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The Long and Short of It
December 2, 2008 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Long and short of it continues in part 2 I loved reading the first part of this series and it now has the second part that I have put link to. Long and short of it goes deeper into an important topic: Whether we should have a long sentence or a short one when describing things. I would well go with the long sentence as written by Charles Dickens on his novel Oliver Twist a century ago. But it seems quite a few people prefer short ones! What's your take on this.
posted by susanharper (54 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have put link to, too.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:55 AM on December 2, 2008


No.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:06 AM on December 2, 2008


Is it not crazy enough that our economy, of all current economies, is being wracked by frantic longing of and shorting of stocks, now we're shorting and longing our sentences? Ever shorter! Ever longer! Where will the ending of this be?
posted by ardgedee at 7:07 AM on December 2, 2008


Why obsess over length? I hate redundancy and needless words, but it's possible for a sentence to contain only necessary words and still be long. It's lazy to complain about length, like those who say they don't like "2001" because it's too long. That's not why they disliked it. There are other long movies that they like. There must have been something else that bothered them about it (pacing? lack of accessible characters?). They would have still disliked it, even if it was an hour shorter. (They just wouldn't have been miserable for as long a time.)

Writers should strive to communicate clearly. Which means causing the reader to sense. If a writer's words make you see, smell, taste, touch or hear, they are useful words regardless of how many of them there are.
posted by grumblebee at 7:11 AM on December 2, 2008 [7 favorites]


I'm with grumblebee. I don't think in terms of liking longer or shorter sentences. I don't care about the length of the sentence so long as all the words were necessary.
posted by Nattie at 7:24 AM on December 2, 2008


The long and the short of it is.... why do I suspect that susanharper will put link to some spam quite soon?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:27 AM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


le morte,

Don't know what you mean. I don't like spam posts. It was one of those articles that I liked a lot. I hunted around quite some time for a good front page post, and that's why I posted this one. It's actually a unique post.
posted by susanharper at 7:30 AM on December 2, 2008


susanharper: Just some friendly criticism: one shouldn't have to hunt around "for quite some time" just to find something to slap up on MetaFilter. There's no obligation to make posts here, and no real benefit in doing so. If you find something neat, share it, but don't rack your brains trying to look for something--everyone will see through that.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:34 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's little doubt that in the sprawling billows of a longer sentence, a writer has room to leap and play like a sportive dolphin, or to throw down great architectural structures with myriad branching pathways whose very form may evoke say, the labyrinthine streets of the old, pre-Haussman Paris and so enhance the description of the very medieval topology which the words themselves adumbrate at the same time in parallel, a tactic to which no lesser writer than Victor Hugo so memorably resorted when, in the immortal Hunchback of Notre Dame, at least as far as my recollection serves, which to frank in these later days is not the distance it once was, he chose to create a substantial chapter consisting of - what else - indeed, nothing but the subject of the present discourse, namely a single sentence, though in these days of supposedly reduced attention spans, a supposition not always in my opinion to be countenanced but here performing yeoman service as an expedient rationalisation, it might haply be thought that too long a meander amongst the agreeable byways of one's own clauses is all too apt to court, if not indeed absolutely bring about, that least desirable of the concomitants of any syntactic endeavour, namely and to wit, nothing more than blank incomprehension.

Short's good, too.
posted by Phanx at 7:36 AM on December 2, 2008 [17 favorites]


Thank you, sir, may I have another?
posted by box at 7:39 AM on December 2, 2008


susanharper: You really should have put a bit more effort into writing up your post, then. The only reason why I clicked on your links was because I was convinced that you're a self-linker/spammer and I was expecting to find some proof to this.
posted by daniel_charms at 7:39 AM on December 2, 2008


daniel, I don't know what you mean. I don't own a website or have posted article anywhere online. I just go to news sites and popular blogs, and read good valuable content. I don't even have account in many social networks. I am only starting to do various things in the net. So, how can you ever say I am a self-linker. Sorry to see you misunderstood me.

