The Period Part 2 - Dot Dearth: Postponing The Period On Purpose

Last month we discussed the frequent use of periods in the article The Period Part 1--Lots o' dots: How frequent and deliberate use of the humble period can create maximum impact. The article discussed three possible reasons why a writer might opt for shorter sentences:

  • Minimize for Maximum Meaning: using short sentences that pack a lot of meaning into a few words, such as an image or particularly poignant word choice.
  • Create Drama/Action: using short sentences to speed up the action or heighten the sense of drama and/or suspense.
  • Be Direct: using short sentences to create clear, uncluttered descriptions of scenes or events.

This month, we’ll cover the opposite end of the period use spectrum—long sentences. Once again, I have relied heavily on Noah Lukeman’s excellent book, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation to help me craft this article.

In the last article we discussed the overall theory of what a sentence should do, which is offer a complete thought. In the case of longer sentences, a single sentence might contain multiple thoughts, which is fine, so long as they are complete. In his book, Lukeman states that some authors “deliberately underuse” the period to create a certain tone. Below are a few examples of stylistic situations that could call for a longer sentence length.

Camera Sweep

Maybe there is a more technical term for it (film buffs, weigh in here), but I call this technique the camera sweep. You know what I mean: the opening (or closing) scene of a movie in which the view of the camera moves seamlessly from one scene to another without cutting. Often, it will move from a very macro (or wide angle) view to a more micro or finite view. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s just a series of images that move continuously from one to the next. As familiar as we all are these days with movies and their tropes, it’s hard to imagine that pre-film era when writers first perfected this method without ever having seen a movie.

Dickens, for example, employed this technique in his 1852 novel Bleak House. I have used this example before, but the pacing of Dickens’ sentences provide a great example of how to use long sentences to build a scene slowly, piece by piece.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

The longer sentences pull the reader through a continuous set of (often parallel) images that set the overall scene—from broad to minute, from left to right, from up to down. These wide sweeps move from one extreme to the other and slowly build a full picture of the scene, each long sentence including several locations that mirror and complement the others.

Here’s another example of using long sentences to create sweeping scenes. This is from William Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun Go Down”:

Monday is no different from any other week day in Jefferson now. The streets are paved now, and the telephone and the electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees - the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms - to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially made motor-cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like a tearing of silk, and even the Negro women who still take in white peoples' washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

This paragraph consists of only of two sentences—a standard length one and a very long sentence slowed only by commas, dashes, and a colon. The punctuation offers few moments for the reader to catch his or her breath as he or she is escorted down the streets of a busy Monday in Jefferson. The long sentence causes the reader to see the entire scene in one long shot as if to indicate that Monday in Jefferson is a single entity, not a series of happenings. In both Faulkner and Dickens' versions, the reader is forced to ingest whole environments as a single draught, allowing the writer to make many points all at once.

Characterization

Another great way to utilize the long sentence is to display certain qualities in your characters. A neurotic or nervous character might be well-served with longer sentences that illustrate an anxious or obsessed personality. See this example from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything is Illuminated.

Notwithstanding that we had a deranged bitch in the car, who made a proclivity of throwing her body against the windows, the drive was also difficult because the car is so much shit that it would not travel any faster than as fast as I could run, which is sixty kilometers per the hour. Many cars passed us, which made me feel second rate, especially when the cars were heavy with families, and when they were bicycles. Grandfather and I did not utter words pending the drive, which is not abnormal, because we have never uttered multitudinous words. I made efforts no to spleen him, but nonetheless did.

In this case, the character is Alex, a Ukrainian young man who chauffeurs an American on his journey to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Alex is keen to impress the American, but his substandard touring equipment--a crappy car, crazy dog, and ill-tempered grandfather--impede his ability to appear "cool" and in control--which is what he wants. Alex's overexertion to use correct English, a concern about his car's poor (and embarrassing) performance, annoyance with the dog (“deranged bitch”), and a desire not to piss off his Grandfather all get mashed together in a series of long sentences that clearly display the anxieties of the character. The lack of pauses (or periods) forces the reader to experience this anxiety alongside the character.

