Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I had a discussion the other day about sentence length. “High tension prose should use short sentences, and languid prose should use long sentences,” we initially agreed. But then I thought and I read. I won’t deny that long, languid sentences are useful in more passive prose, but not all long sentences are languid. The compound, subordinate sentence is often used to heighten tension, not only heighten it but hold it for a length of time and make the reader squirm.

I am going to use an analogy some might find offensive: sex. The best sex follows [surprise] a standard story format. It starts out slow and playful, languid foreplay slowly triggers the more intense responses, then as the couple prepares for the climax, they engage in the short strokes, that one long sentence held and repeated that maximizes tension but refuses to release it. And then bang, it’s over.  Over course even better sex has multiple events of this nature – that heightened tension held and savored but pulled back before release, an even stronger buildup for the next engagement and eventual climax.

An example of such an encounter is Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It begins with a slow, reflective buildup, then about a quarter way through, he hits us with one of his most famous sentences:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Now the tension is ready to explode, but he brings us back down a notch and holds us there. He engages us with a series of smaller ups and downs, a long, slow, heightened engagement. Then at the end he hits us with another zinger. It is written as a series of sentences, yet given the repetition, the whole paragraph could likely have been constructed as a single sentence. It has the same effect, the long, heightened tension followed by the quick release, the climax, the conclusion.

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Another example is in the Bible (There are many examples in the Bible). Proverbs 1 sets the purpose and theme of all the proverbs with this wonderful sentence.

1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,[
a]
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.[b]

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,     but fools[c] despise wisdom and instruction.

This is not languid but a heightened plea to listen, read on, and save your sorry soul.

If we can revisit my first assertion: “High tension prose should use short sentences, and languid prose should use long sentences.” As demonstrated by King’s second example, we can read these long sentences as a series of small, incomplete sentences held together by common themes and repeating prefixes (anaphora, considered a literary technique for adding emphasis). The take home: don’t assume length equals tension.

I’ll leave you with a musical example, Dragonette’s Live In This City’. Notice half way through, at the 1:30 mark, the singer repeats key phrases over and over (the bolded lyrics), almost in the form of a compound subordinate sentence. It does not use anaphora but an implicit epiphora (epistrophe), a repeating ending — ‘You can’t live without’ sung in the background seems to fill the role. The section acts as a long, tension holding sentence before down-trending into the ending. You could write them as Kings of the indie rockers, you can’t live without me; top of the toilet choppers, you can’t live without me; riots and rebel rousers, you can’t live without me; high roller phantom powers, you can’t live without me; kings of the indie rockers, you can’t live without me; top of the toilet choppers, you can’t live without me; riots and rebel rousers, you can’t live without me; high roller phantom powers, you can’t live without me.” Marvelous technique!

Dragonette
“Live In This City”

I start it up
Turn it over like a general motor
And come down heavy
‘Cause I drop it like a Tomahawk chopper

I gotta keep on doing what I’m doing
‘Cause we’re clapping our hands now
Yeah I found a lipstick that I like
And so I’m walking it downtown, downtown

[Chorus:]
But I only live in this city
Live in the city
I only live in this city
Live in the city
I like to keep the place busy and I do it for free
Cause this city can’t live without me
Can’t live without

Me and my gang and some blonde defender
We wind it up around the center, roll it over to Camden
Just so you know that queen with the face that you call my little pony
We basically invented this place,
That’s why it’s standing room only
Standing room only

[Chorus:]
But I only live in this city
Live in the city
I only live in this city
Live in the city
I like to keep the place busy and I do it for free
Cause this city can’t live without me
Can’t live without

Kings of the indie rockers
The top of the toilet choppers
Riots and rebel rousers
High roller phantom powers
(You can’t live without)

Kings of the indie rockers
(You can’t live without)
Top of the toilet choppers
(You can’t live without)
Riots and rebel rousers
(You can’t live without)
High roller phantom powers
(You can’t live without)

Kings of the indie rockers
The top of the toilet choppers
Riots and rebel rousers
High roller phantom powers

[Chorus:]
I only live in this city
Live in this city
I only live in the city
Live in this city
I only the place busy
Keep on working for free
Cause this city can’t live without me

[Chorus:]
I only live in this city
Live in this city
I only live in the city
Live in this city
I only the place busy
Keep on working for free
Cause this city can’t live without me
Can’t live without me
Can’t live without me
Can’t live without me
Can’t live without me
Yeah I only live in this city
Cause this city can’t live without me

The long, compound, subordinate sentence is powerful. It is the short strokes of the story. Used with anaphora and epiphora, it brings tension to near climax with its series of dependant clauses and holds it there until finally driving home the resolution or major point with its trailing independent clause. It is not the slow, languid, reflective sentence but in fact a mesh of tightly packed short, punchy fragments. Use it with care!

*as an exercise, find the lyrics to some of your favorite songs and read them as such sentences where the lyrics are the subordinate clauses and the refrain is the pointed, complete clause or conclusion.

Advertisements