Are five-word sentences the gospel truth?

Here’s a bland New York Times op-ed making the somewhat uncontroversial point that short sentences are good.  Particularly after long sentences.  Particularly at the end of paragraphs and chapters and novels.  This doesn’t seem like breaking news.  The author starts off with a pretty good story, though:

I learned an important lesson, somewhat unwittingly, on July 19, 1975, while watching an interview with two of my favorite writers, William F. Buckley Jr. and Tom Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe was making fun of an art critic who had begun an essay with the sentence “Art and ideas are one.”

“Now, I must give him credit for this,” said Mr. Wolfe. “If you ever have a preposterous statement to make … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.”

If that’s true, maybe I should end everything with a five-word sentence.

It turns out my writing group spent some time considering a six-word sentence I used to end a chapter of the novel I’m writing.  Here’s the sentence:

And then I heard the screams.

Pretty good, huh?  But folks were worried that readers would infer that multiple people were screaming, rather than one person screaming multiple times, which is what I intended.  Well, maybe. So someone suggested:

And then I heard the screaming.

But that didn’t seem to solve the original problem.  And it added an extra syllable to the sentence.  I didn’t like that extra syllable.  So we ended up with:

And then I heard the scream.

That solved the problem of multiple people screaming.  But it was somehow less powerful than the image of the narrator hearing scream after scream.

That’s where we left it.  Staring at the pixels, I’m tempted to make the last word plural once again.  Back where we started.  Maybe I should drop the “And” at the beginning.  That’ll give me the magic five-word sentence.  I could probably spend a lot of time figuring this out.

That’s why writing is fun.

5 thoughts on “Are five-word sentences the gospel truth?

  1. And then the screaming started.

    That’s five words, and doesn’t require you to confront your steely-eyed editors at work. You may find other reasons to dislike it, but it’s five words. And five words are gospel truth.


  2. Pingback: Rules for writing — Rule 12: End a chapter with a bang, not a whimper | richard bowker

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