We’re constantly told that short sentences are better. Fit one idea in a sentence, stop before you get to 25 words and you won’t go far wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the odd six line monster.
One of my favourite ever sentences (copywriter – guilty) is from Nick Hornby’s autobiography Fever Pitch. In it, a 15-year-old Hornby goes to Derby to watch Arsenal in the FA Cup. Mindful of terrace hooligans, Hornby is keen to see Arsenal win, but also aware that a drab draw would increase his chances of getting back to London in one piece.
Enter Charlie George, the iconic Arsenal striker who suddenly has a great chance to score. Hornby grudgingly accepts that the safety of the Arsenal fans should not have been a consideration as George duly tucked away the opportunity.
“But whether it was absolutely essential to celebrate by running over to the Derby fans – in whose snarling, southern poof-hating, Cockney baiting, skinheaded, steel-toecapped company we were obliged to spend the rest of the afternoon, and through whose hostile, alleywayed territory we were obliged to scuttle after the final whistle – and making an unambiguous take-that-you-provincial-fuckers V-sign … this was much more opaque.”
I love that sentence. Over the course of 68 words Hornby manages to not only explain the background of the situation but also capture the hatred and antagonism of the crowd. ‘Take-that-you provincial-fuckers,’ signals the bursting point of a furnace that’s been brewing for the last few lines. The violence that follows seems natural and inevitable.
“He got booed off the pitch and fined by the FA; we got chased all the way to our train, bottles and cans cascading around our ears. Cheers, Charlie.”
So, thought of the day? If you want to build tension, use a long and rambling list that constantly points the way to the upcoming excitement. Otherwise, stick to your nice, short sentences and everyone will understand what’s going on.