In search of the perfect sentence
A connoisseur of fine writing describes the small, subtle techniques that can add music, color and grace to your words.
Published: March 25, 2011
|Nabokov had written “Lolita is the girl I love,” rather than “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” he would never have found an agent. Creating memorable prose requires a skill that writers often neglect: attention to the style of our sentences, one at a time, and to their cumulative effect.|
We writers spend most of our time wrestling with content—idea, plot, organization, characterization, analysis. Too often, editing means little more than checking for errors and inconsistencies. It’s easy to skip the task that may determine the fate of our work: mastering the small, subtle techniques that can add music, color and grace to ordinary sentences, no matter what they’re about.
If you’re a writer who had the bad timing to be in school when knowledge of grammar was considered unnecessary, do take the time to educate yourself in the basics of grammar and syntax. But our best teachers are the writers we love to read, the ones who constructed the sentences we wish we had written. I love it when a passage stops me cold in my reading, almost blinding me with its brilliance. I love to hold it up to the light and examine it from all sides and try to figure out what makes it so shiny and perfect. Once I understand the particular technique that lights up the sentence, I can add that device to my own toolbox. The more tools we have, the richer and more flexible our style will become.
In our search for perfect sentences here, we’ll look at the work of contemporary prose writers and examine what they do to keep readers engaged. We’ll start with the individual words we choose, then move on to sentence and paragraph construction. Finally, we’ll look at—or listen to—the sound effects that can make our sentences pop.
Great writers know that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters in the words they choose. They make sure that every word carries its weight, especially the words that propel sentences—and the reader—forward: the verbs. Immersed in a world of action, sports writers excel at finding powerful verbs. Here, Mike Sager keeps the reader moving through a familiar scene that could have been ho-hum (italics added):
The Fallbrook Midget Chiefs are fanned out across the field on a sunny autumn day in southern California, two dozen eighth-graders in red helmets and bulbous pads. Whistles trill and coaches bark, mothers camp in folding chairs in the welcoming shade of the school building, younger siblings romp. Fathers hover on the periphery, wincing with every missed tackle and dropped pass. Into this tableau ambles a tall man ...
—from “The Man Who Never Was,” Esquire, May 2009 (also in The Best American Sports Writing 2010)
Sager’s verbs aren’t two-dollar words. They don’t have to be. Each one expresses an exact action, and their accumulation keeps the scene alive and in motion. Note the absence of was, went, looked, or any of the static verbs that can bring a story to a halt. Note, too, that vivid action verbs make adverbs unnecessary.
British writer Cat Weatherill energizes her children’s stories in the same way. Here’s her description of a fire on a pirate ship (italics added):
It spat and clawed like a flaming tomcat. It pounced on the shattered crates. Mauled the decking. Snapped the bones of the ship. It hissed and growled. Whipped an angry, fiery tail till the hold fizzed with sparks.
You don’t have to be a child to feel your heart race along with the action.
As we strengthen our verbs, we also need to clarify their subjects and objects. Too often the nouns we choose convey only the vaguest meaning. Which is more interesting, people at a football game or terrible towel-waving Steeler fanatics? Which evokes a mood, music or “Bridge Over Troubled Water”? Words that name categories or abstractions are less compelling than those that zero in on the person or thing named.
National Book Award winner Colum McCann shows the power of the specific in the opening Let the Great World Spin:
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke—stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.
Even if you don’t know the streets of Lower Manhattan, the cluster of names places you in a city neighborhood. You join the gathering crowd, feeling the tension grow as if you are waiting for the punch line of a joke —not just any joke, but a Lenny Bruce gag. The mysterious “he” standing on the edge of a building, at first only an accident of shadowfall (a lovely phrase!), slowly emerges as a man, possibly a window washer or construction worker. Or jumper. These specific nouns draw the reader into the scene just as the sight itself attracts watchers.
No one names her people and places with more skill and humor than J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and his friends have ordinary names that tell the reader, “We’re just people like you.” But look at the names of the evil and the incompetent: Cornelius Fudge; Dudley, Petunia, and Vernon Dursley (why do those names sound so silly?); residents of Little Whinging (that’s a soft g, from whinge, Britspeak for complain). Severus Snape of Slytherin positively hisses. And Voldemort, He Who Must Not Be Named, means “flight of death” in French, though you don’t have to know French to recognize the suggestion of death in “mort.”
