and then came back to his place and then I called and then she left and he called back and we argued and then I called back twice but he had gone out to get a beer (he says) and then I drove over and in the meantime he had returned from buying beer and she had also come back and she was in his room so we talked by the garage doors. —Lydia Davis, “Story,” 71

 

And . . . breathe.

 

Remember, writers are writing like this for a reason: perhaps to create a sense of time passing, perhaps to evoke the feelings of being disoriented or overwhelmed, perhaps to mimic a narrator’s or character’s stream of consciousness. This is the point of style: to, in essence, take a text formally beyond its simple message (content).

 

Below, Davis combines five medium-length independent clauses, creating one gloriously long sentence. We have three moments to breathe—indicated with commas—but to my ear this is still a smoothly flowing read:

 

The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out that it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often. —Ibid., 72

 

Long, Complex Sentences

By far most long sentences are complex in form, filled with independent, dependent clauses, and various types of phrases, as well as the attendant punctuation (commas mostly, but also dashes and sometimes parentheses). I have more examples from the Penguin book than I know what to do with, so I’ll just introduce a handful of my favorites.

 

I’ll introduce some terms as I go. As much as I’d love to get into the minutiae of sentence building blocks, in an endless, Sternean-like digression of sorts, I’ll try to keep it simple.

 

Clauses

A clause is a group of words containing a subject and predicate (or verb phrase). Let’s start with the two kinds of clauses:

 

independent clause: A clause that could be used by itself as a simple sentence but that is part of a larger sentence. I am writing . . .

 

dependent clause: A clause that does not form a simple sentence by itself and that is connected to the main independent clause of a sentence; a subordinate clause. Although I am writing . . .

 

In what follows, I’m going to tear apart (and then put together) a great sentence from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (p. 17).

 

Every (grammatical) sentence includes at least one independent clause:

 

All the processions wound towards the north side of the city.

 

Writers may combine an independent clause with one or more dependent clauses:

 

All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where boys and girls exercised their restive horses.

 

Now let’s sprinkle in some descriptive phrases (nearly all, in this case, prepositional phrases):

 

All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.

 

One thing to point out here is how wonderfully Le Guin delays resolutions, particularly after the first comma. Note the distance between “where” and the subject of the dependent clause (“boys and girls”), and then the distance between this subject and its predicate (“exercised . . .”). Withholding sentence resolutions is a way of creating syntactical tension. It also sophisticates your writing. See Proust. See Proust immediately.

 

Here’s one more example, this one emphasizing clauses. Don’t let the semicolons fool you; this is really one long sentence. Adichie writes several dependent clauses before (finally) adding a short simple independent clause at the end (emboldened). This kind of creativity and exaggeration with sentence form is an important part of developing sentence style. (I’ll also discuss this sentence in a later essay when I dig into repetition.)

 

Because they had all woken up early—those who had slept at all—to get to the American embassy before dawn; because they had all struggled for the visa line, dodging the soldiers’ swinging whips as they were herded back and forth before the line was finally formed; because they were all afraid that the American embassy might decide not to open its gates today, and they would have to do it all over again the day after tomorrow since the embassy did not open on Wednesdays, they had formed friendships. —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The American Embassy,” 323

 

Compound Sentences

Simply put, a compound sentence is a sentence with two (or, for our purposes here, more than two) independent clauses. (For much more on compound sentences, see my post on run-ons.) Many of our longest, most complex sentences combine independent clauses. The following sentence includes three clauses (I’ll embolden the coordinating conjunctions that link them). Note the relative smoothness of the first two clauses in comparison with the choppiness of the last clause:

 

I tried to tell my children a cautionary tale about a little girl who fell into a well and had to wait a week until firefighters could figure out a way to rescue her, something that maybe actually took place back in the dimness of my childhood, but the story was either too abstract for them or I wasn’t making much sense, and they didn’t seem to grasp my need for them to stay in the cabin, to not go anywhere, if the very worst happened, the unthinkable that I was skirting, like a pit that opened just in front of each sentence I was about to utter. —Lauren Groff, “The Midnight Zone,” 443

 

Here’s a piece of compound-sentence magic (six clauses!) from the same story. Note the last two words. If Groff meant these to comprise an independent clause (an interpretation I enjoy), then the missing “and” before the clause creates an absolutely perfect comma splice. But perhaps more likely she uses save as a synonym for except. Either way (and perhaps, knowing Groff, the ambiguity is intentional), I’m not sure a writer could land a long sentence like this one any better.

