I understand that short sentences are a way to build tension. Do long sentences have a defined emotional impact in fiction writing?
+1 to DPT for the rhythm notes.
Do long sentences have a defined emotional impact in fiction writing?
Often it is just the opposite of building tension, it is the relief of tension. Long sentences require more mental effort to parse and understand, this fact suggests we (readers) can relax and invest that effort. Their existence implies we have reached a time for contemplation, or feeling emotion. Not the time for action or battle or emergency.
As DPT notes, you want to mix it up, but the presence of some long sentences is enough to give this signal.
In exposition longer sentences can be used to describe a scene, or character feelings, or character activities that are not particularly urgent.
In dialogue, long sentences are used when characters need to explain something or instruct other characters or tell a story. The fact that they are long is an indication to other characters (and the reader) that there is no immediate urgency, it is a time to understand something more nuanced than the progression of a battle.
Just as longer sentences require more mental effort to understand, they take more mental effort to compose. So long sentences with clauses and conditional dependencies and conclusions are also an indication of the complex thought we expect from most reasonably intelligent people. Whereas, a heavy reliance on short declaratory sentences is usually understood to indicate very shallow thinking or an inability to think complex thoughts.
A good way to find the most meaningful answer for yourself is to pick up your favorite book and see what effect long sentences have on you.
One purpose of sentence length is to provide rhythm in a story. Consider the following:
The workday ended. She went home. The door was open. Nervous, she looked around. No one was there. Everything seemed safe. Maybe the wind blew it open. She locked the door. The deadbolt jammed. It needed oil. Damn this house. It always needed upkeep.
Blocky. Hopefully you see that?
The workday ended, and she went home. The door was open. Nervous, she looked around, but no one was here and everything seemed safe--maybe the wind blew it open. She locked the door but the deadbolt jammed. It needed oil. Damn this house, she thought, it always needed upkeep.
More rhythmic. That's the main purpose of different sentence lengths, and to me, longer sentences provide flow. But I urge you to read your favorite book and find your own response to long sentences.
This question is a little like asking if you should use long or short bolts when building a bridge – it might be useful in a specific context, but an actual bridge will require many methods of construction, each at the appropriate point along the bridge.
If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The key to developing a good narrative voice is learning all the tools (craft) and then deciding when to use them (art).
What is narrative voice?
Different from a 1st-person narrator, the narrative voice transmits tone and style, often in counterpoint to the action and dialog.
A narrator can be unreliable. They can lie and they can be wrong.
The narrative voice can signal what the characters don't say. Characters can go through near-death experiences, but if the narrative voice is laughing, we are too. It tells us what's really important by setting the tone.
In cinema, the equivalent is the camera "eye" showing a different narrative than the actors and dialog.
When the characters and narrative voice are signaling different things, the reader experiences tension from the dissonance. The situation is unstable. The reader knows something the protagonist doesn't, or sees something the character refuses to acknowledge. We know something, or someone, will have to give. This is the same for comedy and naiveté (coming of age). Tension is not just a bomb in the trunk of the car, it's also knowing someone will get a pie in the face, and recognizing a falsehood.
Short sentences are supposedly more "manly"
Sometimes sentences need to get out of the way. Brevity is the soul of wit.
But short sentences, stripped of adjectives and adverbs, signal masculinity. In the Hemingway style he-men don't have time for purple-prose, and they don't get bogged down with touchy-feely emotions or the descriptions of fancy wallpaper. "Just the facts, Ma'am!"
He-men in the early 20th Century were "strong and silent". Truths were simple. A general barks orders and soldiers obey without the chit-chat, and definitely without Freudian discussions about their childhood trauma. This was re-enforced by newspaper journalism where facts are delivered in a dry "un-biased" style so the reader is forced to draw their own conclusions, and copied in masculine fantasies like pulp detective novels, spy capers, and westerns. Action men don't need large vocabularies because they aren't having soul-searching inner-doubt monologs about "To be, or not to be".
It doesn't mean all 20th Century authors were macho, Truman Capote deliberately wrote In Cold Blood in a detached journalistic style so it would seem more "true", although he was perfectly capable of writing witty sparkling dialog. A similar trend in cinema was Italian neorealism – at the height of Hollywood melodrama and Technicolor, a stripped-down back-and-white film with bare-bones production felt gritty and "true", like a documentary.
Compare it to when movies began adopting the "MTV Style" of quick edits. Action movies are enhanced by fast-paced editing, but chop-cuts alone don't make an action movie. It's a style that is effective in the right context, but sometimes it's more style than effect.
Use narrative voice to communicate what is unspoken
Raymond Chandler wrote 1st-person protagonists who aren't the strongest or brightest person in the room. Phillip Marlowe speaks with the patter and tone of a tough guy, but he's undermined by self-deprecating sarcasm, and his observations are often ridiculous. This matches his detective style which is to jump in with both fists swinging and pretend to know what he's doing – half the time Marlowe is duped or gets a conk on the head. "Short sentences build tension" doesn't describe everything else that is going on with that narrative voice. We see through Marlowe's hyper-masculine tough talk – even if sometimes he convinces himself, we know he'll be a sucker for the next bad dame.
Jane Austen is an athlete of narrative voice. She invented free indirect speech where the 3rd-person narrative voice is extremely fluid, flitting around from character to character and picking up their descriptions. The Jane Austen voice is constantly morphing to match the emotional adjectives of different perspectives. She builds "tension" by switching gears between the various characters, and biasing matter-of-fact descriptions so thickly that we recognize the character's delusions. A longer sentence will reflect a supercilious person's opinion, but she'll cut the next sentence short to show the listener is done.
Mark Twain and Damon Runyon use a "folksy" narrative voice to betray protagonists who in the real world would not be very likeable. We view them as lovable failures when they probably should be in jail.
Style is more than nuts and bolts
You should take any writing "formula" with a big dose of salt. As other answers have shown, a series of short sentences won't automatically build tension.
What does build tension is when the narrative voice is in contrast to the overt action. Short sentences when nothing is overtly happening could build tension, as if signaling something is wrong, be alert. But if it doesn't build to anything it's just a meaningless affectation. The change of state is just as important as the state itself, but it needs context.
Tension also happens when an evil person is being nice, when a conversation turns awkward, when we feel we should be somewhere else, and when a protagonist has missed a clue. Context is usually going to outweigh style.