Similes and metaphors, if original, can take us beyond the literal and add a little poetry to our descriptions. In a travel guide I unexpectedly found this lovely sentence (italics added):
A bull elk strides like a general across the lawn of the former cavalry barracks, his bugle call echoing the reveille that once proclaimed sunrise and sunset at Fort Yellowstone.
—Brian Kevin, in Fodor’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, 2009
The military metaphors not only provide sensory description of the majestic elk; they link him to the soldiers who have shared his habitat.
The opening to Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road freezes my soul every time I read it. His similes are startling in their clarity and originality (italics added):
Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. ... And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.
Barbara Kingsolver extends an original comparison—bodies like bowstrings —into a prophecy that suggests the destinies of her characters:
The daughters march behind [their mother], four girls compressed in bodies as tight as bowstrings, each one tensed to fire off a woman’s heart on a different path to glory or damnation. How different these choices are from the clichés that sprout like crabgrass in amateur writing. McCarthy and Kingsolver teach us to stretch for new comparisons, to capture an image in a way that has never been done before.
—from The Poisonwood Bible
Great writers like these keep the best words and weed out the detritus. They also play with word order, and the results can be stunning. In novelist John Banville’s sentences, the words are ordinary, but their unusual order lends them an epic tone:
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.
—from The Sea
Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.
—from The Infinities
A more prosaic writer might have said, “The gods departed on the day of the strange tide.” Instead, Banville starts with the anonymous pronoun “They,” hooking the reader by delaying the identification of “the gods” for a millisecond and then drawing attention to it by setting it off as an appositive. The second sentence also uses word order to pique our interest. Pared to the bone, it might read, “Dawn was the best thing we made to comfort them.” Instead, Banville adopts a more formal, almost biblical style, opening with a long prepositional phrase containing two clauses and holding off the main clause till the end of the sentence. While such a style might be appropriate only for literary fiction, it can remind us that in any context, varying word order can give new meaning to familiar words.
Every sentence we write, unless it is a single word, can be written at least one other way. Read these three versions aloud and you’ll hear their nuances:
The one we pick depends on our purpose, our emphasis, and, yes, our style.
How long should a sentence be, anyway? Many writers and readers prefer short, simple sentences like these by Lauren Belfer in A Fierce Radiance:
Patsy sighed and turned to look out the window. She pressed her forehead against the glass. She breathed deeply, taking control of herself. Her breath produced a circle of condensation on the windowpane. The reflected light was soft against her hair and cheeks. Exhaustion was layered onto her face in fine lines.
None of these sentences is less than seven or more than 10 words long. Each starts with its subject, the first three virtually the same. My interest quickly flags; I feel like I’m reading a list, not a narrative. It’s not that short sentences can’t be powerful; in the right context, they can add urgency and rhythm. But not if they go on without a break.
Very long sentences aren’t necessarily better, but used sparingly, they can mesmerize readers. You don’t have to be a tennis fan to admire David Foster Wallace’s description of one of the sport’s most memorable moments. Pay attention to your own reactions as you read this:
It’s the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner ... until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does—Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side ... and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner—Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands.
—from “Federer as Religious Experience,” The New York Times, Aug. 20, 2006
Did you find that you read faster and faster, that you felt your head bouncing back and forth with the action, that you could hardly take a breath? That’s because Wallace doesn’t let us. His 259-word tournament of a sentence refuses to give up until the ball stops moving. Like the players, the sentence runs, lunges, careens, scrambles. It teases us with ellipses and dashes, but we don’t get to take a breath—or get a period—until the final ball lands. It’s the perfect marriage of style and content.
Most of us have neither the desire nor the skill to write such a sentence. Indeed, most of us probably spend little time counting the number of words we write. But we should. Depending on how we vary the length and structure of our sentences, they can enthrall readers or put them to sleep. One of the most powerful ways to spotlight a crucial event or idea is to place it at the end of a paragraph in a short sentence that follows a long one. Robert Goolrick raises sentence variety to an art form in A Reliable Wife:
It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o’clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children.
If you had been there you would not have noticed. You would not have noticed your own stillness in this thin slice of time. But, if you had been there and you had, in some unfathomable way, recorded the stillness, taken a negative of it as the glass plate receives the light, to be developed later, you would have known, when the thought, the recollection was finally developed, that this was the moment it began. The clock ticked. The hour struck. Everything moved again. The train was late.
I love the cinematic drama of this scene. I see it in black and white, at first only a blurry snapshot. Everything is frozen in anticipation of what has not yet happened. We hold our breath, waiting for this world to unfreeze, our patience tested by the convolutions of the long sentence in the second paragraph. Finally, with a three-word sentence, the still silence is broken, and the scene jerks into life. The paragraph ends with four short, staccato sentences, like the chug-chug of the train that is about to arrive. At that moment, you could not have torn the book from my hands.
