If you read marketing copy, you will see a lot of short sentence fragments. “It’s the best thing since sliced bread. Low priced and cheap to run. Looks good on your counter. And it’s free!”
But we novelists aren’t supposed to write that way.
Wait a second — I just did.
So you see why we do it (oh no, I did it again!). It’s a writing method that gives a lot of emphasis to a point — whatever is in the fragment stands out.
However, a whole book full of it would be exhausting to read. Short sentences just are, even if they aren’t fragments. Longer sentences, joined with conjunctions or extended with gerund phrases or present participle phrases (phrases that start with “ing” words like getting or walking), flow and lead you from one sentence to the next.
Short, choppy phrases require lots of stops and starts and extra words: “He pulled the chain. The lights came on. He screamed.” It just reads better to say, “He pulled the chain, squinting when the lights came on. And then he screamed.”
For one thing, the first part just flows. But by throwing the “and then” in, I had the unexpectedness of the sentence fragment, which made it stand out. (You might remember in an earlier post, I pointed out that short sentences in a cushion of longer sentences really stand out; fragments do so even more.)
Sometimes longer sentences equal fewer words: “He stopped the car. He put the car in park. He turned off the engine. He got out of the car. He pocketed the keys.” Doesn’t this sound better: “Stopping the car, he put it in park and turned off the engine. He got out of the car, pocketing the keys.” It reads better and it’s actually a couple words shorter.
Now, there are limits. If the sentence goes on too long, you forget what the subject or verb was by the time you get to the end. In technical writing, they have something called a Fog Index. Basically, the Fog Index looks at how long your sentences are and how many complex words you use. The index roughly correlates to the level of schooling someone would need to comfortably read your copy. Most easy-to-read copy has a Fog Index of between eight and 11 (more than 13 is hard to read). Yes, magazines have a preferred Fog Index and will actually count sentences and long words and make sure articles basically conform. The Fog Index is a good indicator of your writing — too many short sentences and words might insult your reader’s intelligence, whereas too many long sentences and words can be hard to read.
The best course is usually the middle course, no matter what you’re navigating. If you can have longer sentences that flow easily one into another, your readability will be better, and your copy will sound more sophisticated. It’s a good balance to reach.