To start this out, this is a sentence from Dragon's Curse:
He wasn’t certain exactly what but something to let her know he was grateful for the torment she had endured for him and by him; he couldn’t imagine going on without her in his life; and looking at her—her ridiculous, upturned nose, her befuddling brown eyes, and her hair he knew had to be silken soft if he could find an excuse to touch it—looking at her over the last month or so had become his favorite guilty pleasure.
In case you are too tired to count, that sentence has (depending on how you count words) 79 words. In ONE sentence. Just so you know, I am guilty of the writing crime I'm about to condemn. I messed with that sentence for a long while before finally giving up and putting it in the book in its rambling state. I kept it mainly because it fit with the character's state of mind in that scene, a little confused and breathless, so yeah, there are exceptions to rules. Sometimes a long sentence is a good sentence (though, since I am the writer of that sentence, I wouldn't be the best judge as to whether it is good or not).
I think growing up, you start to associate short sentences with childish writing and long, rambling sentences with lots of extra punctuation with grown-up writing. This is why a lot of writers give in to long, rambling sentences with multiple ideas strung together. It feels "smart" to write complex sentences . . . or if you're like me, it may be how you naturally think and talk, in an endless loop of one thing leading to another until you're like, "How did I end up with a cup of coffee in the kitchen? I came downstairs to vacuum the living room."
However, for balance what a piece really needs is a good mix of sentence lengths. (cue infograph by Gary Provost you can see below)
So here are a few ideas to help you tame the wild anaconda sentences.
- Keep ideas that you want to have big impact in short, punchy sentences. Then expand on those ideas in longer sentences after that. He broke her heart. All the lies, broken promises, and forgotten birthdays, she could've put up with, but when he told her he didn't like Star Wars, she just couldn't be with him any more.
- Unless ideas are very interconnected, try to keep to one idea per sentence. Don't strain your conjunctions trying to shove unrelated ideas together.
- One place you really want to use shorter sentences is probably action sequences. Action sequences are about doing. They should have a slightly breathless, rapid feel to them. In slower segments, you can get away with longer sentences.
- Variety is key. It's okay to have a long sentence or even multiple longer sentences, but when every sentence is a long one, they start to lose the reader.
- Make sure it is easy to pinpoint the subject of the sentence the whole way through. If at the end of the sentence, you've started to forget what the beginning of the sentence was about, it's probably too long.