Clever Tricks of Creative Writing: Line Length
Did you know that 15 words is the optimum length of a sentence? Discover how to set moods without the reader even noticing.
Even non-Christians have that memorized. I am a case in point. It's the shortest verse in the Bible and it makes an impact.
But why? You can picture this great man in tears and wonder about the circumstances. You can lift it out of context and use it ironically in response to all of your First World Problems.
These are all secondary suggestions. The reason why it's so memorable is because it's short.
When it comes to writing sentences, size matters more than you might know.
The Storyteller's Box of Tricks
"Never trust the storyteller, only the story." Neil Gaiman 'Sandman'
Look again at that introductory section beside the image of a weeping Christ. I have been very deliberate in my sentence lengths.
In all but one line, you should have followed with ease. But right in the middle there was one sentence which slowed you down. You might have had a quick glance at its beginning again. You may have read it through twice.
If you are a good reader, then you had no problem. But had it been much longer, you would have started struggling a bit.
This was the line:
You can lift it out of context and use it ironically in response to all of your First World Problems.
The average reader would have been fine until about 'your'. The final three words meant I was starting to lose you.
A few years ago, I attended a four day proof-reading course in London. The curriculum also included tips on writing in such a way as to help your readers.
It sounds obvious, doesn't it? You want people to understand what you're saying. You wish to impart information. (It should be noted that the course focused primarily on report writing, which is notorious for being incomprehensible.)
Of course, some people don't want their words to be examined too closely. Politicians are the usual culprits here. They can prattle on forever without saying anything meaningful. The best of them leave their audience convinced that there was great wisdom.
Writers who understand the rules can use or break them to serve themselves. Never, ever trust a great writer. They know more tricks than Derren Brown.
The Length of a Sentence Aids Comprehension
Any more than fifteen words and you are losing your adult reader. For a child, stop at nine.
There are people who can perform amazing feats of recall. The entire telephone directory can be recited, word for word, without any prompting. They have trained themselves to do it.
But we're not generally writing for them.
We're writing for normal, everyday individuals. Some of them have decent memories. Some of them walk into rooms and forget what they wanted in there. As writers, we need to aim right for the middle.
Why is the memory of our readers so important? Because we want them to recall the beginning of the sentence, when they are at the end. The start contextualizes the end.
That class in London included dozens of case studies and tests on this subject. It concluded that the average adult mind will wander after seventeen words. By the eighteenth, they are glancing back to the beginning. After about twenty-four words, they have quite literally lost the plot.
The recommendation is that no sentence should contain more than fifteen words. That's two fewer than the grey area, where forgetfulness is triggered.
For children, you should stop at nine words. Seven, if you really want to play safe.
In 1551, the French printer Robert Estienne introduced verses into the Bible. He did it to aid his readers in memorizing Biblical tracts. He knew all about punctuating and arranging words for maximum understanding.
He created 'Jesus wept'. We remember it.
Short Sentences Stand Out
If you want to make an impact, then keep it short. Every billboard writer knows that!
Not every line has to be exactly fifteen words long. You can alter the length closer to the meridian or further away, depending upon the mood you are trying to create.
Short sentences make a point. Short sentences are abrupt. They scream, 'look at me'. They can denote passion. They can inject urgency. They feel like emergency instructions. They are easy to recall. They can read a little too much like bullet-points.
Let's visit Wuthering Heights for our example. Here is Heathcliff in full passionate outburst.
"May she wake in torment!" he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. "Why, she's a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there - not in heaven - not perished - where? Oh! You said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer - I repeat it till my tongue stiffens! Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you - haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!"
The majority of those sentences are under nine words long. A child could memorize them with ease. Even the longer ones, including the narrative, are punctuated to appear short.
Heathcliff is angry. He's firing words like bullets. Emily Brontë helps him. She keeps each line short.
Let me demonstrate by committing a kind of sacrilege. I'm about to rewrite a portion of Wuthering Heights to calm Heathcliff down a bit. All I'm going to do is lengthen the lines.
