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The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth

Saturday 14 September 2013

By ROY PETER CLARK

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

As a writer and teacher, I try to learn something about the craft every day. A gold coin of inspiration may come in my reading, in a conversation with another writer or even in the process of revising this essay.

I learned an important lesson, somewhat unwittingly, on July 19, 1975, while watching an interview with two of my favorite writers, William F. Buckley Jr. and Tom Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe was making fun of an art critic who had begun an essay with the sentence “Art and ideas are one.”

“Now, I must give him credit for this,” said Mr. Wolfe. “If you ever have a preposterous statement to make … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.”

The five-word sentence as the gospel truth.

Granted, Mr. Wolfe was being a little cynical, but the truth of what he was saying still applies. Express your most powerful thought in the shortest sentence.

In a 2006 article in The St. Petersburg Times, the writer Thomas French showed off this move, describing the memorable life and influential tenure in a Tampa zoo of a chimpanzee named Herman.

“Altogether,” wrote Mr. French, “he lived at Lowry Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001.”

In an interview, Mr. French explained that the most telling detail in Herman’s story was that number: 00001. Herman was Elvis, No. 1, the primal primate, Adam in this garden of captives.

Finding that number — with all those zeros — is good reporting; how Mr. French decided to use it is more revealing. He could have listed it in a catalog of details. Instead, to deliver it full force, he placed the magic number at the end of a paragraph at the end of a section in the story’s shortest sentence. “His was 00001.”

Using short sentences to their full effect is a centuries-old strategy, found in opinion writing, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and plays. It works in a formal speech or in a handwritten letter. Shakespeare had a messenger deliver the news to Macbeth in six words: “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” a message that could fit easily inside a 140-character tweet.

A familiar and effective place for the short sentence is at the end of a long paragraph. Here is the critic Greil Marcus riffing on the poetry of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg:

SIN! SIN! SIN! Ginsberg shouted again and again, in scores of other words — single words, elaborate travelogues, sexual fantasies, the American pastoral as it passed by under his eye on the highway, unable to outrun the American berserk in Vietnam. He was there, “lone man from the void, riding a bus/hypnotized by red tail lights on the straight/space road ahead,” to judge the country. And he was there to save it.

Let’s measure the economy of that final sentence, an efficiency that brings with it the ring of truth: Seven words, all of one syllable. Twenty-one letters. That’s three letters per word.

There are times when these truth-bearing (truth-baring!) sentences come in a cluster, heightening the drama. The sentences also can appear as a stand-alone paragraph, swimming in white space. George Orwell plays with these techniques in “Animal Farm”:

It was a pig walking on his hind legs.

Yes, it was Squealer … And finally there was a tremendous baying of dogs and a shrill crowing from the black cockerel, and out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him.

He carried a whip in his trotter.

A long sequence of short sentences slows the reader down, each period acting as a stop sign. That slow pace can bring clarity, create suspense or magnify emotion, but can soon become tedious. It turns out that the short sentence gains power from its proximity to longer sentences, as Orwell demonstrates with that final image of the whip appearing after a sentence that stretches to 38 words.

Another British dystopian, Anthony Burgess, might have learned this trick from Orwell. In the last paragraph of “A Clockwork Orange,” his savage teenage narrator is about to be liberated from the re-programming designed to suppress his violent impulses. Listening to his beloved Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he expresses his joy via an invented gang-slang of the future:

Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right.

Notice the metrical echoes in that final sentence: five words. All of one syllable. None longer than five letters. And with this added benefit: It comes not just at the end of a passage or a chapter, but as the last chilling words of the novel.

What makes a short sentence short is determined by the sentences around it. In the land of 40-word sentences, the 20-word sentence bears a special power. The following passage ends the historical novel “Libra” by Don DeLillo and describes the burial of John F. Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. You will notice that all the sentences are relatively short, allowing the emotional tension to build. The woman in question is Oswald’s mother: Marguerite felt a weakness in her legs. The wind made the canopy snap. She felt hollow in her body and heart. But even as they led her from the grave she heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald spoken by two boys standing fifty feet away, here to grab some clods of souvenir earth. Lee Harvey Oswald. Saying it like a secret they’d keep forever. She saw the first dusty car drive off, just silhouetted heads in windows. She walked with the policemen up to the second car, where the funeral director stood under a black umbrella, holding open the door. Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away — the truth and lasting power of his name. It belonged to her now, and to history.

Consider the variety of lengths in this excerpt: 7, 6, 8, 32, 3, 8, 13, 23, 3, 28, 8. The two shortest verbless sentences of three words (Lee Harvey Oswald) appear immediately after two of the longer sentences. That change of pace, that abruptness, that slamming on of brakes, carries significant meaning as does that final truth bearing/baring sentence: “It belonged to her now, and to history.”

I thank Tom Wolfe for that 1975 lesson on the disproportional power of the short sentence. It stuck. I owe it to him to restore his original context, that writers can use it to give even preposterous statements the ring of truth. The bigot can use it to foment hate. The propagandist can slap it on a bumper sticker. But for the writer with good intent, the short sentence proves a reliable method for delivering the practical truth. With punch.


Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute. He is the author of “Writing Tools” and “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.”

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