Variety of sentence lengths and openers is easily achieved; just start paying attention to how many ways a sentence can land if you throw it up in the air. Try moving an adverb or prepositional phrase to the start. Begin with an appositive or a pair of adjectives that describe the subject before it is named. Combine two short sentences with a connector—not just and but, if it fits, a subordinate conjunction (as, when, while, after, etc.), or break one long sentence into two. Change a period to a semicolon. Turn a declarative sentence into a question. Insert a line of dialogue or thought. And then, of course, re-revise to make sure that meaning, clarity and consistency, and your own unique voice, haven’t been lost.
Variety is essential to good writing. But so is repetition—of elements as long as an entire sentence or as short as a single sound. Thoughtless repetition slows our readers; artful echoing rivets them. In his wide-ranging About.com column on writing and language, Richard Nordquist offers an array of sentences that repeat an initial element, such as (famously), “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The Greeks called this type of repetition of phrase anaphora. We can also repeat the ending of a sentence—epiphora—like the New Orleans official ranting about post-Katrina government aid: “Take whatever idiot they have ... and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.”
Did you hear the ear-catching rhythm caused by that repetition? “Style,” said Virginia Woolf, “is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” Philip Roth knew its importance when he summed up a crucial incident this way:
A father remodeled, a brother restored, a mother recovered, eighteen black silk sutures stitched in my head and my greatest treasure irretrievably lost, and all with a wondrous fairytale swiftness. A family both declassed and rerooted overnight, facing neither exile nor expulsion but entrenched still on Summit Avenue.
—from The Plot Against America
Without ever repeating a word, Roth uses many levels of repetition: the parallel structure of phrases, the litany of family members, the syllables re- and -ed, even individual sounds—the alliterative s in silk sutures stitched, the assonant short e in exile, expulsion and entrenched, the consonant final -d. Repetition doesn’t have to hit us over the head; used with care and subtlety, it adds music to our words.
British mystery writer P.D. James is known as a master of character, but she’s equally good at sound effects. Read her opening to Unnatural Causes twice—once for the crystal-clear imagery, then aloud for the music:
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast. It was the body of a middle-aged man, a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark, pin-striped suit which fitted the narrow body as elegantly in death as it had in life. The handmade shoes still gleamed except for some scuffing of the toe-caps, the silk tie was knotted under the prominent Adam’s apple. He had dressed with careful orthodoxy for the town, this hapless voyager; not for this lonely sea; nor for this death.
I love the alliteration of s and d in the first sentence, the assonance in dapper little cadaver and pin-striped suit which fitted, and the series of short phrases separated by semicolons, slowly tolling the victim’s death.
In a happier scene, Cat Weatherill combines repetition with original description to create a paragraph that could be a poem:
Over the waves, under the moon, into the east he [flew]. Over sailing ships that snailed across the ocean, leaving their trails behind them, silver as starlight. Over islands, secret-sleeping, scattered like cushions on the wakeful waves. Over sage whales, barnacle blue, singing sea songs older than time.
We writers of prose may not think of ourselves as poets, but we can borrow the sound effects of poetry, all created through repetition, to add the power of music to our sentences.
As we strive to create perfect sentences, let’s not lose sight of the purpose of all writing: communication. A style that is too unconventional, too self-consciously showy, can alienate the reader and subvert the writer’s purpose. Critic Lev Grossman wrote of novelist Jonathan Franzen in Time: “His writing ... does not call attention to itself or to the guy who wrote it. It calls attention to the thing it’s calling attention to.” Grossman nails the function of style and all its techniques: to call attention not to itself but to our ideas and our stories, to enhance our telling of them, to win them the attention they (we hope) deserve. It’s not a betrayal of our meaning to focus on the way we dress it; it’s a recognition that the more techniques of style we master, the better we can communicate.
Every writer we’ve ever read and admired has something to say to us about style, but it can only be a suggestion. The minute we first put words to paper, we began creating our own styles. Whatever yours is, it’s as much a part of you as your own name. But it’s not set in stone. Study your favorite writers and try out their tricks in your work. Maybe one day the search for the perfect sentence will end with one of yours.
A longtime high school teacher, Janet Tarasovic now explores literary style with adults at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Richmond, Va., and writes young-adult novels. She also collects beautiful sentences on her blog: insearchofperfectsentence.blogspot.com.