Sentences: The Long and Short of Them

October 31, 2007
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SENTENCES: THE LONG AND SHORT OF THEM

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

November 2007

". . .prose can and should have rhythm and the more you’re conscious of that,
the more you can utilize
it in your work."

—Shapiro
Did you ever notice a blurb that says the author has written “musical prose?” That usually means that the blurber never actually read the book. Ditto with “luminous.” But honestly, prose can and should have rhythm and the more you’re conscious of that, the more you can utilize it in your work.

It’s easy to spot rhythm in metered poetry, poetry that has a definite rhythm that it often counted and marked with scansion lines. Scansion is the analysis of a line of poetry for foot and meter. For example, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard,” is written in iambic pentameter that can be tapped out in each syllable of the ten syllable lines. Short (soft) alternating with long (hard sound.)

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,

 

". . . one usually doesn’t count the rhythm out like this, nor the number of syllables in a line, but rhythm exists anyway . . ."
—Shapiro

 

In prose, one usually doesn’t count the rhythm out like this, nor the number of syllables in a line, but rhythm exists anyway in any writing worth its salt. You can tell when it’s right and you can tell when it’s wrong. It’s wrong when the sound contradicts the meaning. Janet Borroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, gives these sentences as examples of rhythm gone wrong and rhythm gone right.

“The river moved slowly. It seemed sluggish. The surface lay flat. Birds circled lazily overhead.”

The short, clipped sentences, and their simple noun / verb / adverb structure work against the sense of a river that has a slow, flowing movement. This fast-paced view of a slow-moving river could work if it were seen through the eyes of a character who was a nervous wreck. But for all of us who have mastered inner piece (ahem) this would probably be a better way to write about the river:

“The surface lay flat on the sluggish, slow-moving river, and the birds circled lazily overhead as John’s boat slipped forward.”

There’s nothing terribly exciting about this version, but at least it doesn’t dam up the flow.

Here’s my own sentence that shows what went on at a toddler’s birthday party I attended today, but told way too slowly for the sense of what was going on:

In the backyard, pink balloons were bobbing on their strings which were tied to every other post of the tall wooden fence. At the sand table that had gotten muddy from little wet hands, a boy wearing a blue sailor-suit and a girl in a yellow pinafore were frantically pulling each other’s curly hair while the girl next to them in denim overalls and a striped t-shirt casually turned a cup of sand over on the birthday girl’s head. The younger sister of the birthday girl, still in diapers, was on all fours, lapping water from the dog’s red plastic bowl.

Here is the sentence written in sentence fragments to show how my eyes flitted through this chaos:

Bobbing balloons. Toddlers at the sand table. Muddy hand prints in the sand. Two toddlers yanking at each other’s hair. A third turning a cup of sand over the birthday girl’s head. On all fours, the birthday girl’s younger sister laps water from the dog’s bowl.

Here it is again, written more grammatically:

Balloons bob above the fence. There’s muddy hand prints in the sand in the sand table. Two toddlers yank at each other’s hair. Another turns a cup of sand over the birthday girl’s head. On all fours, her younger sister laps water from the dog’s bowl.

 

"A long sentence with lots
of clauses makes a sentence
leisurely. Short sentences
do the opposite. "

—Shapiro
What makes a sentence sound leisurely?

Sentence length. A long sentence with lots of clauses makes a sentence leisurely. Short sentences do the opposite. We feel the staccato rhythm.

Specific details. The more exact description you have, the slower the sentence will read. And the opposite is true as well. Think of yourself running down the street. The cars, the sidewalk, and the passersby would all be a blur. But if you were taking a leisurely stroll, everything would stand out in detail. However, if you wanted to show a character that was blinded by his own worries, you might have him taking a leisurely stroll and only seeing a blur around him.

". . . sometimes the present tense
can make a sentence
sound quicker. . . "

—Shapiro

The passive voice. A sentence cast in a passive voice such as “…balloons were bobbing…” is a slower read than a sentence written in the active voice such as “Balloons bobbed…” Also, sometimes the present tense can make a sentence sound quicker, more urgent.

Adverbs. Adverbs slow down a sentence as well. “frantically pulling each other’s hair,” for example.

Whole sentences vs. sentences fragments. Sentence fragments pick up the pace of the reader.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, (Simon & Schuster, 2004) was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek, My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) What Was Lost (Plume, 2007). For Keeps (Seal Press, 2007.) and more will be out in 2008. She teaches “Writing the Personal Essay” at UCLA online. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/

 

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