Sentence construction is one of those touchy things with a lot of novice writers. Personally, I blame the education system for not doing an adequate job explaining things, but the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of young writers out there (or worse, novice critics) who pass judgement on their own or others work without knowing much about what they’re actually passing judgement on. In the best case scenario, this leads to confusing feedback. In the worst-case scenario? Bad feedback, the kind that can harm a young writer and actually make them worse at their chosen craft.
And do you know what the worst part is? A lot of the time, those novice critics don’t know they’re wrong because they’re technically correct.
Again, this, I think, goes back to a failing of the education system, but a lot of these problems stem from the inability, disinterest in, or just general failing of schools to educate on the differences between formal and informal writing. Many students graduate high school in the US with, as far as I can tell, little to no understanding of the differences between the two types of literature.
Worse, a lot of schools love to give out things that aren’t actually true, such as in the case of “I before E except after C.” It’s a cute saying … but it’s 100% wrong. Not that this has stopped educators from using it … in fact I could recall teachers at my own high school using it right through high school, giving it out as common advice.
That’s not the only thing they get wrong, either. Which is why today’s topic is what it is. You may have been wondering why I started off with such a bashing of the public education system, and it’s because we’re going to see a theme in that vein through the entirety of today’s post.
Because simply put, when it comes to sentence construction in stories, a lot of people get a lot of things wrong thanks to that lackluster education. They hobble themselves, cripple their own story based off a misapplied teaching. Or they cripple others stories, acting as authorities on the internet or in reviews and criticize something that is actually correct as being incorrect (this, FYI, is why you should always take random internet book reviews that claim to find a number of grammatical errors in the text with a grain of salt; a lot of people don’t actually know what they’re talking about, and will incorrectly label correct English incorrect).
For example, one of the first—and more common, especially in some circles—things you’ll hear online when looking for writing critiques is discussion of the dreaded “run-on sentence.”
What this actually means tends to vary. Sometimes it’s simply a catch-all complaint for when a sentence is “too” long. Other times it’s actually aimed at an actual run-on sentence, so the identity is correct … but the assumption behind the scene is also wrong.
See, a run on sentence is, in the technical sense, a sentence that is actually two sentences that have not been separated, IE, a sentence with two independent clauses. Two “topics,” in other words. For example, the web gives this helpful example of a run-on sentence:
The sun is high, put on some sunblock.
Boom. Run on sentence.
Now, here’s the thing. Can this be fixed without making it two separate sentences? Yes, and that’s where so many get things wrong. The same educational site that gave the above example notes that all that is needed to fix the example is the inclusion of a single word: so. Thus, the above becomes:
The sun is high, so put on some sunblock.
Which is actually pretty straightforward. One change, and you no longer have a run on. The problem? Quite a few people out there would still call that a run-on.
See, many people think that a run-on is any sentence with the two clauses … even if one of them is contingent on another, as in the fix above (especially when such sentences are long and winding). When in fact, there’s nothing wrong with the fixed example, nor longer variants. The second half of the sentence is connected to, either shaping or being shaped by (in this case, the latter) the first half.
More confusing still, many hold that a run-on is terrible and unwanted because of their English background, which in the American education system is mostly concerned with formal English, the kind of short, succinct writing you would use in technical writing or for a dry, flavorless editorial or presentation (more on that later). And in that writing, yes, a run-on sentence is not desired.
But in fiction? To the contray. A run-on sentence is, like anything else, can be a tool in the writer’s toolbox. A very specific tool, to be sure, but a tool nonetheless. Used in it’s true form (ie, grammatically incorrect), it can be used to bring life to a character’s point of view. For example, this passage from Flowers for Algeron:
“…Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m glad I had a second chance in life like you said to be smart because I learned a lot of things that I never knew were in this world, and I’m grateful I saw it even for a little bit.”
You can use it in other scenarios as well. Fight or escape scenes starring inexperienced protagonists, for example, will often take a run-on style in order to show the confusion and suddenness of so many events happening so fast. Moments where a lot happens. Or moments where a character is legitimately confused or perplexed. Woken up from a deep sleep. Or in dialogue, which doesn’t need to play by proper grammatical conventions nearly so much.
So, you can use it … though I’d advise, like any tool, rarely and in the right place. More commonly, you’re going to use some form of connector like so, or, or and in order to connect two subjects to one another, like the example did above, and create a sentence that is correct … even if others don’t think so.
Now we’re going to come back to what I said earlier about succinct writing. This is the other part of what some people mistakenly call a “run-on.” See, in public education, we’re taught that sentences should be short. Direct. To the point, containing only the subject that they want to convey.
