The Longest Sentence
by Trista Cornelius
One of my favorite writing books is Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator of the Mutinous Crew. The title alone warrants purchase of the book. Don’t you sometimes feel like the lone navigator of a mutinous crew as you try to wrangle words onto the page or screen?
The book includes writing exercises, and I’ve adapted one to help writers discover sentence styles without ever having to know terms like “compound-complex.” You’ll have to read LeGuin’s book for the complete exercise and the insightful chapter that precedes it. For now, try this:
Write a story that is at least three-quarters of a page long and is all one sentence. (Yes, you read that correctly: one long sentence.) Your sentence must be grammatically correct.
Before you continue reading this column, try writing for ten solid minutes. Don’t worry too much, just make up a goofy story and try to make it one sentence. I’ll meet you back here.
Are you back? When I use this exercise in writing workshops, I tell writers they cannot make their story out of one long list like this:
It was cold outside, so she decided to wear wool socks over her short running socks, boots, leg warmers, tights, long johns, pants, ski-pants … .
It’s not cheating, but it’s not challenging, and the occurrences when you’d want a list like this in your writing are probably rare. However, instances when you want a long sentence are not so rare. LeGuin explains how sentence length shapes a reader’s experience of your text. So, try again if you resorted to a list!
By experimenting, you’ve surely ended up creating compound sentences, complex sentences, and so forth. You don’t need to know these terms, but let me show you a few sentence-combining tools you have at your disposal.
Use a comma with a conjunction (and, or, but, yet, so, for, nor) to link sentences
Ursula sailed into Portland on a ship made of tulips grown on Mars, and the ship disintegrated into compost upon arrival, so Ursula demonstrated the importance of caring for environments near and far, yet not all Portlanders appreciated the sweet scent.
Do you see how you can go on forever? The three comma-conjunction connectors are underlined to help you see where one complete sentence ends and the next begins.
You can use this structure to convey rapid-paced details that overwhelm the reader and build tension.
Start a sentence with a word like when, if, unless, or once
These words make a sentence dependent on a second sentence. You can’t write:
Unless Ursula lands in downtown Portland.
You’re left wondering, “Unless what?” Take out “unless,” and it’s a simple sentence:
Ursula lands in downtown Portland.
Now try this: Keep “unless” and add one or more complete sentences:
Unless Ursula lands in downtown Portland, citizens might complain about the tulip ship from Mars because they are not familiar with stellar flora and might confuse it with a barge from Seattle.
Ursula left Portland when she began her intergalactic tour of two dozen star systems after she explored deep-sea caves in the Antarctic.
In the last example, you can replace each dependent word with a period to see how the dependent words connected three complete sentences into one.
Combine the two options
Unless Ursula lands in Portland, citizens might complain about the tulip ship, but her shipmates might broadcast an announcement before arrival once they have decided to use old-fashioned English instead of Newtrongian, but most Portlanders won’t mind the exotic ship returning after two hundred years abroad.
Use a semicolon
This can get clunky, but for experimentation purposes, you can use a semicolon (See my column, “The Semicolon Queen,” for an in depth discussion of this punctuation mark) anywhere you’d normally use a period:
Tomorrow, Ursula is scheduled to land in Portland; she will arrive on a ship made of Martian tulips; they decompose upon arrival, so citizens might notice a sweet stench in the air.
Can one long sentence have more than one period?
Ursula lands in Portland tomorrow after spending 200 years visiting dozens of galaxies (Her specially designed ship runs on Martian tulip petal power.), and citizens are encouraged to skip work and instead hover out across the Willamette river to welcome her home, but remember to bring raincoats since her ship might cause waves as high as ten feet (She has apologized profusely for this, but we see no reason for alarm.), and keep your kiddos buckled onto your hover craft until the landing is complete.
Post your long sentences here for us to enjoy. Let’s see how long they can get!
Trista Cornelius writes Voice Catcher’s monthly column “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.