The Period Part 1--Lots o' dots: How frequent and deliberate use of the humble period can create maximum impact.

First, I’ll tell you what we are not going to discuss in this article—when to use a period according to the rules of usage for the English language. While that's important (although not as intuitive as one might think), this article will instead focus on using the period deliberately and selectively to enhance your writing and your story. For now, I’ll leave the technical guidance to the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever style guide you love best). What we’re going to explore are different ways to utilize the period and short sentence length to make stylistic choices.  

Second, I’ll admit that much of what I’m about to discuss appears in Noah Lukeman’s excellent book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. This FABULOUS book focuses on ways to use punctuation to enhance creative writing. It is NOT a dry style guide that lists the correct ways to use periods, commas, semicolons, etc. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their dexterity as a writer.

Lukeman calls the period the “stop sign” of punctuation; it’s a cue to the reader that the sentence and the thought it contains are complete. Technically, a sentence should include at least a subject and a verb, but even sentences that don’t adhere to that rule should, at a minimum, contain a complete thought or idea.  Writers push the limits of the period all the time. Depending on the mood, subject, character, or content of the story, a writer might choose to use the period often and for dramatic effect, or the writer might suspend period usage for a time and stretch out a sentence for many lines (possibly a page) to create a specific tone or combine a series of ideas into a continuous line.

In this article we’ll cover why a writer might want to keep his or her sentences short by using the period often and with vigor. There are various reasons why you might want to opt for a short sentence length.

Because Less is more.

Many authors choose to open their books with a short, but full idea. Last month, LitReactor columnist Meredith Borders offered us a list of The Top 10 Best Opening Lines of Novels. At least half of the authors she included used short sentences in their opening. For example, Nabokov opened Lolita with these three short sentences:

Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

These three musings give the reader both a glimpse of the title character, Lolita, and the narrator/protagonist, Humbert Humbert. As required, each sentence contains a complete thought, though they may not be complete sentences. The sentence “Lolita.” does not contain a verb or a clear subject. It’s just a name, but a name (the reader will learn) weighted with meaning and steeped in Humbert’s perverse obsession. The next two sentences are also powerful images. Each contains contrasting ideas of pleasure mixed with wrongdoing. The structure suggests that the three sentences, and the ideas they contain, are equally weighted. Lolita=joy & sex=sin & soul. As such, the three ideas become one idea as each element contributes to the other. In a sense, the entire novel is contained in these three short, but strong declarations.

To Create Drama.

If we compare reading a story to taking a walk, a sentence might equal a step with the period being the moment the walker’s foot touches the ground. As such, more periods equal more steps and more steps equal more distance. Writers use short sentences to convey a lot of information in a short amount of space. Each sentence must be a complete thought, so a string of short sentences can move the reader quickly through a lot of ideas without using a lot of words or taking up too much space on the page. The choice to move quickly through ideas depends on the style and tone you are trying to create in your story. Short sentences can seem choppy, juvenile, overly simplistic if not used properly. You wouldn’t want to read an entire novel that went like this:

Taylor woke up. She made coffee. She read the paper. The headline said “Zombie Apocalypse Arrives.” Taylor put down the paper. Taylor loaded her rifle. She went into the street. She shot each zombie she saw square in the forehead….

While the topic might be drama-filled and action-packed, the writing conveys none of that. The sentences are short, but flat. With some attention paid as to when to keep the sentence short and when to make it longer, this passage could be significantly improved. Let’s try:

Though Taylor woke up at her usual time, made her usual cup of coffee, and read her usual morning paper, it wasn’t a usual morning. The headline said “Zombie Apocalypse Arrives.” Taylor dropped the paper. She loaded her rifle. She ran into the street. She shot the zombies one-by-one. Bang. Bang. Bang.

While certainly not a masterpiece, my second version indicates that the short sentences have a different meaning that the long ones. The first sentence is long, with multiple clauses and ideas, but when Taylor learns of the Zombie hoards, the pace picks up with each sentence getting shorter, and the pace of the passage quickens. The shorter sentences are not much changed from the original, but the purpose is more clearly defined. I wanted to pick up the pace, and my clue to the reader is to add more periods (or steps) in selective locations to indicate this shift in speed and tone. Writers frequently utilize shorter sentence to denote action, speed, panic, excitement, etc.

To Be Direct.

Writers like Hemmingway and Carver are known for using short sentences. Neither used them, necessarily, to create drama or action. In fact, some of Hemmingway’s work can be downright slow (if you ask me). Still these two authors, and others like them, use the period to write direct, clear sentences. Their prose is not flowery or overly complex; they do not flex their literary muscles on the page.

