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I'm writing a story targeted towards children in which the protagonist is a young girl. I find that in writing her dialog and the narrative, I'm producing a lot of very long sentences, to the point that an entire paragraph may be seven or eight lines long, but consisting of a single sentence. It feels stylistic to me, sort of relating to the youth and impetuousness of the main character. It's not that the entire thing is written this way; these very long sentences tend to occur at times where the character is upset, or very busy, or rushed, or has a lot going on. I wasn't thinking about it specifically when I was writing them, they just came out naturally as I wrote, but I think they are meant to convey the mood a bit.

Or am I just rationalizing poor writing?

A few examples:

In context, the main character ("Antimony") is upset and thinking about other times she was upset:

And once in the kitchen, when Antimony devised what she thought would be a very clever recipe for a cake which she wanted to make for her mother's birthday, where instead of using baking powder, she would use paprika so the cake would be all red and beautiful, and instead of eggs and milk, she would use eggs and orange juice because everyone knows that orange juice goes better with eggs than milk does.

A few lines later:

And when the timer dinged and Antimony opened the oven and carefully pulled out the oven rack and saw what had happened, she cried because she had been so excited about her clever recipe, and because she wanted so badly to surprise her mother with a nice brithday cake, and because it had taken so much work and she was very tired and now she had nothing to show for it, and because anyway she didn't even have a present to give to her mother now.

An unrelated example:

The work was good to focus on to keep her mind off her troubles---especially once she was done gathering the wood and no longer had to wander around so much---and in no time at all she had a small fire going, which turned into a bigger fire, and then an even bigger fire, and then a fire which was a bit too large and she had to poke at the logs with a long stick to move them about the right way so that it would settle down.

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I would actually say that's rather good writing. Stylistic. So long as it doesn't dominate the entire narrative, in which case it would definitely take its toll on the reader. – Aerovistae Jan 5 '13 at 18:50 The novel consists of 40,000 words written in two sentences, with nearly no punctuation, making it an exercise in constrained writing. The second sentence contains only four words "And they marched all night" – SF. Jan 6 '13 at 15:15

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think it largely depends on what kind of "children's book" we're talking about. If this is a book for teenagers (or even "tweenagers"), then it is an excellent way to convey a feeling of restlessness or stress. If we're talking about younger audiences, it might be dangerous simply because the sentences could be confusing to the reader, invoking in them an actual feeling of distress.

I see nothing wrong with the style, but relatively "new" readers might find trouble deciphering it.

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Great, thanks for the help. It's targeted towards slightly older readers, probably like 8 to 12 years old or so, so I don't think it will be too challenging for them. – sh1ftst0rm Jan 5 '13 at 23:57

I'd have to see these excerpts in context of her thoughts in other situations, but I think if you're doing it deliberately to mimic her feelings and thoughts, it's fine. It feels like nervous-energy stream-of-consciousness, and if that's what you're aiming for, you have it down nicely.

If you're trying for a slightly silly book, I'd even ramp it up a bit more and throw in some hyperbole:

The work was good to focus on to keep her mind off her troubles—especially once she was done gathering the wood and no longer had to wander around so much—and in no time at all she had a small fire going, which turned into a bigger fire, and then an even bigger fire, and then a ripping great fire, and then a fire which was really rather too large for her taste, thank you very much, and she had to rush about and find a really long stick so she could poke at the logs and spread them out so they'd settle down and behave themselves like proper firewood logs ought to, which is to say burn respectably and give off some heat and light and not try to set the woods ablaze.

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Thanks for the idea. It's not quite that silly, but I appreciate the help! – sh1ftst0rm Jan 5 '13 at 23:54

Actually, this is the only situation where run-on sentences should be used (and work better than short sentences). In ordinary situations they should be avoided like the plague, but if you really want to translate that the character is tired or nervous or upset, run-on sentences are the way to go. Especially tired or rushed, because the reader will also be slightly out of breath, so to say, after reading the whole sentence (and tired after reading several of them), which is actually something we want in this case. So I'd say you're good, don't change a thing ;)

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By default, my writing style idiosyncratically entails long sentences. It feels natural to write as I think and speak. It's more a matter of rhythm for me than anything else. Though I can't substantiate this, I sense that it allows me to permeate the reader's or listener's subconscious mind more effectively.

Incidentally, I was once asked by a member of another Stack Exchange community to reduce my sentence length. I obliged despite not being in concurrence with his request (refer to the edit version history and comments of the question):

As illustrated at the preceding link, some reader's may find such sentences to be mentally exasperating though I don't believe that that you should construe this as a sufficient justification for curtailing or adapting one's writing style.

My only advice, based on subjective experience, is to be mindful of the dangling modifiers that contrived sentences are prone to paving to the way to.

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not at all a problem. At least w/in the contxt of these examples. Just make sure your story has a variety of paces and rhythms (one metric of which is sentence length) so you don't get boring.

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Young narrators often think, and string their sentences together, paratactically -- short independent clauses joined by conjunctions: We went to the zoo and we saw a lion and then we saw a monkey and the monkey threw some bananas at the people and we thought it was funny but then he ran at the bars and screamed and I was scared . . . " That's a pretty young narrator.

The older the narrator is, the more they will tend toward hypotaxis -- embedding one idea within another, using independent and subordinate clauses, and so on.

Of course, there will be something in between, depending on the age of the narrator. I think the notion of following the stream of consciousness works here.

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