The Importance of the Sentence
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.
Excellent essay, Lee. It’s something all writers struggle with (or should). In addition to creating a sense of mystery, this narrative doubt also suggests the fallibility with which we human beings struggle. We want very much to hope in things that are good; we try to convince ourselves of this; but are we ever really certain? When characters in a story do this, it lends them a verisimilitude. As readers (and human beings), we notice behavior that is real (even if what we’re reading is fictive).
It’s also a good way to keep readers on their toes. Robert Olen Butler once spoke of the importance of doing this. As an example, he used his story, “Open Arms” — which may be found in his collection, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.”
Mr. Butler said after he’d written the story, he didn’t feel it worked. He couldn’t figure out why. Then, as the years passed, and he learned more about craft and began to hone it, he realized that (in addition to other elements that go into composition) his narrator would better serve the story by not being so staunch and reliable. As a result, he inserted a five-word sentence (the second in the story) that changed the mood and tone of the piece.
He wrote (speaking as his character): “I have no hatred in me. I’m almost certain of that.”
Right there, with no more than a handful of words comprising seven syllables total, he jolts the reader. Here is a man speaking of how he’s devoid of hatred, and no sooner does he say it (it’s the “almost” that grabs you by the lapels), he injects you with doubt regarding your feelings about this narrator whom you’ve only just met! More or less pulls the rug out from under you… and hooks you right in.
It’s a great lesson for writers, I think. To expect readers to want to spend time with characters you’ve created, you’ve got to respect them enough (readers AND characters) to allow them to be human. Warts and all.
Thanks for that example from Butler, John. Perfect!