Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, September 12, 2013

In Defense of Long Sentences

Composition classes have been lauding the short sentence for about 80 years. I’m not going to tell you the short, sweet and tight is bad; it isn’t. I love it, often employing a consciously clipped style myself. It’s effective for the gritty, brutal narrative and it affords a great deal of space for the reader to root around it.

It’s been Hemingway vs Faulkner in the world series of wordsmithery forever  but, if you do a little investigation, you'll find that Hemingway wrote some very long sentences and Faulkner wrote some very pithy short ones. That's probably why, even after all this time, they're still considered paragons of literary style. Because, although they are each known for their radically different sentence constructions, they both knew when to switch gears and break out of their own stylistic niche to good effect.

Just the facts, ma’am and no purple prose. The popularity of the short, sweet sentence arose with the emergence of the journalistic style, evolving the way it did, partly due to technological limitations and partly for clarity. When news stories were first transmitted by telegraph, there was a lot of drop-out on the lines. The shorter the sentence, the less likely it would be cut off. Hence the inverted pyramid format. And, hard as it is to believe now, literacy was still relatively low at the dawn of the 20th Century. The press was part of a democratization of information - particularly in the US - and that effort included writing in plain, simple language.

Now it’s simply a matter of acclimatization to style. In genres that place an emphasis on hard and gritty, you see the preference for short sentences and unadorned language. Thrillers, horror, hard crime fiction and any other genre that relies heavily on action tend to preference the short and sweet. Unless the writer is very skilled, too many sub-clauses can gum up the tension and slow down the pace. But allow me offer you an alternative. Here, from the master of the short sentence, is a long one, pure action, with all the tension and fluidity you could ever hope for:

George was coming down in the telemark position, kneeling, one leg forward and bent, the other trailing, his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow, and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.

Yup, that was Hemingway with a 75 word sentence.  Did the sub-clauses slow it down?

There is a place for short, staccato sentences in erotic fiction, but when I encounter erotic writing devoid of any long sentences, I find it effective but not affective. My intellect engages, but my emotions and my senses don’t. Lots of erotica leaves me not very high and literally bone dry. Writing style is often the prime culprit.

Long sentences with a kernel or root clause and subsequent sub-clauses that elaborate on the main one are a way to pull the reader into the moment affectively. They offer substance, direction, rhythm and texture, engaging the emotions, the senses and the reader's ear. It complicates ‘the facts’ with the meat of human experience; it offers shades of meaning to what is happening in the story.

For those of you went to school after they stopped teaching grammar, the kernel or root clause is the main subject, very and object of the sentence.
Tracy adores cunnilingus.
 Now we'll add on a sub-clause:
Tracy adores cunnilingus, since it's the only way she can orgasm.
Now a one more:
Tracy adores cunnilingus, since it's the only way she can orgasm, regardless of her lover's technique in other areas.
We've put significantly more substance in the sentence, and you'll notice, there's also a direction.  We start out with the root clause 'Tracy adores cunnilingus' and then we are elaborating by adding modifiers after that statement. But we could easily, perhaps more elegantly, shift things around and add a little more:
Regardless of her lover's technique in other areas, Tracy adores cunnilingus, whining for it like a persistent cat in heat, tugging on his hair to drag his face down to her cunt, since it's the only way she can orgasm.
The problem with long sentences is that there are a lot of words in them to misuse. Run-on sentences are often painful because they’re poorly constructed. The reader loses her grasp on the kernel clause, even on the subject itself, and can’t remember what all this modification was actually modifying. But, as you can see above, we haven't lost the plot. This is still about Tracy's love of a good licking.

Well written long sentences should enhance the reader’s depth of understanding of the subject, not lose it. The addition of sub-clauses, either free modifiers or bound ones, should deepen the in-the-moment ‘thereness’ of the reader instead of jerking him out of the narrative in a tizzy of ‘lost-the-plotness.’

No matter what composition teachers tell you, language is not like mathematics. In mathematics, elegance is based on simplicity and compactness, but language is an additive beast. The more details you get, the more you know.  I’m not saying that the mot juste is not important. But when language gets too clean, too pithy, too simple, it can lose its humanity. It can also lose its rhythm.

This is particularly true when it comes to writing sex scenes with a view to arousing the reader. Literary fiction writers will often stick to a description of the mechanics in a sex scene. It’s about as sexy as jumping jacks or watching dogs fuck. The whole thing is rendered like a series of short, sharp stabs. All showing and no telling. If they’re scared of being accused of purple prose at any time, they’re terrified of being accused of it during a sex scene.

But erotica writers know better. When you write a good sex scene, you fuck the reader. And good erotic fiction writers are, at least mentally, accomplished lovers. They vary the pace by varying the length of their sentences. They vary the sensory experience by glancing the subject in some sentences and going in for the hard and deep plunder in others. They’re not under the illusion that a ripped body and a 8 cock used artlessly is going to ever compete with the delicious rollercoaster ride of a well-executed mindfuck. A hot quickie is pleasant, but a good erotic literary mindfuck is a memorable thing. It requires that you make ingress into the reader’s affective mind, not just their imagination of the narrative physical event.