Stream of Consciousness

Writers employ the stream of consciousness technique to represent a character’s thought process. Stream of consciousness, like interior monologue, is reflexive, but unlike most monologues, it’s unstructured. Stream of consciousness writing attempts to recreate on the page a character’s continuous and unedited flow of ideas, perceptions, memories, and feelings as they occur. Accordingly, the sentence structure for this kind of writing is also continuous and without restraint—thus the opportunity to avoid using periods to break up the thoughts into more digestible pieces.

 In this example from Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the speaker relates an event in which he met with a woman (an author of a popular book about sex) about when he was trying to write a slanderous article.

Fine. So you say, sure sure, let’s do an interview, chuckling to yourself—you can’t wait to hang up the phone and tell everyone, wanting only to tear her apart. Then while you’re in New York, you have dinner with her. Dinner goes well and you have drinks. During dinner and drinks—like, three or four hours of talking—she’s a little pushy and self-promoting, but also extremely generous—you had not bargained for that—and wants to hear all about me—that part shocked you—about our parents, and says so many nice things, and during all this, while she’s being kind and listening and everything, all the while your balancing your two prevailing interests: recording her words to later use against her—because, she, too, had the temerity to be relatively famous and attractive (with a master’s from Penn)—while also, more pressingly, trying to get invited back to her apartment.

The speaker starts out determined to carry out his plan of “tear[ing] her apart” only to be derailed by the fact that the woman is actually kind, attractive, and not as worthy of snark as he’d originally thought. The speaker uses the long sentence in the middle to carry the reader from his initial viewpoint of the woman being “a little pushy and self-promoting” to “being kind and listening” to "trying to get invited back to her apartment." As Lukeman writes in his book, ‘stream of consciousness is chaotic; it unravels uncensored.” Here, the speaker “unravels” his thought process to the reader, dragging the reader from thought to thought, impression to impression, not letting the reader rest while he digresses about the woman being "relatively famous and attractive (with a master’s from Penn)" until he finally lands on the his ultimate point: that he is attracted to her. The reader must endure the speaker's entire "chaotic" procession from one motivation (scorn) to another (sex).

Or all three...

I have one more example of period-less writing that encapsulates all three scenarios we just covered. The short story “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is a wonderful example of how to use long sentences to create a specific tone, character, and scene. The entire story is a single sentence, interrupted by semi-colons and the occasional question mark. It encapsulates the entire experience of the “Girl” in one, long multi-faceted, multi-voiced sentence. Read for yourself:

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street – flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button-hole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra – far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles – you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers – you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

While the main speaker in the story is the mother, the protagonist (indicated in the title) is really the girl, who only speaks twice (see the italicized portions). The use of the excessively long sentence clues the reader in to the fact that while the mother is the primary voice, it is through the perception of the girl that we experience the mother's onslaught of advice. The effect is overwhelming, and the reader can feel the girl's anxiety as she receives this long-winded diatribe of insulting insinuations mixed with practical knowledge. Ms. Kincaid's use of the long sentence creates a stream of consciousness effect, as if the girl were remembering all these mandates at once. The story also accomplishes a camera sweep of the girls environment as the advice from the speaker includes information from a wide variety of settings, peoples, and scenarios that make up the girl's life.The lack of stop signs (periods) accomplishes all three of these effects perfectly; it's an utter inundation of the senses.

Assignment

Take a cue from Ms. Kincaid and write a short piece that consists of one whole sentence. As with Kincaid’s story, the length of the sentence should fit with the context of your plot and characters. Try to incorporate the three possible reasons to use such a long sentence: 1) camera sweep 2) characterization (anxious, neurotic), and 3) stream of consciousness.

As always, please post your results below, or email them to me at taylor@litreactor.com.

Image of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
Author: Noah Lukeman
Price: $12.22
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 206 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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