Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

Stunning Sentences

There’s a game I play with my five-year-old son. I give him the line “Once upon a time” and a handful of words—say, “donkey,” “cheetah,” and “rock.” In a flash, he launches in: “The donkey went over to the field and it was looking for something to eat and it found a cheetah sitting there and it was near a big rock, but it was eating and….” With an abundance of conjunctions, he hurtles into the story, sweeping us both up and carrying us along to the end.

In my early drafts of stories, when I’m writing without much self-awareness, my sentences are long, twisting and turning with subordinate clauses, phrases, conjunctions and parentheticals. But during revision, I begin to chop them up or cross them out, as if I don’t trust their power to hold the reader’s attention. As if I don’t trust myself. I have to go through another revision to put them back in and remember the pleasure that a long sentence offers, with its sounds and rhythms and suspense and tension. When I teach Style in Fiction, I ask students to bring to class a favorite sentence from a published work, a sentence they wished they’d written, and most—I’d say 95%—bring long sentences.

Elizabeth Tallent has no trouble writing long, labyrinthine sentences. In her short story “The Wilderness”—featured in the 2013 Best American Short Stories and her short story collection, Mendocino Fires—she sweeps you up and leaves you begging for more.

The narrator of “The Wilderness” is a creative writing professor who often stands in the center of a roundabout and watches while hundreds of students on bicycles skim and veer within arm’s reach.

Only when she is well away from that roundabout, safely nestled into her favorite corner of the couch in her office—when a new student plunks down in that corner, it’s a problem—only in this quiet, narrowing her pointed eyes in pleasure in an interval of aloneness she has no right to, because they should be here, the students, they’ve said they’re going to come by and one of them will knock on the door at any second, meaning the value of this interval, the preface to losing oneself in a book, is heightened by her awareness of its likely end—only in the particular space created by unexpected liberty (in which thinking her own thoughts has a stolen or illegitimate savor, really fun) does she intuit the real reason for her love of standing absolutely still in the bicycle onslaught, in the student whirlwind.

Tallent helps you negotiate this 146-word sentence by repeating her opening word “only” three times. It is our anchor. As we travel deep into the middle, we grab on to the anchor to remember our direction. It’s a left-branching sentence, opening with a subordinate clause “when,” with nesting parentheticals and appositives. As the sentence grows, the suspense builds. We wait to find out what happens in this office, away from the fray. Tallent’s expansive sentence allows for juxtaposition between colloquial diction—“it’s a problem” and “really fun”—and more elegant verbiage. It invites alliteration and assonance and rhythm. And the length of the sentence effectively mimics the distance one must often travel away from the cacophony and daily demands and distractions in order to have real insight.

Mendocino Fires“Writing sentences for me means tracking—with a very quick, spare, minimal awareness that doesn’t distract me from writing—my liking or not liking the sentence,” says Tallent. “If I’m not liking, then the sentence will get changed one way or another. I can come back to it whenever, because once there’s been an instant of not liking, it will recur with every re-reading. It will go on needing to be fixed until I come back and do it.”

I asked her to diagnose my reticence for writing long sentences. She was kind enough not to mention anything too psychologically damaging. “My guess is that the preference for short sentences originates in the association with the real,” she said. “Short sentences can have bite, wit, tweetability. Short looks forceful. By its graphic compactness a short sentence promises I’ll get right to the point. It says I won’t keep you long. With the short sentence there’s a presumption of emotional honesty: it’s hard, it’s clear, its every word can be trusted. The long sentence looks like a vehicle for uncertainty. It’s syntax asking for the willing suspension of omniscience.”

Tallent readily admits to an evangelical love of long sentences, and she gives her students at Stanford a little nudge with this prompt: Write a single page-long sentence in the point of view of a character who falls out of love in the course of the sentence.

Tallent’s favorite sentence from “The Wilderness,” however, is not long, as if to remind everyone that a writer must be able to craft both. The narrator is looking at a photo of her great-great-grandfather on her computer.

From the year 2012 she gazes into the pixels that comprise his gaze.

“I like that because one gaze is real and the other is not, the sentence seeks to replicate the impossibility of accepting that pixels can’t comprise a gaze,” says Tallent.

After I brush his teeth and find his PJs and tuck my son into bed—which he promptly undoes to grab his green stuffed frog and blue dog—after I tuck him in again, get him a glass of water and pull down the shades, the light dimming, softening—I lie next to him in bed, his body, still baby fat soft and cuddly, nestling against mine, his wispy soft hair smelling fruity and floral, I say, “Once upon a time…”

Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.


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