Four groups of people are concerned with the length of a sentence—judges, lawyers, prisoners and editors. An acquisitions editor turned back my recent submission of a themed short story collection with both lavish praise and condemning criticism. She really liked the stories, but hated the sentences. I had thought early on that one or two of the stories might be too long in word count, but that was not the problem. I was rejected for my sentences being too long; rejected with an offer that if I would “write down,” using less complex sentences, she would be glad to reconsider publishing the collection. I chose to look elsewhere.
However, just in case she might have a point, I did take another look at my complex sentences and found them good. But thinking that the acquisitions editor perhaps might be fresh out of an eastern liberal arts school, and perhaps did not study the same authors I did, I’d reprise my study of several classic authors whose work influenced me when I was in college.
I looked to Hemingway first. The 1996 reprint copy of the 1935 Green Hills of Africa that was formatted to serve as a textbook study of the great author’s work, and that I was about to read for fun, seemed like a reasonable place to start. The back cover copy praised Hemingway’s body of work, then went on to justify him as a subject of literary study: “Ernest Hemingway did more to change the style of English Prose than any other writer in the Twentieth Century, and for his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.” Obviously, I had come to the right place.
The blurb continued: “Hemingway wrote in short, declarative sentences and was known for his tough, terse prose.” Perhaps the acquisitions editor who turned me down knew of which she spoke. The balance of the blurb mainly listed Hemingway’s numerous published titles. I opened and read. PART I, Chapter One, pages 5 and 6. To set the scene, Hemingway’s hunt day is over, and the object of the day’s hunt was not achieved; the kudu quarry did not come to the salt lick where Hemingway had rigged his blind. He’s traveling via motor vehicle back to his distant camp:
So now, going along the sandy track of the road in the car, the lights picking out the eyes of night birds that squatted close on the sand until the bulk of the car was on them and they rose in soft panic; passing the fires of the travelers that all moved to the westward by day along this road, abandoning the famine country that was ahead of us; me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the crook of my left arm, a flask of whisky between my knees, pouring the whisky into a tin cup and passing it over my shoulder in the dark for M’Cola [a member of the hunting retinue] to pour water into it from the canteen, drinking this, the first one of the day, the finest one there is, and looking at the thick bush we passed in the dark, feeling the cool wind of the night and smelling the good smell of Africa, I was altogether happy.
Terse? One hundred sixty three words! One extremely complex, thought provoking, sentence streaming the scene and the hunter’s innermost satisfying and disturbing thoughts, streaming them long before streaming became a household cliché as applied to the new day technology of cell phones and digital cameras. This man, Hemingway, certainly knows short and declarative! So I looked further and to other well-known authors whose works find place on my bookshelves.
On the morning of the eleventh of November, 1937, precisely at eleven o’clock, some well-meaning busybody consulted his watch and loudly announced the hour, with the result that all of us in the dining car felt constrained to put aside drinks and newspapers and spend the two minutes’ silence in rather embarrassed stares at one another or out of the window.
The preceding sixty-two-word sentence is the opening to one of my favorite novels, Random Harvest by James Hilton, published in 1942. It’s not the wordiest example I could find; many of the classic authors make use of sentences much longer, up to seventy, eighty and more words.
Granted, the two preceding examples are from the 1930s and 40s and I admit that they may not apply to literature of today, or may not be acceptable to the television generation. I read, but I watch television too. One thing I’ve noticed that whether it’s on the big motion picture screen or the flickering TV, a story based on a book seldom translates completely to the visual medium. That’s not to declare that there are no good movies, but the print version wins out a preponderance of the time.
Moving on, a television presentation of The Jewel in the Crown some years back drove me to read the book(s) that inspired the TV series. I appreciated the understated characterizations portrayed by the British actors, I liked the period in history, and I enjoyed the locale--mysterious India. In the closing credits at the end of each weekly segment was the information that the story was derived from the “Raj Quartet”, a series of novels by Paul Scott. I eventually assembled a complete set of the four titles in print, written in the 1970s, before I dared to read any of them.
As if I needed a reason to prefer a book over the movie, the written version is far superior to the shadows on screen. The film, any fiction film, can’t exist without dialogue, but these books include so much skillful descriptive narrative that cannot be presented by actors mouthing roles. It’s a difficult read though, first, due to its anglicized words and phrases, then the east-Indian words that don’t appear in my English dictionary. And even though it’s in pure English, I really stumbled over this sentence:
There is, for instance, under glass, the old briar pipe that long ago was filled and tamped by the broad but increasingly shaky finger of Sir Henry Manners, one-time governor of the province in which the town of Mayapore played, in 1942, its particular historic role, but Manners was gone ten years before that, carried temporarily away by retirement to Kashmir and then off permanently by the claret and the sunshine which he loved, and a disease which even now is curable only in Paris, Athens and Mexico and of which he knew nothing until it ate through the walls of his intestines and attacked his liver, which the doctors described as a cancerous invasion.
One sentence, one hundred-fifteen vivid and superbly coupled storytelling words written in the 1970s-- but don’t plan on hearing them at the movie.
Are long sentences the purview then, of the old school of writing? What of the contemporary authors? In this era of one-hour television dramas and compact newspapers designed for busy consumers, do we adults have to write, and speak, as the characters in our basic reading texts of times gone by? See Spot run.
Half a century after James Hilton, popular novelist and author of Pleading Guilty, Scott Turow, writes: The saying about law firms is that there are finders, minders, and grinders, referring first to people like Carl and Martin and Brushy who find big-time, big-money clients to employ them, then the service partners, guys like me, who make sure that skilled work is carried out by supervising the third group, the young toilers laboring in the library amid the ghosts of dead trees. Sixty-seven words. Obviously the lengthy sentence is alive and well in today’s literature.
The only rule governing sentence length is to write to the appropriate reading level of the intended audience. There is no rule for a maximum sentence length, or a minimum for that matter. Long sentences often work well and frequently are necessary. The stream-of-consciousness treatment almost always demands long, complicated sentences to reflect the run-on thought processes of the character. The quote from Pleading Guilty falls into that category. On the other hand, James Hilton’s paragraph establishes the time, locale, and conditions in such a manner that none of that paragraph need be omitted; nor should it be broken up since it encompasses a complex scene in a single, connected narration.
Hemingway is capable of short sentences, as are Hilton, Turow and Scott. Outside of dialogue where short sentences should predominate, Hilton’s character, the confused Charles Ranier, describing an account in the first person, related: I said nothing. That’s concise. To pick a like example from Turow and his character Mack Malloy: I stared. That’s equally succinct. Hemingway, in describing a scene that included local people, used first a fifty-seven-word sentence, then one of nineteen words, and then: Others carried spears. Finally, Hemingway was terse. Paul Scott of The Raj Quartet, and the easily the wordiest of this selected quartet of authors, can write short when the situation requires it, as in these two consecutive sentences: Mildred stood out. Almost disdainfully.
If there is no hard-and-fast rule for sentence length, there certainly is a practical rule against being boring in your sentence structure. Mix your sentence lengths. Use terse ones where they fit the mood, but avoid the stilted; write longer where it advances or supports the storyline. And don’t worry yourself about acquisitions editors. They may invoke power to temporarily sidetrack your career advancement, but don’t allow them to wreck your writing that you know is right. For me I’m allying with my loquacious role models, the Messers Hemingway, Scott, Hilton and Turow
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