Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Power of Short Sentences (and white space)

Much of our education about reading and writing works against us when we turn our minds to writing fiction. The writing we are prepared for by elementary and secondary school is for essay and academic writing... not fiction.

I remember (at least during my schooling) lots of practice with combining sentences… especially making compound sentences.

            I went to school. I saw my friends there.

“No, no, no… combine those sentences with an ‘and,’ Jeffrey.”

            I went to school, and I saw my friends there.

I’m not sure if that’s the way anymore, but I remember doing so many worksheets on combining sentences. The message seemed to be: Longer (compound) sentence=good. Shorter (simple) sentence=bad.

Of course, nobody would want to read anything written in all simple sentences, but I believe the upshot is that we begin to think simple/shorter sentences are bad. When that happens, we lose the power of the shorter sentences… especially for infusing our fiction with emotion and tension.

Let me give an example:


            He walked into the party, and she was there. He glanced at her, but she didn’t look at him. He headed into the kitchen, and he poured himself a beer from the keg. When he walked back into the living room, he noticed someone sitting next to her on the couch. The person was wearing a baseball hat, but then he saw that it was a girl. He exhaled a sigh, and then he sat down against one of the speakers. He watched her, and he felt the music pumping against his back. It was one of his favorite songs, and normally he would have enjoyed listening to it. He took a sip of his beer and drummed his fingers on the floor. She was talking and laughing and didn’t even seem to notice he was there. He put his head back against the speaker, looked up into the ceiling, and then he sighed. Listening to the noises of the party around him, he stared into the smoke-stained ceiling tiles for a long time. He didn’t really think about anything, and he could hear her lilting voice every now and then. In time, he looked back down into the room, and she was gone. He took a sip of his beer, but it was warm. He stood up and started to head for the kitchen, but then went to the front door and walked out.

            Notice how those longer (compounded) sentences… well, they compound too much information into each sentence. There’s no reading relief! The reader is asked simply to get through the sentences without feeling any of the emotional relevance. So much is going on, and each detail is watered down because it’s compounded with so much else.

Now what if that were re-written with some shorter sentences in the mix (not changing the content, but just the style):


            He walked into the party. She was there. He glanced at her, but she didn’t look at him. He headed into the kitchen and poured himself a beer from the keg. He walked back into the living room. Someone was sitting next to her on the couch wearing a baseball hat. Then, he saw that it was a girl and exhaled a sigh. He sat down against one of the speakers. He watched her. He felt the music pumping against his back. It was one of his favorite songs. Normally he would have enjoyed listening to it. He took a sip of his beer and drummed his fingers on the floor. She was talking and laughing. She didn’t even seem to notice he was there. He put his head back against the speaker and looked up into the ceiling. He sighed. Listening to the noises of the party around him, he stared into the smoke-stained ceiling tiles for a long time. He didn’t really think about anything. He could hear her lilting voice every now and then. In time, he looked back down into the room. She was gone. He took a sip of his beer, but it was warm. He stood up and started to head for the kitchen. Then he went to the front door and walked out.

To truly feel the effect, you might go back and read the two versions of the passage aloud.

My own feeling/reaction to the second version is that it is more infused with emotion… largely because of the use of some shorter sentences. The reader feels him reacting to seeing her there, feels his relief that she’s talking to another girl and not a guy, but also feels his frustration that she doesn’t even seem to be aware of him. I would argue the melancholy of the scene comes through more with the shorter sentences.

This is not to advocate writing in all short sentences, but to see where a blend of short and long can ratchet up emotion.

Let’s look at this scene from Fahrenheit 451 (one of my favorite books). This takes place near the end of the book. Montag (the main character) is a fugitive from the law, trying to escape the city and get into woods. If he can get into the river, he can extinguish his scent and thereby lose the mechanical hound that is following him. If the hound gets him, he will die. In this scene, emerging from the river, Montag feels he’s lost the hound… but then!

