Very Long Sentences in Fiction

Recently, I was listening to the audiobook of James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, and at some point it struck me that we’d been in the middle of a sentence for quite a while. But it wasn’t just long—it was lyrical and purposeful. Pretty early on in the sentence, I began to realize it wasn’t primarily about an annual infestation of ants.

And there [the ants] stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich—West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious—and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color. (New York: Riverhead books, 2020, 76)

Cover of the Penguin Audio version of Deacon King Kong: A Novel, by James McBride

That passage takes the reader by the shoulders and shakes. It’s a fine, powerful sentence, made all the more rich by Dominic Hoffman’s virtuoso narration.

A few days later, I came across part of the same passage quoted in a book review in the New York Times and, being the curious type, was motivated to investigate the length of the sentence. I couldn’t count the words easily with my audiobook, so I found an image of the page in the hardcover edition of the book at an online bookseller, transcribed the sentence, and let my word processor do the counting: 187.

That’s a lot of words, but I had thought it would be more. Then I noticed something.

Actually, I noticed two things. First, I saw that the two passages I compared weren’t exactly the same. The newspaper version had been copyedited to fit New York Times style: the phrase “page one story” in the book became “Page 1 story” in the quotation. That was a shocker. It’s standard practice for newspaper quotations from a published source to change spaces around dashes, put titles in quotes instead of italics, and in other ways accommodate old-timey typesetting limitations, but in Chicago style, quotations from written works are spelled exactly as written, not changed to fit a style guide. The intrusion of that fussy, capitalized “Page 1” yanked this reader out of the vibe as if a copyeditor had burst from the page with a STOP sign.

The more interesting thing I noticed was that both the very long sentence and the sentence following it began with “And.” And while in the printed book the first two sentences are divided by a paragraph break, audiobook listeners couldn’t know that. In the audiobook I heard all three sentences as one:

The ants were poor folks’ foolishness, a forgotten story from a forgotten borough in a forgotten city that was going under. And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope . . . [the very long sentence continues]. And all the while, the ants marched each fall, arriving at Building 17 kicking ass, a roaring tidal wave of tiny death, devouring Jesus’s cheese, moving out of the clock and into the boiler room and into the trash can by the hall door, polishing off whatever leftover sandwiches and bits of cake from the wilted, soggy, uneaten lunches Hot Sausage left behind each afternoon as he and his buddy Sportcoat ignored food in favor of their favorite beverage, King Kong. (75–76)

Added together, 21 + 187 + 81 = 289! That sentence says “Look at me” not only because it’s long, but because it has something rich and important to say, something both about and not about ants invading a building every fall, and the longer it goes on, the more rhythm and drive it musters, quickly turning nostalgia to bitterness and hammering it home, all while maintaining humor and humanity and—what the heck—moving the story along while it’s at it.

That sentence breaks any rule you ever read about sentence length, about being concise and not wasting words, about not distracting the reader from the story with displays of writerly skill. It did distract me. It distracted me for days. A writing coach or an editor might have wagged a finger at McBride and told him to kill that darling. But why shouldn’t a reader emerge from a story now and then to observe and admire the artist at work? It’s different from emerging to resent the copyeditor; appreciating the prose is part of reading for pleasure.

McBride is far from the first novelist to use long sentences effectively. Many famous examples are much longer than the one featured here, into the thousands of words, and that’s without including stream-of-consciousness and unpunctuated passages. Whole books have been written as a single sentence, for crying out loud, although I’m not promoting that idea.

Nonetheless, McBride’s very long sentence stands out as an elegant reminder to novice writers that disregarding a rule can be highly effective in creative writing.

Long sentences are not in themselves a good thing. Probably the opposite. Long sentences are more likely than short ones to suffer from any combination of comma splices, rambling, repetition, contradiction, pointlessness, inconsistency of tense, point-of-view issues, and just plain tedium. A writer who deploys a long sentence had better know what they’re doing and why.

Top image: “Funny Dachshund,” by Victoria Borodinova, courtesy Public Domain

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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