 

At one point, something passed across the woods outside like a shudder, and a hush fell over everything, and the boys and the dog all looked at me and their faces were like pale birds taking flight, but my hearing had mercifully shut off whatever had occasioned such swift terror over all creatures of the earth, save me. —Ibid., 447–8

 

How far can you take these long sentence? Quite far. Can you identify the three (to my count) independent clauses in this three hundred and eighty–word feast? (Answer at the end of the post.)

 

And when some of the friends, the ones who came every day, waylaid the doctor in the corridor, Stephen was the one who asked the most informed questions, who’d been keeping up not just with the stories that appeared several times a week in the Times (which Greg confessed to have stopped reading, unable to stand it anymore) but with articles in the medical journals published here and in England and France, and who knew socially one of the principal doctors in Paris who was doing some much-publicized research on the disease, but his doctor said little more than that the pneumonia was not life-threatening, the fever was subsiding, of course he was still weak but he was responding well to the antibiotics, that he’d have to complete his stay in the hospital, which entailed a minimum of twenty-one days on the I.V., before she could start him on the new drug, for she was optimistic about the possibility of getting him into the protocol; and when Victor said that if he had so much trouble eating (he’d say to everyone, when they coaxed him to eat some of the hospital meals, that food didn’t taste right, that he had a funny metallic taste in his mouth) it couldn’t be good that friends were bringing him all that chocolate, the doctor just smiled and said that in these cases the patient’s morale was also an important factor, and if chocolate made him feel better she saw no harm in it, which worried Stephen, as Stephen said later to Donny, because they wanted to believe in the promises and taboos of today’s high-tech medicine but here this reassuringly curt and silver-haired specialist in the disease, someone quoted frequently in the papers, was talking like some oldfangled country G.P. who tells the family that tea with honey or chicken soup may do as much for the patient as penicillin, which might mean, as Max said, that they were just going through the motions of treating him, that they were not sure about what to do, or rather, as Xavier interjected, that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, that the truth, the real truth, as Hilda said, upping the ante, was that they didn’t, the doctors, really have any hope. —Susan Sontag, “The Way We Live Now,” 105–6

 

Prepositional and Descriptive Phrases

Weaving phrases in and around the main clause of a sentence is a way to create complexity. I could arguably have included the following sentence above—in the Long “Flowing” Sentences section—but the middle polysyndetic phrase breaks up the flow. In any case, note the prepositional phrases, from “In the silence” to “of the bells.” There is music winding through this one, a great joyous clanging of bells:

 

In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells. —Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” 18

 

Clauses within Clauses / Phrases within Phrases

Here’s where parentheses and especially em-dashes come in handy. I love nesting. It’s a great way to create complexity and depth in sentence structures. In the example that follows, Bass uses em-dashes in a couple of ways, but focus on the nested phrase “like fallen stars . . .”:

 

The storm has knocked out all the power down in town—it’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where the town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light—like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowing—you would see nothing but darkness—a bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or complementing our darkness, our peace. —Rick Bass, “The Hermit’s Story,” 227–8

 

And because I consider Bass a master of masters, here’s one more of his. Take it slow. His sentences are like great feasts—nourishing, complex, not to be rushed:

 

Ann knew they would stay there forever, or until she released them, and it troubled her to think that if she drowned, they too would die—that they would stand there motionless, as she had commanded them, for as long as they could, until at some point—days later, perhaps—they would lie down, trembling with exhaustion—they might lick at some snow, for moisture—but that then the snows would cover them, and still they would remain there, chins resting on their front paws, staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm, wondering where the scent of her had gone. —Rick Bass, “The Hermit’s Story,” 233

 

Participial Phrases

I’ll use the Bass example above to define a term I mentioned earlier:

 

participial phrase: An adjective phrase that contains a participle (typically ending in -ing) and the participle’s object. . . . working on the railroad . . .

 

Note the participial phrases in the Bass example, especially near the end of the sentence: “trembling with exhaustion,” “resting on their front paws,” “staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm,” and “wondering where the scent of her had gone.” I’ve noticed that some writers overuse participial phrases, so take heed and use with moderation, but they can definitely be an important part of creating long, complex sentences.