            Too much land!
            Out of the black wall before him, a whisper. A shape. In the shape, two eyes. The night looking at him. The forest, seeing him.
            The Hound!
            After all the running and rushing and sweating it out and half drowning, to come this far, work this hard, and think yourself safe and sigh with relief and come out on the land at last only to find…
            The Hound!
            Montag gave one last agonized shout as if this were too much for any man.
            The shape exploded away. The eyes vanished. The leaf piles flew up in a dry shower.
            Montag was alone in the wilderness.
            A deer. He smelled the heavy musk like perfume mingled with blood (etc. etc)

Notice in this passage that Bradbury uses shorter sentences to ramp up the emotions associated with Montag thinking he’s seeing the hound. Then, too, in the intensity of the deer exploding away, shorter sentences are used to ramp up the action/tension. (Notice, too, that Bradbury understood the power of white space to orchestrate how the sentences are received by the reader.)

Imagine if in my passage above, I had additionally employed white space.

He walked into the party. She was there.
He glanced at her, but she didn’t look at him.
He headed into the kitchen and poured himself a beer from the keg. He walked back into the living room.
Someone was sitting next to her on the couch wearing a baseball hat. Then, he saw that it was a girl and exhaled a sigh.
He sat down against one of the speakers. He watched her. He felt the music pumping against his back. It was one of his favorite songs. Normally he would have enjoyed listening to it. He took a sip of his beer and drummed his fingers on the floor. She was talking and laughing.
She didn’t even seem to notice he was there.
He put his head back against the speaker and looked up into the ceiling.
He sighed.
Listening to the noises of the party around him, he stared into the smoke-stained ceiling tiles for a long time. He didn’t really think about anything. He could hear her lilting voice every now and then. In time, he looked back down into the room.
She was gone.
He took a sip of his beer, but it was warm. He stood up and started to head for the kitchen. Then he went to the front door and walked out.

(the power of white space could probably be its own blog post!)

Okay, let’s see how it changes the feel of Bradbury’s passage (yes, I'm jumping around) if I change/combine some of the shorter sentences… delivering the same information, but stylistically different:

There was too much land, and out of the black wall before him came a whisper. There was a shape with two eyes, and the night was looking at him, the forest seeing him.
            The Hound had finally found him.
            After all the running and rushing and sweating it out and half drowning, to come this far, work this hard, and think yourself safe and sigh with relief and come out on the land at last only to find the Hound.
            Montag gave one last agonized shout as if this were too much for any man, and the shape exploded away. The eyes vanished, and the leaf piles flew up in a dry shower, and Montag was alone in the wilderness.
            It had been a deer, and he smelled the heavy musk like perfume mingled with blood (etc. etc)


Rewriting it this way, I believe I steal power from the scene. A scene of this intensity needs that staccato delivery that comes with a mix of shorter sentences (sometimes two words long!)

And then, too… look what happens when I rob it of white space:

There was too much land, and out of the black wall before him came a whisper. There was a shape with two eyes, and the night was looking at him, the forest seeing him. The Hound had finally found him. After all the running and rushing and sweating it out and half drowning, to come this far, work this hard, and think yourself safe and sigh with relief and come out on the land at last only to find the Hound. Montag gave one last agonized shout as if this were too much for any man, and the shape exploded away. The eyes vanished, and the leaf piles flew up in a dry shower, and Montag was alone in the wilderness. It had been a deer, and he smelled the heavy musk like perfume mingled with blood (etc. etc)


If you are writing an emotional scene (or a tense scene) and you feel it just isn’t working… it just doesn’t feel right… Well, take a look at the length of the sentences. It could be that you might be able to punch up the emotion or tension with the use of some shorter sentences.

I suppose, don’t overlook the power of white space either… which again flies in the face of our education and what a paragraph is supposed to look like.

Remember, little of your youthful exposure to what writing should be has much to do with what good fiction should be.

Writing is like music and, like with music, the enjoyment of a song is in the pauses as much as it is in the notes.

If you find my blog posts instructive, please consider purchasing a copy of my new book of short stories, The Neighborhood Division, as a donated payment for the "class."


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