The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog
Another story I absolutely love is Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters, Because They Are Terrifying” which first appeared in Tin House 61 (which is where I read it) and then appeared in Monstrous Affections and IS available online in Audio form on The Catapult (linked above in the image) and starts at about 5:40. It’s even read by Alice Sola Kim, which is super cool. It’s an incredible and super creepy story, and everyone should read it. I’m going to talk about one of the elements that really got my attention: the style. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can.
Confession time: I have a bad habit. What! Another one?
Yes. Since I took a class on syntax in college, I have been obsessed with long sentences. This only grew worse after I read 100 Years of Solitude, of which I have a beautiful, forest green, hardcover, gold-leaf-paged copy. But what I found in writing long sentences was that, despite how incredible they seemed in other people’s stories, when I wrote them, they mucked up my prose. Sometimes they made my prose a challenge to read, or they unnecessarily obfuscated my purpose. They buried important details.
Another problem they gave me was that a long sentence often just whisked away the authority of my prose. Long sentences felt wordy and flaccid. No punch.
That’s two problems.
But then, I whined, how do other authors do it?
People. Folks. Go listen to this story. It is terrifying. But not gory–so no worries there. But just viscerally unnerving in the best way. Also, while you’re at it, subscribe to Tin House, because they publish some amazing stuff in such a huge range, plus it only comes out 4 times a year, so totally low commitment.
Alice Sola Kim has outdone herself with this story. She was already incredible but this story is denser, more vivid, and more heartfelt than anything I’ve ever read by her. It’s about a group of four adopted Korean girls who miss their birth mothers, and decide to do something about it. That simple. Each character is so vivid on the page. It’s a really great study of how people who have a lot in common can still react differently to their lives. Nature? Nurture?
This is not the place for that debate.
But beyond a doubt this story boasts one of the finest styles of prose I’ve encountered. It has voice, authority, density, depth–all of this despite it’s long sentences.
Reading the story through a couple of times, a pattern becomes clear that I’m sure I’ve seen in other stories, and pertains to the issue of long sentences that obfuscate purpose and make prose confusing.
Each time Kim switches to a new scene and sets the mood, she does it using short sentences. This starts with the very first sentence, and is used throughout at every line break. Simple sentences like “There are so many ways to miss your mother” and “Mom skipped around” and “At first we found mom highly scary” give level of clarity. From there, each section seems to allow the length of sentences to grow, to build almost naturally until they become more complex, but then also each paragraph winds back down into short sentences for a punchy final moment to each ‘graph. Another key point is that the long sentences are usually in regards to things we basically understand on a human level: the lives of the girls, how they communicate with each other, etc. Paragraphs whose topics are hard to understand are written exclusively in short sentences: the explanation of the novum, the girls fears.
Long sentences allow us to glean information subconsciously–subtle foreshadowing can be worked into a complex sentence, as well as characterization tidbits that are important to pick up on some level, but not hyper important to the story. But important bits, story mechanics, fear are all brought to the forefront with short sentences.
So on to problem #2: how do authors use long sentences that have authority.
Here’s an 88-word sentence: “You could even say that Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness if you counted the fact that she was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline–Mini for being the kind of girl who tries to look ugly on purpose and thinks it looks great (ooh, except it did look kinda great), her torn sneakers and one thousand silver earrings and chewed-up hair, and Caroline of the sweetly titled eyes and cashmere sweater dress and ballet flats like she was some pampered cat turned human” (Tin House 61, p. 17).
Personally, I think this is a great sentence. A couple things are helping it along: First, the sentence is actually set up by the sentence before it, which introduces, in a more controlled way, the idea of “split consciousness.” Also, it’s good to note that the sentence largely serves to build and evoke the characters which is suitable for this long sentence because while the evocation is important to the story, the individual details are not so necessary to have ready. If it were written in shorter sentences, these details would take on strange emphasis. (“Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness. She was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline.) This is, of course, because each period serves as a point where the reader stops to recollect, to bring the sentence’s information into their understanding of the story, putting special emphasis on the final few words.
But what makes this sentence authoritative? What makes it gripping?
The main technique I take away from this is that the first part of the sentence before the em-dash actually structures the second half of the sentence. “…both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline” creates this sense of a long sentence because the second half has 4 things to expand upon, 4 activities. Because of this setup, we can follow the sentence even though it’s pretty dense with colloquialisms and compound adjectives.
And that leads in to what I think really gives the sentence its authority: word density.
So many details are crammed into this 88 word sentence. It gives us a full sense of two of the major characters in the story using a bunch of adjectives all clumped together in a way that wouldn’t make sense unless we were clued into the structure before hand.
Another thing that helps the sentence retain density is that while the sentence is long, the clauses/phrases are often short. Of the 88 words, 11 of them are conjunctions. This splits the sentence up into mini moments that allow us to pick up the material in little doses, in a kind of rushed way.
Density of verbs and adjectives along with the short length of the clauses and phrases really sells this sentence. It’s important to take care to keep your clauses manageably short, and to build to your long sentences, rather than jumping into them right away.
Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read.