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Style: Chapter 1: Sentences (§1.1)

A good first step in developing style is to focus on the structures and combinations of sentences. All the great writers seem to scrutinize their sentences, in terms of syntax, sound, length, variation, rhythm, etc. In §1.1 below, I’ll analyze the structures of single sentences, specifically relatively short ones. In §1.2, I’ll get into longer sentences. And in §1.3, I’ll get into the art of sentence combinations. I’ll end with ideas for how to make your own sentences more stylish.

 

Length is an important consideration. Sentences, obviously, can be very long, very short, or somewhere in between. For many writers, focusing on length, per se, is enough to develop a sense of style, but, of course, length isn’t everything. So let’s get into the basic sentence structures. (All examples below are from The Penguin Book of the Modern Short Story, ed. John Freeman (New York: Penguin Press, 2021). For an introduction to my essays on style, click here.)

 

1.1: Short & Simple Sentences


I like a good short sentence. Less, indeed, is sometimes more. There’s an art to these sentences, in terms of both how they’re constructed and where they’re placed in the text. As I’ll mention later, these sentences can act as foils for longer, more complex ones. But there’s more to them than that.

 

Short Sentences

Let’s start with three short, simple sentences:

 

We went out to the car. It was spring. The sun was shining very bright. —Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible,” 46–7

 

What makes this stylish? I think it’s the sentences’ shortness, the fact that Erdrich chose not to combine them into a longer sentence, something like: “We went out to the car in the spring, and the sun was shining very bright.” I don’t have a problem with this sentence, but it doesn’t give the reader the same skipping-like feeling of the original.

 

Short sentences can often create tension. In the example below, Holleran captures a sense of the mood, the anticipation, with his short sentences (the first, second, and fourth):

 

The place was mobbed. The lights dimmed. Rows of gaunt, grave people leaned forward with expectant faces. The music began. —Andrew Holleran, “The Penthouse,” 263

 

Below is an example from a writer who can build towering cathedrals with his prose, but is content here with a simple shack and a small house. The sentences, I think, ease a reader into the story. They are like open doors. Come on in. It’s warm in here. There’s a sound to them:

 

It’s Thanksgiving. Susan and I are over at Ann’s and Roger’s house for dinner. —Rick Bass, “The Hermit’s Story,” 227

 

Short sentences need not be simple. Writers often create interest by inverting the expected order of phrases or clauses.

 

She was a virgin, he was almost sure. —Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried,” 125

 

(A more typical, and less stylistic, form would be: “He was almost sure she was a virgin.”)

 

As you’ll see in §1.3, and as I mentioned above, short sentences are commonly used to balance the sound and rhythm of longer ones, but I’ve read some amazing works that embrace, nearly exclusively, short, simple sentences. Beyond the Penguin book, check out A Sport and a Pastime (1967) by James Salter. It is an absolute masterpiece of short sentences and fragments (I mention this book more or less constantly). Which leads me to . . .

 

Fragments

Simply put, fragments are sentences—some grammarians would insist I put the word in quotes: “sentences”—missing either a subject or a verb (or sometimes both). The following example is fragmentary perfection (fragments emboldened):

 

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. —Tobias Wolff, “Bullet to the Brain,” 226

 

This is a typical use of fragments: as vehicles for description. To my ear, it just doesn’t get old. A room. A broken window. A fallen chair. A single drop of glistening blood. Silence. . . . I could keep going. Fragmentary writing allows the objects and descriptions to do the work. The author, in a sense, gets out of the way and just lets things be. It’s style.

 

In the Wolff example above, the third fragment (fourth sentence) is fairly long for a fragment, although Wolff could have easily broken it into three shorter fragments. But it’s important to note that fragments need not necessarily be short:

 

Salvador, late or early, sooner or later arrives with the string of younger brothers ready. Helps his mama, who is busy with the business of the baby. —Sandra Cisneros, “Salvador Late or Early,” 122

 

Why not a simple comma after “ready”? Cisneros wants the reader to take a longer pause than a comma would dictate. It also effectively separates the two actions (the arriving and the helping) and, I think, adds importance to the latter. Or, why not simply add the word “He” before “Helps”? Because, I think, it creates a bit of tension. It requires the reader to do slightly more work (who helps?). And, most importantly, it’s stylish!

 

Sometimes a single, well-placed fragment can work wonders, as we see in the single-word fragment below (emboldened):

 

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas? —Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” 18

 

Fragments are a valuable tool of style. (I, personally, use them often, probably to excess. Here’s a story of mine constructed entirely of fragments.)

 

Before providing more examples, I’ll offer two advisories:

  1.  If you use fragments, you should usually do so frequently enough to convince the reader of your intent (you don’t want the fragments to be construed as errors).

  2. It’s usually a good idea to stay away from simply changing verbs to gerunds. That’s not to say “John working in the field” cannot ever work, but it’s not a particularly creative way of rewriting “John works in the field.” The fragmentists seem to avoid this form most of the time.

