The High-Wire Act

How to string your reader along

Sometimes sentences just need to be long. The world resists our efforts to enclose it between a capital and a full stop. Why, Malcolm Bowie asks, does Proust write such long, vermiform sentences, always subdividing then reassembling, loath to come to rest? Because, he says, they mimic the workings of desire and the neurotic rereading of situations we make when we are in love. Their denial and shaky restoration of meaning is “Eros become visible.” Such sentences are like “all speculation, all mental efforts to make headway, in a resistant medium, toward a desired goal.” They withhold their end because life is like that, refusing to fold itself neatly into subject, verb, and object. 

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two. I once heard Ken Dodd say that the secret of a great comedian is that he makes the audience feel simultaneously safe and slightly on edge. He has about half a minute from coming on stage, Dodd reckoned, to establish that he is harmless. He must quickly convey calm and control, so that the audience members relax into their seats, safe in the knowledge that nothing truly awkward is about to happen. But he must also create a sense of unpredictability that makes them lean forward. A good sentence has that same tension. It should frustrate readers just a little, and put them just faintly on edge, without ever suggesting that it has lost command of what is being said. 

A sentence, once begun, demands its own completion. It throws a thought into the air and leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied until that thought has come in to land. We read a sentence with the same part of our brains that processes music. Like music, a sentence arrays its elements into an order that should seem fresh and surprising and yet shaped and controlled. It works by violating expectations and creating mild frustrations on the way to fulfillment. As it runs its course, it assuages some of the frustration and may create more. But by the end, things should have resolved themselves in a way that allows something, at least, to be said.

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A long sentence can seem thrillingly out of breath, deliciously tantalizing, so long as we feel the writer is still in charge. It is like listening to a great singer as he holds his breath and prolongs a phrase. The secret to Frank Sinatra’s singing is his gift for fluid phrasing. Matt Monro may have had better technique, Tony Bennett more lung power, Nat King Cole a smoother tone, Bobby Darin more swing. But Sinatra beat them all at breathing. As a young singer, Sinatra listened awestruck to his bandleader Tommy Dorsey’s astoundingly smooth trombone playing. The note holds seemed to defy human lung capacity. Dorsey would play a musical phrase right through, seemingly without taking a breath, for eight or even sixteen bars. Sinatra sat behind him on the bandstand to learn when and how he breathed, but could not even see his jacket move up and down. Eventually he worked out that Dorsey had a pinhole in the corner of his mouth through which he was taking furtive breaths. Sinatra came to see that singing, too, was about breath control and that the secret was never to break the phrase. In music, legato means “bound together”: a seamless flow, with no break between the notes. Sinatra wanted to sing legato, running the whole phrase into one smooth breath.

He worked out on running tracks and practiced holding his breath underwater in public pools, thinking song lyrics to himself as he swam. His breath control got better and, where he had to breathe in a song, he got better at hiding it. He moved the microphone toward and away from his mouth as he sang so that you never heard him inhale. If he had to sneak in a little breath somewhere he made sure it seemed deliberate, as if he were letting the message sink in. He learned this trick from watching the horn section in Dorsey’s band during long instrumentals. When he sang, it sounded as if he was making it all up as he went along, pausing to pluck a word out of the air, lagging a fraction behind the beat—like a long, lithe sentence, ad libitum but always in control of what it was saying.

Unlike writing, which runs with its own irregular pulse, music has a regular rhythm with a steady downbeat. Musical meter controls time completely: a half note hangs in the air for exactly half as long as the whole note. This allows harmonizing singers and instruments to pursue separate agendas and yet still pleasurably coincide. But music also depends on phrasing, which is more subtle and varied than meter. A musical phrase lasts for about as long as a person can sing, or blow a wind instrument, in a single breath. What phrasing does to music is more like what a sentence does to words. A skilled singer can make the phrasing, the sentence structure of a song, work with or against the meter.

Pub crooners and karaoke singers never sing in sentences. They focus too much on lung power and hitting the notes and not enough on the words. They just belt it all out, taking gulping breaths midline, killing the meaning and the mood. But skilled singers know that the words matter. They might hold a note for effect, or add a bit of melisma, but mostly their phrasing will mirror the way the words of the song would be spoken. Songs are written in sentences, and phrasing is about singing in sentences, not song lines.

A phraseologist like Sinatra overlays the meter with something like confiding speech. He is all about the lyrics— you can hear him enunciate every syllable— and it feels as if he is saying as well as singing them to you, stretching out and twisting the pitch of words as we do in speech. Sinatra sings in sentences. Perhaps he hated rock ’n’ roll for this reason, not because he thought it ugly and degenerate, as he said, but because it did not care about the sentences. The rhythm of rock ’n’ roll always drowns out the syntax. Even a great phrasemaker like Chuck Berry has to make his sentences fit the backbeat.

It always irked me that in record shops Sinatra was filed under “easy listening,” the suggestion being that his songs were as undemanding as elevator music, and best heard as the background buzz in a cocktail lounge. Another unfashionable singer filed in the same section, and whom I unfashionably loved, was Karen Carpenter. The emotional power of Carpenter’s singing comes not so much from her vocal tone, gorgeous as that is, but from the fact that she, like Sinatra, sings in sentences. Singing for as long as she does on one breath, in complete sentences over twisting melodies, is an amazing feat—not just of lung capacity but of tricking her throat into thinking that she is not about to swallow.

By the end of a Carpenters song you feel wrung out, as if someone has emptied their heart in front of you. All that has happened is that you have been sucker punched by the dexterity of a technical virtuoso, effortlessly unspooling a long sentence. Easy listening is hard singing—and easy reading is hard writing.

From First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran, to be published on August 13, 2019 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Joe Moran.

About the Author

Joe Moran

Joe Moran is a professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University.

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