Burhanistan, I was looking at several posts by many people and felt compelled to post something great on the homepage as my share. That's the only reason I searched around. Thanks for your clarification though.
posted by susanharper at 7:50 AM on December 2, 2008


I often find I have problems with fitting tangents and side-thoughts into sentences. Trying to be short and choppy just makes me think of The Old Man and the Sea and doesn't work for long anyway. Which is to say: I prefer short but can't help myself.
posted by DU at 7:53 AM on December 2, 2008


Take a look at this famous sentence:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

It's doesn't run on forever, but we couldn't easily hide it in a Raymond Carver story, either. How could we shorten it?

We can't change "many years later" to "years later" without warping the meaning. Two years later is years later, but it's not many years later. And I don't see how we can compact "as he faced the firing squad." We could leave it out, I guess:

"Many years later, Colonel Aureliano Buendía..."

But then we lose the delicious tease -- the itch in the readers mind: "Wait! What firing squad? What does that mean? I'd better keep reading..."

Perhaps we could change "was to remember" to "remembered."

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

In a way, that does pin things down a bit better. It's a change worth arguing about. For my money, though, it looses some of the dreamlike quality that the original evokes so well. "Was to remember" matches "many years later" and "distant afternoon" by creating a sort of fairy-tale, long-ago-and-far-away feeling.

We could remove "distant," though it's a lovely sounding word. Check out the effect of doing that while keeping the last edit, too:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered that afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

We're mincing fewer words, but we're also losing the mystery and romance of the original. But I still think those edits worth discussing, worth mulling over. We should be careful about allowing ourselves to keep words in our sentences that we can do without, just because those words evoke a mood. That excuse allows writers to get away with crap like this:

"A long, long time ago, across the sea in a distant land, in a time when the world was lush and trees were hung with gorged, gorgeous fruit, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, man among men, paragon of virtue, lover to many, friend to many more, enemy to few, gazed at the wrathful, malevolent firing squad, recalling that distant yet ever-present afternoon in a time long past, a time that can never be reclaimed, a time before time had meaning, when days lasted forever and nights were always a long way off, when his father -- generous, at times strict, always comically eccentric -- took him on an epic journey, across hill and dale, through town and country, into many kingdoms and foreign empires, to that secret grotto where, together, they came upon their first sighting of that curious mixture of liquid and solid called ice."

What if we criticized the writer and he said, "You don't understand. I know all those words aren't strictly necessary, but I was evoking a mood."

When you write phrases like "distant afternoon" instead of just "afternoon," you need to weigh the pros and cons. More words can sometimes make things tougher to visualize. Green, toxic, bloated and hot are all fine words, but it's a little hard to picture a green, toxic, bloated, hot monster; it's much easier to picture a green monster or a bloated monster. On the other hand, "bloated monster" is a more striking (and specific) image than monster.

The key is that writers shouldn't try to express ideas or evoke moods. They should try to fire sensations. The end result might be an idea expressed or a mood evoked, but writers can't achieve ideas and moods things directly (they can't take an idea or a mood out of their heads and put them inside ours). They can only affect us through our senses. Imagination is linked to the sense organs. We imagine by remembering what it's like to sense. Writers can reverse that causation by firing our senses and thus making us imagine.

"Slavery is a great evil that stops man from reaching his full potential."

That doesn't fire the senses. In a literal way, it conveys an idea, but it's unlikely that the idea will affect readers. How can it penetrate them? It doesn't make them sense anything. A better approach is...

"If you whip the slave boy, he'll drop his chalk and never write that equation on the blackboard, the one that might unify the fields or cure your grandmother's cancer."

That's a longer sentence, but it's much more sensually evocative than the first one. As such, it stands a chance of sticking the reader's craw.
posted by grumblebee at 7:58 AM on December 2, 2008 [7 favorites]


Maybe it's because you can't calm down enough to say something correctly?
posted by Burhanistan at 7:58 AM on December 2, 2008


I hate redundancy and needless words.