"I hope that she will wake up in torment," he cried out with frightful vehemence. Heathcliff stamped his foot, groaning at Nelly in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. "In my opinion, Catherine was a liar to the end of her life. And where do you think she is now? My bet is that she's not in Heaven; but neither has she entirely perished. So where do you believe she is now?"
I won't go on, because we'll be here all day. But I hope that you've got the gist. In my version, the only way that we can tell he's upset is because the author says so. 'With frightful vehemence' does not translate in the length of the sentences.
Emily Brontë did something very subtle to her readers. We didn't need to read the actual words. We could tell by the snappiness of the sentences that Heathcliff was upset.
Of course, short sentences don't always have to be about distress. They can simply be a way of imparting information with maximum speed and impact.
"Come and get your cabbages!" The market-stall owner yells. "Get your cabbages here! Cheap at half the price! Get your cabbages!"
"Call an ambulance! Heart-attack! Ambulance now!"
"On your marks. Get set. Go!"
"Will you marry me?"
Just don't over-do your short sentences, as they will cease to stand out in a whole slew of them. It's better to just throw in one or two, every now and again, preferably at the end of a chapter.
It works much better then.
Longer Sentences Can be Used to Show Rambling on the Part of your Characters
You can create more languid moods by extending the lines in your narrative. People don't tend to talk in bullet-points either, so let them chat.
If shorter sentences come at you with urgency, then the opposite is true the closer you get to the meridian.
That was a twenty word line by the way. I threw in a comma to break it up. That made it eight words, comma, twelve words. Just because you're aiming for fifteen, it doesn't mean that you can't use your punctuation to carry on a bit.
There are many situations where longer lines are better. Surrounding a short sentence with them really helps with that impact. But mostly it gives you a lot more leeway to tell your tale. If we were in bullet-points all of the time, we might as well be sloganeering instead.
Longer sentences can also be used as a clever trick to imitate the mind of your character. Let me give an example from Liz Williams's The Demon and the City.
Zhu Irzh has been arrested. The circumstances beforehand are confused. He's acted out of character; and now he has no recollection. He was shot with something which rendered him unconscious.
"I see," Zhu Irzh remarked. He sat down on the molded bench that extended from the wall. His new position had not yet sunk in; the remains of the trank still fumed within his brain. With an effort, he tried to get a grasp on the situation, but he was starting to fade and soon, they were all gone again.
Williams starts with short sentences. As the paragraph progresses, the lines get longer. The final line goes on forever, with only punctuation stopping it becoming incomprehensible. In short, she's mirrored Zhu Irzh's descent back into unconsciousness. The more foggy his reality, the more rambling the narrative.
But also note that she never once goes over fifteen words before a comma, even in that longest sentence of all.
For comparison, let me rewrite this too. Only this time, I'm going to use short sentences to change the mood.
"I see," Zhu Irzh said. The bench extended from the wall. He sat down. He couldn't grasp his position. The trank still fumed inside his brain. He couldn't think. What was his situation? He was fading fast. It all went.
Did you get a sense from my rewrite that Zhu Irzh was having difficulty with his thought processes? It was too harsh, too abrupt. I painted no word pictures with my sentence length, like the actual author did.
The Long and Short of It All
Messing with line length is no substitute for just writing great words.
Once you understand the tools in your word arsenal, you can apply them easily.
Want to make an impact? Short sentence. Want to say more or create a leisurely mood? Make your sentences longer.
Are you forced to include something, which you'd rather your readers didn't actually register? Ensure that there are over twenty-four words in your sentence, because even those with great memories will start to lose the sense of what you're saying. (Sixteen in that last half a sentence. Was I losing you?)
Knowing this stuff will help you craft amazing stories. But you shouldn't let it pre-occupy you too much.
This is one of the hardest articles that I've ever written for Wizzley. Why? Because I was stopping every three seconds to count the words in my sentences! That sort of thing really interrupts the flow.
Know about it. Use it, if the narrative demands such devices. But don't focus upon line length at the expense of enjoyment and/or content. Those things trump such tricks any day.