While there is merit to being able to write a 25-line sentence in which you use nearly every punctuation mark, clause type, and conjunction available in the English language (see Charles Dickens), it’s not necessary. Amateur writers do this a lot. When I taught freshman composition, students frequently used wordy, overly stylized prose in their essays. Sometimes, the student had a great idea hidden in there under all the wordiness but they just didn’t know how to get it out. Sometimes the student was just trying to get more words in (to up the word count). Either way, the effect was that their writing was wobbly, made weak by too many words and too few ideas.

Carver and his ilk knew better. Their writing is direct, solid, to-the-point. Their ideas are up front and center, and the reader doesn’t have to track back through adjectives, complex verbs, and multiple subjects to find the meaning of the sentence.  Let’s look at this example from Raymond Carver’s short story "Cathedral". (This from the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 6th Edition.)

We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed the table. We were into serious eating. The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat. He’d cut two pieces of the meat, fork the meat into his mouth, and then go all out for the scalloped potatoes, the beans next, and then he’d tear off a hunk of buttered bread and eat that. He’d follow this up with a big drink of milk. It didn’t seem to bother him to use his fingers once in a while, either.

Carver uses a series of short sentences to start this paragraph followed by long, more descriptive ones. While there is action happening in the scene, it’s not an action scene per se. The short sentences do not serve to speed up the dinner scene so much as to make a succession of points about how the characters approached the meal. The sentences that starts with “We” describe the overall environment of the meal—a quiet but hungry group of people eagerly devouring their dinners. The descriptions of the blind man eating slow the moment down as if to show how the narrator’s attention is drawn away from his own meal to watch the blind man. The longest sentence is a significant 38-words long, but it’s slowed down by commas. The long sentence describes a single process—the blind man eating—with multiple steps—cutting the meat, eating the meat, eating the potatoes, eating the beans, and finally eating the bread. Whether long or short, each sentence is consciously laid out. Each contains a direct idea, easy to define subjects, and clear, unadorned description. The scene is rich and full of vigorous detail without being flowery or drawn out.

Now it’s your turn.

This time, I am going to borrow an exercise straight from Lukeman’s book. It’s a short, but I think enlightening experiment you can do with your own work. Here’s the exercise verbatim from Lukeman:

Choose a long sentence from your manuscript, ideally one already in a cluster of long sentences. To decide if it needs shortening, consider the following: Does it comprise several ideas? Is it hard to grasp? Is it hard to catch one’s breath? Does its length match other sentence lengths? Find a way to shorten it, without combining it with the material in the sentence preceding or following it. How much can you shorten it? Was there any extraneous material here? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

If you would like to share your process with us, post both the original sentence and the revised sentences in the comments section. Explain a bit why you chose the sentence and how you worked with it. You can also tell us whether or not you think that shortening helped/hurt/or made no effect at all. Thanks for reading, and as always, you can send me correspondence directly to taylor@litreactor.com.

Image of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
Author: Noah Lukeman
Price: $12.38
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 206 pages
Image of Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Price: $11.99
Publisher: Vintage (1989)
Binding: Paperback, 317 pages
Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Andy Cates's picture
Andy Cates January 18, 2012 - 1:18pm

Great article. Two authors come to mind: Bret Easton Ellis and James Ellroy. Ellis's American Psycho is chalk full of very long sentences, while Ellroy's short "telegraphic" sentence style is on the opposite side of the spectrum. I tend to mix it up, depending on the mood I'm trying to set. For instance, if my narrator is depressed, short sentences, while if he's manic (or on ecstacy or maybe just really drunk) and rambling, long. Other factors come into play, of course, but I have neither the time, nor the patience, to... remember.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 18, 2012 - 1:28pm

Great article, but now I have to buy a new book.  

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow January 18, 2012 - 1:31pm

Bryanhowie: trust me, it's worth it. Lukeman's book has a great way of breaking down punctuation and applying it to the craft of creative writing.

Andy: Indeed, a mixture is the best, always using the best sentence for the job, but it's nice to focus in every once in a while as to why we make those choices.

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind January 23, 2012 - 3:18pm

Thanks for the informative article! But now I find myself $10 poorer...

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 26, 2012 - 2:23pm

Kudos on another great article on a great subject. Ditto on "now I have to buy another book" and how I'll soon be "$10 poorer." I will have to hunt down A Dash of Style....

JC Piech's picture
JC Piech from England is reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest February 4, 2012 - 4:39pm

Excellent article!! Thanks so much :) x

tashmallory's picture
tashmallory from Texas is reading Name above All Names by Allister Begg and his friend Sinclair Ferguson June 18, 2013 - 12:50pm

I bought it too... and I also followed the article link to "the 10 best opening lines in literature"... then on to Amazon to buy Slaughterhouse Five... and from there to The Catcher in the Rye. I bought all three. Poorer in the pocket; wealthier in the mind ;)