Japanese culture and tradition have always appealed to me. It’s a country with a rich and interesting history. Naturally, I ended up living there for three years. One of my favorite things to do was visiting dojos and watching Kendo matches (never was brave enough to participate). For me, it was like watching modern day samurai. Between the beautiful architecture of the buildings, and watching men and women armored in tradition clothing cross wooden blades, it truly felt as if you were stepping back in time.
This brings me to what will at first appear to be a completely unrelated matter. Sentence length, and how to use it.
First consider the samurai. They traditionally wielded two blades. A katana (long sword) and a wakizashi (short sword). Together these swords created daisho (a set). As writers we wield sentences: long ones and short ones. Together these create paragraphs, which we stitch together into books.
But also ponder this parallel: to a samurai, his blades were more than just weapons, they were extensions of his soul. They spent their lives honing both the blade and their use of it in battle. Their weapons were sacred. The katana would be given a name, kept close while they slept, and be passed down to their first born son.
As a writer, do you feel this same sort of connection to your words? Are they not extensions of our soul? Do we not spend years of our lives learning how to use them? But are you willing to risk your life on your abilities? Have you honed it to the point where you are willing to stand face-to-face with the critic?
We can learn a lesson from the samurai.
Let’s cut into the meat now. Many of us focus on the context of our sentences, but we don’t consider how the length of them matters. We should understand long and short sentences both have different uses, much like a samurai’s long and short sword. Longer sentences tend to be more flowery, are dotted with commas, and whisk the reader down a meandering path. Short ones cut.
We can use a longer sentence as a trap. Pull the reader along with narrative, then stop them hard with a short line full of meaning. Think of the long sentence as a flame in the darkness. The moth (reader) has to work to get to it. Floating up and down with the beat of it’s wings. But when it finally reaches the flickering light, the delivery is quick and absolute.
Here is an example from Amy Tan’s, The Joy Luck Club.
“That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved” (p. 61).
Also consider the following passage, which has an entire Wikipedia page linked to its origins. While short, it has a huge emotional impact.
Another consideration for sentence length is demonstrated in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Lee utilizes short sentences to relay a feeling of childishness. The book is from the viewpoint of a young girl. But as time progresses, the sentences become more and more sophisticated. The effect reflects the idea that the girl is maturing.
I use short sentence fragments in my book Wastelander. It is used during a prolonged interrogation. It allows me to relay the idea that Drake is no longer able to formulate full and rational thought.
“Darkness. Just darkness. Pain too. A metallic click. A flicker of light. A woosh of air. A drag of a chair. Knuckles on glass.”
Now I could have written out each sentence. “The room was dark and consuming. My body ached from hunger and dehydration, and the straps restricting me had begun to eat into my flesh. The metallic click of the door caused my ears to perk and my heart to jump…etc…etc…” However, the effect would be lost (and heck, using less words means more time for other tomfoolery – like talking to all of you).
Long sentences have their use too, but far too often, they are not intentional. When I edit books for people I often recommend longer sentences be broken into smaller pieces (unless they are being used for effect). It isn’t necessarily bad writing, but enough long sentences leave your reader exhausted. When you flip a page in a book and see no paragraph breaks and giant blocks of text, it can be intimidating.
That’s it for today. Adopt the way of the samurai. Wield those long and short sentences. Hone them. And one day you will stand victoriously on the literary battlefield.
Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!