The chief problem with long sentences is that people feel they need to use prepositions and pronouns. If they don’t bind all those sub-clauses together, it won’t be logical.  So, you get this:
 He pressed his open mouth over her left breast, then stroked the tip of his searing tongue around her nipple in a circular fashion before sucking the entire area into his mouth, afterwards leaving the indentation of his teeth behind on her skin.
Admit it, you felt the need to take a deep breath, right?  It’s cludgy. When possible it's better to set your modifiers free (bound modifiers attach to the sentence using joining words or prepositions, free modifiers don't use them).

You need to trust that your reader is smart and with you. They understand that the progression of words is the progression of events, and they know enough about anatomy and how tit sucking works not to need half that crap. You've already established who is doing what to whom, so you can be a little less concerned with locating everything in time and space.
 Pressing an open mouth to her breast, he circled her nipple with a searing tongue and, sucking hard, marked her skin with his teeth.
You can’t get rid of every pronoun or every preposition, but you really don’t need most of them.  Although a good deal shorter, it’s still 25 words long . Not exactly short. I admit to having written much longer sentences and I could easily slow down the pace and be languid in my description of this, using more adjectives, an adverb or two if needed. It depends on how I want the reader to experience this particular piece of intimacy.

Sentence length should be about depth of knowledge, direction, pace and rhythm. Just as there is a place for the short, hot, meaningless fuck, there’s a place for the long, slow, pulsating, eviscerating annihilation of the flesh and mind. And your ability to execute either of these depends on your ability to be flexible in the way you construct your sentences.

If you're up for it, there is rather deeper examination of the topic of sentences and especially of modifying sub-clauses written by Frances Christensen. "A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence" linked here. It's a pdf file.


  1. Not only did I enjoy this post but my wife, Tracy, also said you made some erudite points ;-)


  2. Excellent! A nuanced and very smart exploration of a topic we don't hear much about, except in overgeneralized and oversimplified terms. I especially appreciated your illustration of the principle that a great writer is a flexible writer (Hemingway's long sentence); I'm so tired of seeing a great writer's stylistic *tendencies* held up as absolute *rules* (sometimes even by the writer him/herself, when giving advice).

    I also especially appreciated the point you made about making long sentences more graceful by eliminating unnecessary pronouns and prepositions. (Though I do think beginning writers really need to develop an instinct for how to do that without creating dangling-clause monstrosities.)

    1. Overall, I'd say that the single thing that beginning writers don't seem to do enough of is reread - i.e. read and then read again to look at how a writer constructed what they wrote.

      The wider the panorama of styles of sentence construction you acknowledge, the quicker you develop the instinct you're describing.

    2. Run-on sentences don't bother me as much as the lonely sentence fragment does. I can forgive it in dialogue. People do that when they talk. But seriously it annoys the holy crap out of me when I find them peppered all over a manuscript. It is like they would rather dangle a fragment than learn good grammar.

    3. I don't know, Anon - I often use sentence fragments deliberately when I'm writing first person, as a part of "inner speech".

      Of course, one can usually tell the difference between an intentional and a careless fragment.

  3. This is great,I really enjoy when you write about mechanics and structure.

    1. I took a graduate course in tertiary teaching and learning, and found out that someone wise once said, you retain about 10% of what you read, and 90% of what you teach. This is me... learning.

  4. Thanks for this. I feel validated. My editors are always insisting I cut my sentences down, or make one into two or three. They say the reader will be out of breath reading, but I think it interrupts the flow of the scene. I insist that my readers are intelligent enough to remember how the sentence started when they get to the end of it, even if it's longer than 3 words. A matter of style, I guess.

    BTW, even though I'm an English teacher, I despise Hemingway. I find most of his writing dull and unimaginative. If he's writing for men, I think he's doing them a disservice, because most of the men in my life are capable of reading longer sentences and understanding them.

    1. I don't push 'how to write' books much, but the Landon book "Building Great Sentences" is pretty cheap in Kindle form, and a magnificent learning tool for the logic and method of how to build extremely readable, forceful, rich cumulative, progressive phrase sentences.

  5. great post, RG. this resonated for me. some beginner editors have a tendency to insist on short sentences & as few words as possible, but there are times when a work needs longer sentences in order to create a certain mood or tone. having a facility with all kinds of different sentences, syntax order etc is very helpful. also thanks for the link to the Landon book. i shall take a look & recommend it to others.

  6. Funny, nobody ever tried to teach me in English class to keep my sentences short. Guess I'm too old to have been subjected to that! Excellent post, RG, especially your cunnilingus example.

    Part of my increasing craft has been taking control of sentence length. My early work often features very long sentences, which sometimes are effective, sometimes not. Thirteen years of working with editors has taught me to carefully evaluate the question of when to put in a full stop rather than adding another clause.

    1. Yes, I'm pretty much at the same stage. For a while, I really went for the short and sharp. Sometimes I still do, but I've come to the conclusion that sometimes it makes the prose too cold.

  7. Funnily enough, when I'm writing and the character is approaching orgasm, my sentences tend to get longer rather than shorter...

    Great post, RG. A reminder that the 'instructions' we so often receive are about fashions of styles rather than what actually makes effective writing.

    1. Depends entirely on what kind of an orgasm you want the reader to resonate with, huh? :D

  8. Thanks for celebrating diversity of styles! Just out of pure devilry I would like to commend even the very ornate, lavishly decorated style often found in 19th century novels and of course in a lot of epic poetry. Who likes to do it the same way every time? (Rhetorical question, I don't.)


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