I hate writers who write about the minutae of their craft. I'm always really surprised by how people who don't purport to be writers, but are really good at what they do can write about the tools of their work in ways that are fascinating and compelling to read. The guy talking about his gaming dice here a few days ago was a perfect example. (OK, that was spoken rather than written, but he could have penned a sub-literate account of the same material and it would be just as compelling.)

Yet whenever people who consider themselves 'writers' try to do it, they immediately lose sight of the elements that make a story interesting, and start providing boring quotes to illustrate technical points that nobody but them gives a flying fuck about.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:02 AM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Faulkner, the short and the long:

"The store in which the justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish - this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood."
posted by marxchivist at 8:03 AM on December 2, 2008


As with most things...it depends. If I asked what the current time is, I don't want to know how your watch was made. On the other hand, if I asked about the watch itself, then, by all means, delve into metallurgy.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:04 AM on December 2, 2008


I often find I have problems with fitting tangents and side-thoughts into sentences. Trying to be short and choppy just makes me think of The Old Man and the Sea and doesn't work for long anyway. Which is to say: I prefer short but can't help myself.

It helps to speak what you've written out loud. I do that with everything I write, even Metafiter posts and text messages (obsessive, I know). But don't just recite it. Speak it as if you're saying it to somebody over the phone and trying to hide the fact that you're reading. Would they believe it was extemporaneous?

When I was younger, I read a collection of short stories edited by Raymond Carver. Carver was enamored with one of the stories, because its opening sentence was "I steal." He called it a remarkable sentence, and there is something remarkable about the boldness of it. Back then, I was like "YEAH, man! That's fucking WRITING!" But now I have a hard time believing that Carver would have allowed such a sentence in one of his own stories, even though he admired it. You can read his stories aloud and they sound completely natural.

"I steal" doesn't. When have you ever heard anyone say anything like "I steal"? It's robotic.

I understand the urge. "Steal" is a strong verb. "I steal" is much more evocative than "I am a thief." But you need to find a way to be evocative while still sounding like a human being.

Or perhaps you don't. Does all writing have to sound like conversation? Probably not. But we should remember that conversation is powerful. I'm more likely to trust writing that sounds like my brother than writing that sounds like the computer on "Star Trek" or even writing that sounds "poetic." Which is to say if you're going to write non-conversationally -- and that includes writing in very short sentences (which is not the way people speak) -- you should think about why you're doing it. You're doing something unnatural. That's not necessarily bad, but why are you doing it?
posted by grumblebee at 8:10 AM on December 2, 2008


There's no obligation to make posts here, and no real benefit in doing so.

Ahem.
posted by Phanx at 8:20 AM on December 2, 2008


Yet whenever people who consider themselves 'writers' try to do it, they immediately lose sight of the elements that make a story interesting, and start providing boring quotes to illustrate technical points that nobody but them gives a flying fuck about.

You're exaggerating. I was a reader for years before I became a writer, and even back then I cared deeply about language and how people used it. I'm not alone, though it's fine if you and I are different that way.

Not caring about the details in writing is like not caring if a singer goes off key. Sure, I can still tell it's "Blue Moon" if it's sung badly, but I don't want to just know what song it is, I want to FEEL the song (without wincing).

I do take your point that many people, even if they want to fully-experience the song, don't care to hear that it's in three-four timing or A-flat. That's just a matter of taste and what you're interested in. This is a thread about writing, so we're discussing writing. If I happen to mention computer programming in this thread, I won't go into details about pointers and hexadecimal notation. It wouldn't be appropriate.

But I would like to read about the gaming dice. What post are you talking about?
posted by grumblebee at 8:21 AM on December 2, 2008


That sentence in Oliver Twist is my favorite out of the few thousand pages of Dickens I've read in the last few months.

