Sentence Length: The Samurai Way

samurai sword.jpgJapanese 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.

set of swords.jpgFirst 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?

Samurai_with_tachi.pngWe 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.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

kill a mockingbird.jpgAnother 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).

tired reader.jpgLong 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!

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36 responses

  1. I love the analogy of swords and sentences! It helps me to have a picture in my mind. This post really taught me a different way of looking at how I write. I purposefully try to mix it up in my blogging, I knew there was power there. I just wasn’t sure why. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. To take your analogy and stress it, I find that short sentences and long sentences seem appropriate in certain situations. My character is being reflective and observant – long sentences with flourishing strokes (ok…maybe not Thomas Harding but more than one clause). Action and dialog – best with the short snaps, jabs and thrusts. A long soliloquy by a character can be deflate with one 5 word comeback.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well spoken. You are absolutely tracking with your last point and that’s a good example of powerful fiction. Reminds me of Indiana Jones when the scimitar spinning man puts on a display and Indy shrugs his shoulders and shoots him.

      Like

  3. How ironic you should write something about sentence length only the day after I mention something similar in an editorial report for a client. I might be adding a reference to this article in that report.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Coming from a fellow editor, that’s high praise. It’s funny because I cringe every time I make these blog entries. The editor in me wants to rip my own writing down and rebuild it. But the writer/father in me that doesn’t have lots of time says, “Don’t spend too much time here – this is supposed to be for fun.”

      Good luck breaking the news to your client and thanks for stopping by today.

      Like

      • I’m the same, which is why I follow the advice that I saw an another site: just write the blog post and get it out of the way. Do take the time to reread. If you see a mistake (or someone points one out) correct it right away. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. We’re editors. We’re humans too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a great tip. One of my friends had remarked, “You better be careful calling the sight the Quintessential Editor, it’s going to have to perfect.” And I hadn’t really thought of it that way, just as a cool (not taken) blog handle. I’m going to take your advice and just take a cleansing breath and let it go.

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  4. I think of myself as a writing boxer. When I teach, I often have my students bang in their tables like drums. The bass beats are driving, active voice sentences. The rolls are the compound, complex sentences. I think Journalism is an asset here. I tend to error on the side of short sentences unless I have a reason to make it a long sentence. I think. That’s the idea myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a really interesting technique, and effective I imagine. I love tips and bits of advice like this. Stuff that gets me moving really makes the gears turn in my head.

      You should do a couple blog posts sharing some of your teaching techniques. I know I would enjoy them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmm, that was an interesting way to look at writing sentences. Great tip on using the effectiveness of long sentences to draw people in, and then chopping them once they’ve taken the bait. I’ve always used short sentences for being very exact in meaning, and if it is used correctly, it can be very forceful upon the reader. And I can certainly relate to unintentional use of long sentences. I try to catch those in revisions, but some of the time it takes another to point it out to me that it isn’t necessary. Say what is necessary, nothing more, nothing less…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the long sentence is hard for many of us when we write. It seems when the words start coming, the creative side beats out the analytical side and you end up with some big sentences (which is just fine, that’s why we edit).

      Thanks for the great comment and stopping by today!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article. I use long sentences in romantic situations and short ones for action. Regarding Indiana Jones shooting the sword wielding man; Harrison Ford was actually suffering a severe case of indigestion at the time of filming and couldn’t do the fight scene, hence the shooting, which became a classic 😊.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right you are! Which is interesting to think. If left in the original form (first draft) it was meant to be a long drawn out fight scene, but instead (for the reason you indicated) they cut it short. You have to wonder if the drawn out fight scene would have even been a footnote in the Indiana Jones legend? But this short powerful scene, in my eyes, became a part of his character blueprint. Yet another lesson we can glean about building strong impactful characters.

      Thanks for stopping by today and commenting. Happy reading and writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Cool analogy. I actually have a fondness for Japanese culture myself: took two years of Japanese in college along with a course on the ‘History of the Samurai,’ I own a kendo stick (along with a decorative katana or two), and I have a large tattoo of my name in Japanese (as I wrote it in class) printed on a paper lantern hanging off of a sakura tree. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to travel there yet.

    When I was in high school, I frequently had a problem with run-on sentences in my English essays. Since then, I’ve been working on making them shorter, and then shorter still where appropriate. Indeed, I find myself more engaged when reading books that adopt the long/short principle than texts that adopt the block-structure. I’m actually planning on doing a post that discusses how one can break up the ‘block’ structure using creative implementation of description, action, and dialogue.

    Good job.

    Like

  8. The example you used from your own manuscript surprised me a little. I’ve had a tendency to think that long sentences slow down the pace, while short ones quicken it. Yet your passage shows just the opposite. Thank you for the lesson. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Turn the Dial to 11: Pacing « Quintessential Editor

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