Tue 25 Mar 2014
by Jim Harrington
Today, I want to comment on two quotes by William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well. Even though he’s commenting on nonfiction, these quotes apply equally to fiction.
Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
I know you’ve experienced this. So have I. You read through your story and always get stuck on the same sentence. It might be the rhythm, or a word meaning, or a phrase that doesn’t seem to fit. You try changing the offending word or phrase, sometimes successfully, other times not. Often, there isn’t a word to express what’s required by the story. It’s a metaphor or simile that’s needed. And occasionally, the solution is to get rid of the word or phrase (or maybe the entire sentence) altogether, even though it is the best phrase/sentence you’ve ever written. If the latter is the case, save it for another time. There’s a story out there somewhere that’s a perfect fit. You just haven’t written it yet. Or maybe that wonderful phrase is the perfect title to kickstart another narrative.
There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.
This is one of my favorite sentences in the book. I’ve read a number of stories lately in various critique groups where the only problem with the piece is that many of the sentences are so long and convoluted they get lost within themselves. From my point of view as the reader, it seems the easiest way to correct this is to get to the period sooner.
Yes, there’s a place for long sentences. I use them to set the mood of a story or to drag out a feeling just that little bit longer to build tension. A good mix of long and short sentences can provide an excellent reading experience. However, writing long sentences isn’t easy.
There may be times where that mammoth rolls through the fingers and onto the page with ease and makes perfect sense to you, the author. Now, how about the reader? What is that experience going to be like? I’ve read a few sentences that I’m sure make perfectly good sense to the author. After all, that’s the one person who knows the entire backstory of the character and the events that occur in the story. At least, I hope that’s true. But from the reader’s side, there may be something missing. Perhaps this something, the purpose for the sentence say, would become clearer if the author broke the ideas presented into smaller, more digestible chunks. Doing this also helps the author ensure nothing is omitted unintentionally.
The other thing to consider when writing long sentence after long sentence is boredom or angst on the part of the reader. The mind needs frequent places to pause and digest–at least mine does. When reading a series of sentences containing phrase after phrase after phrase, I tend to fade out the longer the sentence goes on, wondering when I might finally be given a reprieve, when the sentence finally reaches its end point and I finally get to take a breath, as indicated by the period. Truth time: raise your hand if you began to wonder when in this millenium that last sentence was going to end?
I’ve mentioned my musical past before. Back in the seventies, I played trumpet in a number of local big band concerts (think the music of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Count Basie). One evening, the drummer de jour played an extended solo; and as I listened, I realized something was missing–silence. The drummer had excellent technique and performed many technical riffs; but as a listener, I never got the chance to (figuratively) take a breath. While a good musician, the drummer didn’t realize silence is a musical note, too. If you listen to any of the great jazz drummers, you’ll notice they use silence to enhance the experience. In writing, this is the period’s job. It offers the reader the opportunity to take a breath and assimilate what has happened to this point before moving on.
I’m not suggesting you never write long sentences. On the contrary, they have a place in many stories in setting the mood and, as noted above, adding to the suspense. I am suggesting you consider such sentences carefully to make sure they are doing the job of moving the story along and not turning the reader off. As an example, here’s a one-sentence story by Len Kuntz I thoroughly enjoyed – http://inbetweenalteredstates.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/blood-orange-by-len-kuntz/.
Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog (http://sixquestionsfor.blogspot.com/) provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.