That said, I don't think its genius is in its length: it doesn't strike me as particularly long (or long-winded, which might be more appropriate, given that we're talking about Dickens); the genius of that sentence is that it's gradually telling you that the subject of the sentence is completely unimportant. And yet, the subject of the sentence is not only the title of the chapter, he is also the protagonist of the story, and in some sense the most important thing in the book.

Sure, you might be able to accomplish that using shorter sentences. But Dickens does it so well in that one sentence that I'm willing to forgive him many instances of long-windedness, because it pays off so well occasionally. (Then again, I tend to write rather wordy sentences myself, so perhaps I'm biased.)
posted by grae at 8:22 AM on December 2, 2008


Interesting, yes. But the problem with this is that he takes an almost mathmatical approach to literature and to writing. I don't think Faulkner wrote long sentences as an excercise. They just worked for him. While for Hemingway short sentences worked. But mainly they were just good writers - so the length of their sentences was just a biproduct of the way they worked.
posted by Rashomon at 8:25 AM on December 2, 2008


It's not the length, it's the girth. Girth!
posted by fixedgear at 8:26 AM on December 2, 2008


It's a blog about sentence length. Is it worth to be placed on the front page?

But seriously, folks, these are a couple of interesting essays that I'm looking forward to reading. Let's cut susanharper a little slack, OK?
posted by orthogonality at 8:27 AM on December 2, 2008


Oh, I am so happy that my first post on front page attracted so many comments. Thanks for all those insightful comments, my dear friends. It's quite a work to read through them and answer. Thanks a lot.
posted by susanharper at 8:32 AM on December 2, 2008


I've been rereading a lot of David Foster Wallace lately. Now there's a man who knew how to write a sentence.
The only sound, except for Chris DeMatteis clicking and grinding his rear molars in his sleep, being that of Richard A. Johnson writing on the chalkboard, ostensibly about the XIIIth Amendment's abolition of Negro slavery, except instead it turned out that he was really writing KILL THEM KILL THEM ALL over and over again on the chalkboard (as my own eyes would register just moments later) in capital letters that got bigger and bigger with every letter, and the handwriting less and less like the sub's customary fluid script and more and more frightening and ultimately not even human looking, and not seeming to realize what he was doing or stopping to give any kind of explanation but only cocking his already oddly cocked head further and further over to the side, like somebody struggling might and main against some terrible type of evil or alien force that had ahold of him at the chalkboard and was compelling his hand to write things against his will, and making (I was not conscious of hearing this at the time) a strange, highpitched vocal noise that was something like a scream or moan of effort, except that it was evidently just one note or pitch maintained throughout, and stayed that way, with the sound coming out for longer than anyone can normally even hold their breath, while he remained facing the chalkboard so that no one yet could see what his expression looked like, and writing KILL KILL KILL THEM ALL KILL THEM DO IT NOW KILL THEM over and over again, the chalkboard's handwriting getting more and more jagged and gigantic and spiky, with one part of the board already completely filled with the repetitive phrase.
Trim that down without draining it of its energy. Can't be done.

Discussing whether sentences should be long or short is a bit like discussing whether artists should use blue paint or orange. I happen to like the warmth and brightness of orange, but it seems that many people's favorite color is blue!

Burhanistan, based on her profile I'm guessing english is not susanharper's first language. Maybe we can cut her some slack on the "saying things correctly" front?
posted by ook at 8:38 AM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


You know who wrote some long sentences? William Faulkner.

Man, when that guy got on a tear, there was no shutting him up.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:41 AM on December 2, 2008


But mainly they were just good writers - so the length of their sentences was just a biproduct of the way they worked.

Bingo. I would add that poor writers are far more likely to be overly verbose than too terse.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:44 AM on December 2, 2008


I don't think Faulkner wrote long sentences as an excercise. They just worked for him. While for Hemingway short sentences worked. But mainly they were just good writers - so the length of their sentences was just a biproduct of the way they worked.

