A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein
Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.
This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.
Fiction offers more leeway. Communicating facts is not its aim, and readers can expect to be taken on tangents: it’s part of the experience. Of course, it has to be done with judgement and skill. Here’s an example from Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend, which I just finished reading. A group of young friends are walking in the city, making fun of its street fashion. Pasquale is infatuated with Lila:
We went as far as Palazzo Cellammare laughing and joking. Pasquale, who did his best to avoid being next to Lila and when she took his arm immediately, politely, freed himself (he spoke to her often, of course, he felt an evident pleasure in hearing her voice, in looking at her, but it was clear that the slightest contact overwhelmed him, might even make him cry), staying close to me, asked derisively:
‘At school do your classmates look like that?’
The main verb, asked, arrives a whole 60 words after its grammatical subject, Pasquale, yet it’s no hardship to be made wait for it. The topic coheres: it’s all about Pasquale, his feelings for Lila, and his behaviour around her. The intervening material – a complex subordinate clause, a self-contained parenthesis with multiple clauses, and a participle phrase – is self-consciously elaborate, impossible not to notice, so we yield to it and enjoy the detour before finally reaching the predicate: asked derisively.
The line may feel a bit more disjointed here, taken out of context, than it does in the book, where the reader tunes in to Ferrante’s style (and to Ann Goldstein’s beautiful translation from the Italian). But even allowing for that, it’s a good illustration of how writing advice and norms can differ hugely from one genre to another.