 

The example below is kind of a preview of sentence combinations (section 3 (coming soon)): we have two—really three—sentences. As you read, note all the participial phrases in the first sentence, the important short clause before the colon (in italics in the original), and the structure of the third sentence (after the colon), with several simple “I” clauses. I’ll also embolden one important flowing clause near the end that helps balance all the choppiness throughout. This is complex, beautiful writing:

 

Not infrequently, I got sufficiently inebriated to find myself loudly singing a sevdalinka, sending significant glances toward the three muses, and emulating conducting moves for their enjoyment, while a brain-freezing vision of laying all three of them simultaneously twinkled on my horizon. But it never worked out: I couldn’t sing, my conducting was ludicrous, I never recited any of my poems, I wasn’t even published, and instead I had to listen to Muhamed D. singing his sevdalinka with a trembling voice that opened up the worlds of permanent dusk, where sorrow reigned and the mere sight of a woman’s neck caused maddening bouts of desire. —Aleksandar Hemon, “The Conductor,” 336

 

More Music Making

The point of these long, complex sentences is to make music with words. Listen for patterns and cadences. Le Guin, for example, creates a wonderful sound with the three structurally identical phrases at the end of this one:

 

It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. —Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” 23

 

Writers often use commas to create an interesting choppy sound to a sentence:

 

She waited, let him look away, and, when the back-and-forth swing of his gaze crossed her again, said in her most melic, soft-breathing voice: “You.” —Charles Johnson, “China,” 77

 

In the example above, Johnson could have opted for a smoother, more open construction (probably with polysyndeton), but he wanted choppiness. These are the kinds of decisions we must make as writers. Often it is a question of variation and balance (something I’ll be discussing soon).

 

Here’s a sentence with more structural repetition, first with the subject of the sentence (“Salvador”), and then with a series of predicates (“runs . . . ,” “lives . . . ,” etc.). Just as it is with music (and again, that’s what we’re doing here, writing music), repetition is an important part of structuring these long sentences:

 

Salvador with eyes the color of caterpillar, Salvador of the crooked hair and crooked teeth, Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember, is a boy who is no one’s friend, runs along somewhere in that vague direction where homes are the color of bad weather, lives behind a raw wood doorway, shakes the sleepy brothers awake, ties their shoes, combs their hair with water, feeds them milk and corn flakes from a tin cup in the dim dark of the morning.

 

Note also the asyndeton above (the missing “and” before “feeds”).

 

Often, writers vary the lengths of their phrases (or clauses) within a sentence, but here, Denis Johnson uses—I’m sure intentionally—phrases and clauses of similar length to create something like, well, whatever a square-dance might sound like if put into words:

 

In a couple of minutes, in the middle of a whirling square dance, the screen turned black, the cinematic summer ended, the snow went dark, there was nothing but my breath. — Denis Johnson, “Emergency,” 165

 

(You might also notice, once again, the missing “and” before the last clause (more asyndeton).)

 

*

 

I think that’s enough for sentence structures. Next time, I’ll discuss sentence combinations.

 

*

 

Here are the three independent clauses mentioned in the Sontag example above (I’ve emboldened the subject and verb(s) of each):

 

And when some of the friends, the ones who came every day, waylaid the doctor in the corridor, Stephen was the one who asked the most informed questions, who’d been keeping up not just with the stories that appeared several times a week in the Times (which Greg confessed to have stopped reading, unable to stand it anymore) but with articles in the medical journals published here and in England and France, and who knew socially one of the principal doctors in Paris who was doing some much-publicized research on the disease,
but his doctor said little more than that the pneumonia was not life-threatening, the fever was subsiding, of course he was still weak but he was responding well to the antibiotics, that he’d have to complete his stay in the hospital, which entailed a minimum of twenty-one days on the I.V., before she could start him on the new drug, for she was optimistic about the possibility of getting him into the protocol;
and when Victor said that if he had so much trouble eating (he’d say to everyone, when they coaxed him to eat some of the hospital meals, that food didn’t taste right, that he had a funny metallic taste in his mouth) it couldn’t be good that friends were bringing him all that chocolate, the doctor just smiled and said that in these cases the patient’s morale was also an important factor, and if chocolate made him feel better she saw no harm in it, which worried Stephen, as Stephen said later to Donny, because they wanted to believe in the promises and taboos of today’s high-tech medicine but here this reassuringly curt and silver-haired specialist in the disease, someone quoted frequently in the papers, was talking like some oldfangled country G.P. who tells the family that tea with honey or chicken soup may do as much for the patient as penicillin, which might mean, as Max said, that they were just going through the motions of treating him, that they were not sure about what to do, or rather, as Xavier interjected, that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, that the truth, the real truth, as Hilda said, upping the ante, was that they didn’t, the doctors, really have any hope. —Susan Sontag, “The Way We Live Now,” 105–6

 

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee (Cola Literary Review), Blood Orange Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and many others, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He has published a novella from Buttonhook Press.


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