I don't know enough about how either of them arrived at their style to make any definitive claim, but to me this seems similar to saying "Swirly brush strokes just worked for Van Goh" or "Geometric shapes just worked for Picasso." I think most great writers take their style very seriously, and really do think about the minor technical details of writing that most people take for granted.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:45 AM on December 2, 2008


I have put link to, too.

Making fun of someone who's profile says she lives in another country for not using standard US/UK English strikes me as a bit tacky, no? What she wrote is perfectly clear and readable, and her style makes an interesting counterpoint to a FPP about sentence length and structure (ie, it's a feature, not a bug).

Anyway, I'm fine with longish sentences, up to a point -- very few writers can really pull off the ultra-long sentences without causing real readability issues. Faulkner works well for me, while I find Dickens quite painful to read and wish he hadn't been paid by the word (or was that a myth perpetuated by my high school English teacher?). And conversely, not everyone can pull off the shorter and direct Hemingway style without just sounding choppy and abbreviated.

Good writing, for me, often feels natural, or transparent. Whether the sentences are long or short, they are the length they need to be for that situation. Bad writing feels forced, compressed into too-short sentences, or larded into dragged-out monstrosities.
posted by Forktine at 8:48 AM on December 2, 2008


grumblebee: Louis Zocchi talks about dice.
posted by BeerFilter at 8:56 AM on December 2, 2008


And I just happened to read first two sentences of one novel by Alistair Maclean: Bear Island. It begins so:

To even the least sensitive and perceptive beholder the Morning Rose, at this stage of her long and highly chequered career, must have seemed ill-named, for if ever a vessel could fairly have been said to be approaching, if not actually arrived at, the sunset of her days it was this one.

I find it interesting because Mac Lean uses no advanced conjunction constructions in this. Only commas with which he construed such long sentence. Which other author you can suggest that goes about like this. And OOK: That David Foster Wallace sentence was a whopper. Thanks for the share.
posted by susanharper at 8:57 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


As a point of information, susanharper's profile was empty when she posted this, so there were no clues to her background. I looked.
posted by BeerFilter at 9:04 AM on December 2, 2008


As a point of information, susanharper's profile was empty when she posted this, so there were no clues to her background. I looked.

So did I, and combined with the very English/American sounding name I simply concluded it was a poorly constructed and edited sentence.

posted by Burhanistan at 9:13 AM on December 2, 2008


A sentence is like a penis--it is easy to eliminate waste with a short one, but a long one demands better technique.
Total frustration sets in if the reader perceives that the author is the only one getting off.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:20 AM on December 2, 2008


Seconding le morte de bea arthur. This reeks of fake.
posted by rusty at 9:40 AM on December 2, 2008


Fair 'nuff -- and I confess that when I first wrote the paint-in-orange-or-blue gag it was more directly parodying the post's verbal style, and I only changed it after peeking at her profile... so it's a little snotty of me to be digging at you for the same thing. Sorry.
posted by ook at 9:40 AM on December 2, 2008


As with most things in life, I suspect that the key is to find a balance. You want to give people room to breathe - which all the stops and starts of short sentences allow - but you also want to sweep people along and keep things moving - which a rush of words helps with.

Even as much as people want to hold writers like Hemingway and Faulkner up as examples of extremes, I'm sure you could quite easily find long sentences or short sentences in both of their books. For example, Faulkner often wrote in stream of conscious dialect, and a lot of his 'simpler' characters quite naturally spoke in shorter, simpler sentences. Hemingway's style is noticeably different between pulpy novels like "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and more character driven novels like "A Farewell to Arms", because he adapted his form to fit his function. Writers don't reach that level of impact and acclaim without having a fully fleshed out style, and you can't have a fully fleshed out style if you exclusively use one type of sentence; that's like being a great carpenter despite having only a hammer. You need nails, too.

