I’ll be brief today. Just a few thoughts about prose rhythm and what a writer can gain by paying attention at the level of the sentence.
Ellen Gilchrist’s short story, “A Love Story,” is exactly what it says it is, the story of a man and woman coming together in old age. Here are the last three sentences of the story:
Love is redeemable. You get your money back from love and you get to keep it, too. I think. I hope and pray.
Notice the confidence of the first declarative sentence, and the second as well. The story leans toward this uplifting ending. A short statement followed by a longer one, and then another short statement that pulls us up. . .well, it pulls us up short. I think, the narrator says, and suddenly the story that seemed to be heading in one direction starts turning back on itself. The pace of the passage grinds to a halt: I think. Period. Big pause, or a caesura, if you will—a rest in which we hear the narrator mulling over her initial confident observations. Then the narrator goes on to the last sentence: I hope and pray. The last sentence tries to turn the story back to its initial target, that strong statement on the value and steadfastness of love, only now, because of the sentence structure and what it creates, any sort of certainty is impossible, and we’re left with the commingling of the hope that love is redeemable with the possibility that it’s not.
Uncertainty is a good thing at the end of a narrative. A simultaneous gain and loss captures the complexity of human existence. The way one sentence follows another, if we pay attention to syntax and rhythm, should express the final effect we want the narrative to have on a reader. Try taking a passage in something you’ve written, or are writing, that seems wooden to you. Think about the effect you’re trying to create. Play around with sentence variety or syntax to see if lengthening, shortening, or rearranging can unlock this passage and make it seem alive to you.