Varying length, structure of sentences fosters voice & musicality.
Clarity is a high virtue, but so is beauty; and increasingly I see that it is from varying length and sentence structure that writers achieve voice, rhythm, emphasis, and musicality. Variation works because we naturally vary our speaking rhythm when we’re emotionally connected to what we’re saying:
“He fouled me! That jerk! Coach! You’re always telling us This is just a scrimmage—we’re still on the same team—don’t get carried away. Didn’t you see him hit me after the whistle? I don’t care if he’s first string. It isn’t right.”
This point is obvious when someone’s upset and emphatic, but syntactical variation works as well to convey any strong feeling in the subtext. And rhythmic sentences can sing to us, perhaps moving our emotions by bending our ears toward the ancient roots of language in music and epic. Consider the opening of Leslie Rubinkowski’s essay “Funeral,” published by River Teeth:
Gertie is my favorite aunt, her apartment is four miles from my house, and I haven’t seen her in twelve years. I got lost trying to find her, so lost that the fifteen-minute drive stretched to an hour, so lost that I navigated one-way tubercular streets with a map across my knees before I found the Doughboy guarding Lawrenceville—Penn bends into Butler, I knew that, I didn’t really forget—and I have to force myself not to run to her when I see her across the room: my sweet Aunt Gert in her fawn-colored suit with satin lapels and rhinestone angel pin, her hair, as ever, upswept and immaculate; and I lean in to touch her arm and study the fine familiar fuzz on her cheeks, the broader, softer version of my own jaw line, and the rafts of pink roses that cover her coffin and climb the walls.
The complex structure of the second sentence—with dashes, beaucoup commas, a colon, and a semi-colon—is compelling in its movement and in its tumbling cascade of detail and memory toward the surprise for the reader at the end, a surprise that mirrors the writer’s shock at her loss. Yes, it’s a long sentence. Don’t try this at home, kids! Actually, do. Most of us are stuck at the middling length, when we need short, medium, and long sentences.
As Roy Peter Clark says in his pithy book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, “Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.” And a well-made long sentence carries the proof of its achievement in our delight. (I once counted 199 words in a jaw-dropper by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse. Of course, there are longer sentences, but the longest ones seem famous just for being long.)
Ernest Hemingway is famous for his simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.” And his sentences are varied and often complex even though they’re clear. Some are quite long. They also employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Heminway liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible.
Consider this passage from his story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:
It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.
(I’m grateful for this example to David Jauss’s Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction.) Here’s part of a passage, also cited by Jauss, from D.H. Lawrence’s story “Odour of Chrysanthemums”:
The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass.
Notice how in the long opening sentence the first clause’s words mimic the clanking train and how, after the semicolon, the sentence becomes more flowing as the train recedes. I tell my students to try to infuse their writing, through word choice and sentence structure, with the emotion (joy, love, delight, anger, inexorable movement) they’re trying to convey.
Here’s a bit of “Kathy,” an essay in which I tried to show my love for her and my awe for her questing nature (which, this indicates, she came by honestly). The passage ends with a pungent colloquial farming word:
To appearances another tanned Ohio farm girl who played in the mud, she was eccentric, a birthright that ascended. When she was ten her mother cut her hair short, and Kathy clamped a sailor’s cap atop her head. That summer, a pet duck loved her; Huey’s trust shined from his leaden blue eyes. She carried the white drake around, which he tolerated, and dropped him in a wading pool, which he polluted. Although the family was busy farming, the duck and that useless circular hat got noticed—something about the combination unsettled her parents. Kathy was the only one of his five daughters Karl routinely punished physically, the only child who defied him. Secure in his love, she tolerated his tantrums but drew the line at tyranny. He dangled her by one ankle to spank, his hand hard on her bottom. She kept cussing. Like him, bullheaded.
Consider the variety of rhythms in the opening of Truman Capote’s essay “Hand-carved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime” in his collection Music for Chameleons:
A town in a small Western state. A focus for the many large farms and cattle-raising ranches surrounding it, the town, with a population of less than ten thousand, supports twelve churches and two restaurants. A movie house, though it has not shown a movie in ten years, still stands stark and cheerless on Main Street. There was once a hotel, too; but that has also been closed, and nowadays the only place a traveler can find shelter is the Prairie Motel.
Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories says of this:
The opening phrases are blunt. The sentence fragments cut the rhythm short—shorter, that is, than our ears expect. This chopping isolates the fragments’ beat from the beats of the full sentences that follow. But Capote doesn’t allow those longer sentences to flow, either. He breaks them with commas, a semicolon, with subordination, interruption, and apposition. This is the vocal rhythm of someone with bad news to tell: hesitant, throat-clearing, yet resolute. And note that each of the last words in these sentences ends with a tongue-stopping (and beat-stopping) T, except the last sentence, with its motel, whose T echoes the earlier stops, but trails into the “el” sound, enough to carry the music forward into a new paragraph. Capote wants the delivery halting, but not so halting that the reader stops and turns elsewhere. Note that you can’t read this paragraph in a joyful rush.
Roorbach contrasts this with “one you could sing,” a passage trilling with alliteration, bouncy with humor and singsong rhythm, in Doris Lessing’s memoir Impertinent Daughters:
Modern-minded John William McVeigh, proud of his clever daughter, was thinking of university for her, but was confronted with a rebellious girl who said she wanted to be a nurse. He was horrified, utterly overthrown. Middle-class girls did not become nurses, and he didn’t want to hear anything about Florence Nightingale. Any Skivvy could be a nurse, and if you become one, do not darken my door! Very well, said Emily Maude, and went off to the old Royal Free Hospital to begin her training. It was hard: conditions were bad, the pay was low, but she did well, and when she brilliantly passed her finals, her father was prepared to forgive her. She had done it all on her own, without him.
“Note . . . how hard the [opening] sentence lands on the word nurse, which turns out to be the critical word of the passage (an instance of rhythm providing meaning),” Roorbach writes. “Note the tongue pleasure of the phrase ‘utterly overthrown.’ I want to say it again and again. . . . The repetitions in structure here . . . give the sound of a folk tale, very nearly a folk song. . . .
“Rhythm should be attended to in each sentence we write, in each paragraph, but there is a rhythm of paragraphs, as well, a rhythm of sections in an essay, a rhythm of chapters in a book, and all of it ought to be in your control as you write.”
In my own writing, I’ve noticed that passages that flow during composition do so because of my strong emotional connection to the material. But they take a lot of work, anyway, to get right. The writing that doesn’t flow—the bulk of it—can be helped to move by consciously varying the structure of sentences and paragraphs and passages. This isn’t mere whitewash or a trick: varying structure seems to connect me emotionally with the content and its subtext.