Mostly, however, I agree with the person who stresses that good writing should sound conversational. Natural storytelling - especially verbal storytelling - falls into rhythm quite easily: people pause for breath, they slow down to think of the next step, they give the audience a place to laugh or gasp - but then they also speed up when something exciting is happening, and they pile on words to emphasize a point. When something is really cooking, people hate to pause because they want to get to whats next.

I don't like a lot of writers who write using excessively long sentences - writers like, say, Thomas Pynchon - but that's because their books always feel like books to me. I can't imagine someone ever saying those things, and I can't hear them out loud; its very hard to be so composed so steadily in a real conversation. But when I look at writers I do like - writers like, say, Hunter S. Thompson - it isn't necessarily because the language is simpler or the ideas are simpler, its because the words sing to me. While Pynchon always feels cerebral to me, I can hear the emotions moving and switching in Thompson - the under the breath mutterings, the fierce torrents of passion, the brief moments of collected rationality, the jolt of an unpleasant realization, the brief attraction to a tangent - you can hear it as the voice of a person talking in real time, processing information as it comes available, stopping to understand sometimes and moving forward as the urge hits him.

Yes, I think that balancing the cerebral and the visceral is probably the best route to go.
posted by Kiablokirk at 9:50 AM on December 2, 2008


Variety is best. We're grownups and diversity is OK.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:52 AM on December 2, 2008


This would have easily gotten Best Post of December if she had written it like so:

Long and short of it continues in part 2, and I loved reading the first part of this series so it now has the second part that I have put link to; long and short of it goes deeper into an important topic: Whether we should have a long sentence or a short one when describing things-- though personally I would well go with the long sentence as written by Charles Dickens on his novel Oliver Twist a century ago but it seems quite a few people prefer short ones, what's your take on this?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:08 AM on December 2, 2008


I always feel that there's two things being encoded in a long sentence: the meaning of the sentence itself, and the fact that the writer, clever chap that he is, is capable of producing one gargantuan behemoth of a sentence where several short ones would convey just as much, which I feel is rather rude in the same way that it would be rude for the cinema projectionist to ostentatiously demonstrate his skill - if he's doing it right, I should be unaware of his existence and while I'm sure the subtle points of these matters are fascinating for those skilled in the art, I read primarily to be absorbed in a work, and only secondarily to geek out over technical details like syntax and structure, so making the sentences so long that it gets gimmicky not only commits the cardinal sin of making me aware of the existence of an Author*, it exacerbates it by making the bloody thing unreadable, resulting in an experience akin to listening to talentless goth Vogon poetry - not only painful in itself, but compounded by being required to appreciate it.

Sentences fragments on the other hand. I love them.

Too much.

* I don't know why I have this antipathy, and I also don't know why I love Douglas Adams despite the fact that he does everything that I normally don't like. I guess comedy is allowed to break the fourth wall. (The third cover?)
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:02 AM on December 2, 2008


Sentences should be as precisely long or as short as they need to be.
The criteria changes from sentence to sentence.



does that work?
posted by Spatch at 11:04 AM on December 2, 2008


Not quite, Spatch. Criteria is plural. Your sentence was one letter too long.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:12 AM on December 2, 2008


He had meant to write "cafeteria".
posted by cortex at 11:18 AM on December 2, 2008


in the same way that it would be rude for the cinema projectionist to ostentatiously demonstrate his skill

I get your main point, but assuming I would want a cinema projectionist to ostentatiously demonstrate his skill, how would he do so? By projecting a movie?
posted by grumblebee at 11:24 AM on December 2, 2008


Two points: are we only referring to fiction? Why does Henry James do one thing ande Georges Simenon, another? Emily Dickinson, not a bad poet, keeps things short; Whitman, very long.It is not the count that matters but what each trying to accomplish.

Go back a bit in time. You will find very very long paragraphs and very very long sentences. But as we come close to the Age of Metafilter, we find that all things are shorter, punchier, direct. Why?