 

Here’s one more example of a fragment. Note how the second sentence (a rather complex fragment) creates a certain sound to the what and why of the narrator’s stealing:

 

Stealing was a way to pass the time. Things we needed, things we didn’t, for the nerve of it, the anger, the need. —Dorothy Allison, “River of Names,” 153

 

Again, the reader has to do some work here. Allison doesn’t make the connection between “Stealing” and “Things” that a lesser writer would perhaps make explicit (We stole things . . .). This is part of the appeal of fragments: they necessarily (by definition) leave things unsaid. Readers, more than usual, must determine meaning from the limited bits and pieces (fragments) that the writer has provided, something we connoisseurs of literary writing, unconsciously or otherwise, appreciate. No one wants to assemble a puzzle already assembled.

 

Simple Sentences

The stylists understand the importance of the well-placed simple sentence. Because these writers often create long, complex sentences, filled with phrases and clauses (usually amply punctuated), as well as very short sentences (often fragments) to help balance the complexity and sound of the longer sentences, a simple sentence (often free of internal punctuation) can provide a kind of breath, a moment of resolution, a cadence, to the syntactical tension created by the more “interesting” very long or very short sentences surrounding it. This will become clearer when I get into sentence combinations later.

 

By the way, I purposely just wrote a long, complex sentence (“Because these writers . . .” (82 words, lots of punctuation)) followed by a simple, flowing sentence (“This will become . . .” (11 words, no internal punctuation)). The latter, I hope, helped relax the reading experience of the former.

 

I’ll provide just a couple of examples of these simple sentences. I realize these are a little boring on their own; they’ll become more interesting later (§1.3).

 

She saw the man’s glasses slip off and fall. She saw the heel of the soldier’s boot squash the black frames, the tinted lenses. —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The American Embassy,” 323
I feel the kick of the rifle butt in my sternum. I would do it again. —Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Last Thing We Need,” 383
Qingming was the Chinese Festival for the Dead. —Ken Liu, “The Paper Menagerie,” 397

 

Before moving on, and as a bit of an aside, note that relatively simple sentences are frequently used as first sentences of stories. They have a welcoming quality to them. Some intrepid readers indeed enjoy the challenge of difficult prose, but writers still often want to invite readers into their stories. At a glance, roughly half the stories in the Penguin book start with sentences like the following:

 

My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. —Grace Paley, “A Conversation with My Father,” 10
I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation. —Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible,” 40

 

Polysyndeton and Asyndeton

I’m going to start using these two words frequently. First, definitions (both from Merriam-Webster):

 

polysyndeton: Repetition of conjunctions in close succession. He raced cars and planes and boats.
asyndeton: Omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses. He raced cars, planes, boats.

 

Polysyndeton and asyndeton are used endlessly. They are two of the easiest ways to develop style. Compare the fairly boring He raced cars, planes, and boats to the two examples above. Polysyndeton and asyndeton are instant style.

 

Here are some examples from the Penguin book. I’ll start with polysyndeton:

 

I got scared and pushed her and she fell down and I got expelled. —Lucia Berlin, “Silence,” 190
Jones has bought milk and groceries and two yellow roses that are wrapped in tissue and newspaper in the trunk, in the cold. —Joy Williams, “Taking Care,” 61
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. —Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” 354
He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day. —George Saunders, “Sticks,” 171

 

You might note in the Saunders example that and is used in a few different ways: (1) as a way to join simple objects (e.g., “the pole and sticks”), (2) as a way to list actions (e.g., “He painted . . . and hung . . .”), and (3) as a way to link independent clauses (e.g., “. . . and then he died . . . ,” “. . . and we sold the house . . .”). The different uses create a complex, stylistic effect.

 

And here’s some asyndeton. By far, the most common (perhaps the only?) use of asyndeton involves leaving out the last “and” in a list of items or actions. Easy, simple, effective, stylish:

 

I open my mouth, close it, can’t speak. —Dorothy Allison, “River of Names,” 156
The whole pack was irritated, bewildered, depressed. —Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” 358

 

Here we see asyndeton used with longer phrasal actions:

 

Sometimes I see his eyes above that bandanna, see the grasshoppers leaping in the lights, hear them vibrating. —Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Last Thing We Need,” 383

 

I’m not planning to get into “landings” in much detail, but let me quickly mention that stylists always pay attention to the last parts (words, phrases, etc.) of each unit of their narratives (namely, sentences, paragraphs, sections, and of course the stories themselves). Because these landings come at the ends of things, they stick in readers’ minds. Asyndeton often creates lovely sounding landings:

 

We would then watch, as the crane flapped its crisp wings on its long journey west, towards the Pacific, towards China, towards the graves of Mom’s family. —Ken Liu, “The Paper Menagerie,” 398

 

That’s it for §1.1. Next time, I’ll get into long sentences.


 

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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