The result? As stated above, a lot of people will look at the sentence fixed above and declare it still a run-on, even though in the technical sense, it isn’t. They’re saying it for one reason, and one reason only (and in this, I speak from personal experience dealing with dozens if not hundreds of novice writers and critics): it’s too long. It needs to be shortened.
But it doesn’t.
See, public education, with it’s direct, short approach, is not speaking of fiction or literature when they teach that. They’re talking about business papers. About journalism. Places where yes, you want your documents kept short and to the key points. This is why many of them teach the “conventional” wisdom that a sentence should be about five words long, maybe six or seven at the most. Anything past that is a risk.
That’s all well and good for a basic primer for business-writing, but in fiction, things are different. We can write longer, rambling sentences. Lengthy constructs dripping with description and awash with alliteration. We don’t care about how long a sentence is if it fits the narrative we’ve constructed. And in good fiction, long sentences can be found everywhere. For example, take the opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
If you were counting, that was a total of five sentences in that paragraph. The shortest of these was eleven words. Far past the “five, seven at most” mentality a lot of schools teach.
At the same time, many of those schools will actually hand their students The Old Man and the Sea and tell them it’s a classic book … without ever explaining why the work gets a “free pass” on what they’ve been taught is the usual size of sentences.
Right, right, enough harping on the public school system. My point is, the rules for writing literature and writing essay papers are fundamentally different, yet many people mistake the one for the other (usually to the distress of literature rather than the other way around.
So then, taking all of the above and finally bringing things together … Sentence construction: Don’t be afraid to write long sentences or to give your paragraph flexibility.
To explain what I mean by this last part, I’m going to use two examples. The first is an image that actually popped up on my facebook feed, shared by a friend who hoped I’d find a good use for it. The second is a story and analogy I experienced giving a helping hand to a young writer a few weeks ago.
So, first, the image:
There’s an excellent point here about sentence construction. In a business paper or a journalistic article, keeping things straightforward, or as the author of this quote puts it, “like a stuck record” has its place. It works.
But in a story, be that an epic or a short? We want variety. We want a flow, a rhythm, as the quote explains it. And then demonstrates through use of single-word sentences, average sentences, lengthy sentences, and even one long sentence (that is not a run-on thanks to its connections) at the end.
Right, most of you are probably getting why I spent so long talking about what is and isn’t a run-on above, but before I pull the curtain all the way back for those of you who haven’t, let me hit step two: the analogy I got from a new writer a few weeks back.
I’d been asked in a writer’s chat to help out by looking at the start of someone’s story—only a few paragraphs—and was giving them a little feedback. One of the areas that they were having trouble with was their sentence construction and then fitting everything together. They did have one sentence that had four clauses, and we cut that down to two sentences, one with two and the other with one (the fourth they cut, IIRC), but they were still having trouble seeing how everything fit inside the paragraph. They were just moving sentences around at random, thinking about presenting information and little else. Until, as I was trying to explain that you wanted to consider the order that everything was presented in, and they suddenly typed “Oh, like building a deck of cards! Everything has a position where it works best in the paragraph.”
To which I said “Yes” and congratulated them on the analogy. Because they were right.
In looking over your sentences—the length, what their subject matter is, etc—and where they’re placed in a paragraph, it may be helpful to think of it like a hand of cards (be ye a Magic the Gathering player, Uno, or even poker). You have a number of cards in hand, and you want to lay them down in the order wherein they most compliment one another.
And this is why a writer shouldn’t be afraid of longer sentences, nor short ones. A proper paragraph in fiction should be sentences of whatever length compliment each other and serve to build the strongest whole possible.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. I cannot say that this follows a specific rule of order, such as “long sentences go last.” That’s just not how it works. It’s almost like a puzzle: Each paragraph is going to have different requirements, different meaning. Each one is going to need a different selection of sentences to play to its strengths. It’s up to you to figure out what those are and play them accordingly.
Yes, it takes practice. Especially early on. It will take edits. It may take advice from other, more experienced authors along the lines of “no, that will work better right here, and then if you combine these two…”
Moral of the story? You’re going to need to work at it. Maybe for months, or even years. But eventually, it will become so commonplace you don’t even give it a second thought.
So, to summarize: Don’t be afraid of sentences that are “too long.” Don’t feel afraid to write sentences ten, fifteen, or twenty words long in the right place. Know what a real run-on sentence is, when to use it, and when someone’s advice that you’ve written a run-on is really just “I think this sentence is too long.”
Don’t be afraid to let sentences grow. Or shrink. Write the ones that bring out the best in your paragraph. Think of it as a musical rhythm, as a song, or as a hand of cards, whatever helps you visualize it, and then put everything where it flows.