Remember the telegraph. stop. It saved words. stop. to save $$$ stop. And now, txt msg?
that aboive is now three things when i said I had two. So it goes. stop.
posted by Postroad at 11:29 AM on December 2, 2008


grumblebee:

Director might have been a much better choice there... For the sake of the thought experiment, imagine a projectionist who's really a DJ, and feels free to de-sync sound and video for ironic juxtaposition and play around with focus for drink/drugs sequences. Now that I think about it, it could be kind of cool... but in the majority of cases I reckon it would get old in seconds. They're supposed to do their job and be invisible. I'm sure there's a canonical job where "If I'm doing it right, you don't notice my existence" but I can't for the life of me think of it at the moment.

Having said that, Children of Men has what you could call the film version of a long elegant sentence. If you know about it, you may think, "wow, cool directing", but if you don't, the scene loses nothing. To me, that's the essence of how to do clever stuff.

If I'm reading and I start to think "That was really clever" about the structure, it breaks the spell. That stuff's for the second reading, once the ideas, characterisation, and plot have convinced me to have one.

Incidentally I am not, have never been, and will never be a writer, so my perspective may well be hopelessly uninformed.

My bartender isn't too keen on me either.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2008


If I'm reading and I start to think "That was really clever" about the structure, it breaks the spell. That stuff's for the second reading, once the ideas, characterisation, and plot have convinced me to have one.

That's my #2 rule of storytelling. #1 is TELL THE STORY. Number #2 is DON'T BE TOO CLEVER.

This has become somewhat easy for me when I'm working solo. When I'm collaborating (I'm a theatre director), it's always hard. One of the actors will come up with something really cool. The rest of the company will be impressed and think it's really cool, too. At which point I axe it. They want to know why, of course, and I have to tell them that I'm axing it because it's too cool. It calls attention to itself. It's less about "Oh my God! Fred is being attacked by a dragon!" than it is about "Wow! It's really cool how the actors made it seem like a dragon is attacking Fred."

It's very hard for people to understand how "too cool" can be a bad thing. It's not objectively bad. It's only bad if your goal is to TELL THE STORY. If your goal is to give the audience a thrill ride composed of random, cool things, then you should go with whatever is coolest. That's the difference between a story and a carnival attraction. Many people prefer carnival attractions to stories.

Audiences often do. Like everyone else, they love the cool stuff. That's natural. But if you see your job as Protector of the Story, there are lots of darlings that you have to kill, no matter how many people think they are cool. It's tough when you've axed something that a test audience loves. The actors will cry, "But they laughed! They laughed!"
posted by grumblebee at 12:41 PM on December 2, 2008


Dude likes long sentences. Likes to count words too. Kind of interesting.

Nice post, susanharper; you're being very gracious, and in return people are backing off from their auto-snark. That's what I like to see here.

Except, of course:

Seconding le morte de bea arthur. This reeks of fake.

Try not to be any more of a jerk than you have to be, OK?

posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on December 2, 2008


I'm sure there's a canonical job where "If I'm doing it right, you don't notice my existence" but I can't for the life of me think of it at the moment.

Hello, and welcome to the Department of Homeland Security: Terrorism Prevention Unit.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:47 PM on December 2, 2008


"If I'm doing it right, you don't notice my existence"
garbageman
butler
spy
sysadmin
hacker
air traffic controller
proofreader
structural engineer
busboy
ninja
posted by ook at 7:41 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting post, good links. But SusanHarper: It's sort of considered bad form to moderate your own threads, so don't feel like you need to "answer" the comments in this.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:44 AM on December 3, 2008


joseph girl, I am a new member here. So, just felt that since I posted this content, I have an obligation to answer these comments from my side. But an experienced Mefi member, beerfilter took trouble to write to me about it and said I needn't take the trouble. Thanks for your comment.
posted by susanharper at 7:11 AM on December 3, 2008


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