I remember a lesson at infant’s school, as it was then called, when I was – oooh – six years old, where we’d been drawing hexagons on paper then had to paint them different colours. I suppose it must have been one of those trendy lessons where the teachers are teaching two subjects in one lesson, in this case geometry then art. Anyway, as I was getting on to the painting bit, the teacher held up another pupil’s work for praise, particularly admiring how she hadn’t just used bright colours, but had thrown in a bit of black and grey too. I promptly laid aside my blues and greens and coloured the rest of the hexagons in black and grey. This went on the wall with the others, without comment. The teacher was too kind to draw my stupidity to my attention. Which was fine, because I could see it for myself and I had learned the importance of contrast.
The same holds true for short sentences. Teachers are often telling their pupils to vary sentences for effect, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to use short sentences sometimes. This is very appealing to the sort of pupil who likes to keep things simple and maybe struggles with punctuation. Short sentences can be effective. They can be used too much, though. This makes the work flow less. It’s also sort of tedious. A great deal of the effect of a short sentence lies in its contrast with the longer sentences around it.
There are two examples in our Steinbeck extract, underlined in the passage below.
As the evening deepened, I walked with Charley among his mountains of delight to the brow of the hill and looked down on the little valley below. It was a disturbing sight. I thought too much driving had distorted my vision or addled my judgment, for the dark earth below seemed to move and pulse and breath. It was not water but it rippled like a black liquid. I walked quickly down the hill to iron out the distortion. The valley floor was carpeted with turkeys, it seemed like millions of them, so densely packed that they covered the earth. It was a great relief. Of course, this was a reservoir for Thanksgiving.
P115, Travels with Charley, Mandarin, London, 1991
The first short sentence here comes after a long first sentence and abruptly changes the tone. There’s a gentle pastoral tone here, with the deepening evening, and that pleasant sounding brow and valley; it’s quite homely too, with the hills described as ‘his [the poodle’s] mountains of delight, and even the valley is ‘the little valley’. Suddenly though, looking on that valley, there is ‘a disturbing sight’. The tone thereafter is quite un-homely, as something weird and ugly appears in the valley below, and the next two sentences are full of the vocabulary of distortion and strange movement.
The second short sentence has exactly the opposite effect: now that he has figured out what the ‘black liquid’ is, there is nothing too disturbing about the turkeys. ‘Great relief’, a comic exaggeration of his feelings, sounds ever so slightly colloquial here. After a passage where things were going a bit H.P. Lovecraft, we’re back to the commonplace – if no longer idyllic – Wisconsin scenery. Phew!