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NEVER-ENDING SENTENCESBy workshop member Nigel Read
As a reviewer, one of the most common technical problems I've encountered is the never-ending sentence. This is a too-long sentence that encompasses a number of different subjects. It often contains a multitude of "and"s, "but"s, "which"s, "that"s, "if"s, and other such conjunctions.
Charles Dickens was famous for his truly immense run-on sentences. The first sentence of DOMBEY AND SON reads: "Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new."
I think I hear a chorus of "But if it's good enough for Dickens, surely it's good enough for me." Well, unfortunately, times change, and so does accepted English usage. When DOMBEY AND SON was written 155 years ago, never-ending sentences were not considered such a bad thing. These days, most readers find them annoying and distracting.
And to editors they are anathema.
So, how can a sentence such as this be fixed? Contrary to popular opinion, colons and semi-colons are not the way to go. The only way to fix a never-ending sentence is with the ruthless application of the full-stop, or period. The above example might then read: "Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room, in the great armchair by the bedside. Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire. It was as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.'
Balance and Pace
One of the most common flaws of the beginner writer is the inability to balance the elements of a story. I'm guilty of this as well. I know I tend to focus too much on action and dialogue, so that my characterization and setting are often very shallow. But the most common example of lack of balance that I've found is quite the opposite: stories that have too much characterization, to the detriment of the other elements of the story.
I can hear the collective gasps straight away. "Too much characterization? Is such a thing possible?" Well, it is. I've read numerous stories that delighted in giving us every little thought of the main character, as if the character's feelings and thoughts could not be deduced from his or her external reactions (i.e. actions, body language, and dialogue), or at least guessed from our own understanding of human nature. Others seem to delight in providing detailed descriptions of the characters' appearances, or provide detailed character backgrounds in enormous info-dumps. The problem with this is that excessive characterization, like excessive setting and exposition, slows down the pace of a story. Few readers enjoy wading through detail.
The trick is to trust your readers' imaginations. Characterization is, in my opinion, akin to impressionist painting. If something isn't intrinsically important to the story, just brush over it briefly or even leave it out altogether--the readers will often supply that detail themselves. Though some detail must be supplied or the characters will appear shallow, a balance must be struck between the demands for convincing detail and a sufficiently engaging pace.