Impressively academic-sounding title, no? Actually, this is a short post that came to me while I was in the bath. Having started my writing career as a poet, it is important to me that my work reads fluidly, even in prose. I even sneak poetry into my prose. However, while lyricism helps to achieve flow, a similar effect can be achieved using sentence structure.
In school, many of us were taught to keep sentences simple. Even in the most rudimentary teachings instructors advocate varying sentence length so that the writing doesn’t feel choppy and uninteresting. However, for the most part, they lean toward simple, versus long sentences. When word processors were developed, they blithely told us what our writing’s reading level is, which is, of course, influenced by word choice and sentence length.
We want our work accessible to “Joe Reader” (despite the fact Joe is probably well educated) so we conform and keep those sentences curt. Fortunately, Charles Dickens never got the memo or he would have certainly re-written his most famous opening sentence. If it looks a bit like a poem, well, yeah. Exactly.
Let’s look at the effect of short sentences. Let’s start with a simple example, below.
Joe went to the cabinet. He picked up a knife. Joe sliced the cheese, looking ominously at the blade.
Now, in our first reading, we probably omitted “ominously,” because Stephen King says adverbs are bad (which is nonsense), but we inserted it since the short sentences didn’t leave room to explain the emotional content of the scene. In fact, there’s no emotional content at all. Even worse, the writing is choppy and fluidity is nil. Why is that?
Simple. Life doesn’t happen in separable chunks like that. Our brains are designed for sequential thinking, and we naturally link related activities together. Listing the separate events is great if you’re an announcer broadcasting a football match, but in the real world, it’s annoying.
So, let’s take the same events and link them together.
Joe walked to the cabinet, found the sharpest knife there, glared at Mary, and sliced the cheese.
Already, as we see the three steps as one activity, we begin to naturally insert more information. He wasn’t just strolling by the cabinet as he happened upon a knife. He went there with a purpose. He wanted more than a slice of cheese; he wanted our attention. Now that he has it, and we begin to think of Joe’s activities as an integrated event, we can easily add the emotional content, which has the secondary effect of adding a touch of lyricism and fluidity.
Joe walked to the cabinet, selecting a blade six inches long, and twisted it, watching light dance along the razor’s edge before smiling and severing a paper-thin slice from the hard cheese in a single, fluid motion. Mary shuddered.
Now, the sentence needs work, but not as much as the three choppy ones. (Pun intended.) It is a single motion, and we understand it wasn’t cheese he wanted but Mary’s intimidation. Keep in mind, the extra information (which came in my bath) was as a direct result of seeing the pieces as a whole. I followed the long sentence with a shorter one that both breaks the monotony of the rhythm and serves as punctuation. Our old instructor would be happy.
Of course, your mileage may vary, and there are myriad ways to achieve the same result. But in general, I try to eschew little sentences when I can. Life isn’t meant for little bits. I’m not suggesting that you go all Tale of Two Cities on the world with your writing, but do stop and think of whether your many thoughts are actually many thoughts at all.