Literature trained a lot of us to drone on a bit. William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! has a single sentence that clocks in at 1,288 words. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables offers up an 832 word gem. Modern writing, especially genre writing, are more about the sharp.
One of my biggest revision tasks revolves around bulldozer sentences. These come from moments when I have so much I want to express that I cram it all into a sentence without stopping. This may be fine for a first draft, when the goal is to get the words out onto the page. They don’t work as well for a polished draft, where they make the reader do a lot of heavy lifting. Trying to make a sentence accomplish too many tasks dilutes the effect of each task it’s trying to accomplish. It makes the sentence, and the writing, weaker.
Jonathan kept a promise to his wife to raise the boys multilingual, but although she had come from a moderately successful business family who had emigrated from Barcelona, the vocabulary and culture of the Mexican migrant workers and their children had a lot of influence.
This is a bit of backstory/description I threw into a scene in my first draft. I was rushing through it to get to the next action, and it shows. Here’s how I would break it up if keeping it relatively the same:
Jonathan had kept his promise to his wife to raise the boys multilingual. She had come from a moderately successful business family that had emigrated from Barcelona. Now, the influence of the Mexican migrant workers and their children showed in the boys’ vocabulary and cultural references.
This version is much more clear and easy to read (although it may need a second rewrite to show instead of tell!).
Action Happens Quickly
Despite the fact that the bulldozer sentence shows my urge to write quickly, the shorter, tighter sentences read more quickly. This is especially important in high tension scenes. Short, terse sentences move the pacing along more quickly and lend an atmosphere of urgency.
“No,” he growled, snatching the gun from the floor to whip it upwards into the chin of his first attacker, then spinning to point it at the second.
This is definitely too much work for the sentence. It’s especially too much to hook onto what is essentially an extended dialogue tag.
“No,” he growled. He snatched the gun from the floor. He whipped it upward and smashed it into the chin of his first attacker. Spinning around, he pointed the gun at the second.
Breaking it into shorter sentences emphasizes the main event in each beat. Because there is only one event/action in each sentence, the brain can process it more quickly. This makes the scene more vivid and easier (therefore quicker) to read.
How Long is Too Long?
The answer to this really depends on your genre and category. Literary fiction tends to have longer sentences, because the goal is to create a more languid, thoughtful atmosphere. Genre novels have shorter sentences because the goal is to create a fast-paced, easy read with plenty of action. Books for younger readers are also going to have shorter sentences, regardless of genre, for ease of comprehension.
In general though, if your sentence is more than 25 words long, it should at least be flagged for scrutiny. A longer sentence may serve a particular purpose, but it should be used deliberately. If not, consider breaking it up.