Shaping a Sentence

I’ve had a request to say some more about the process by which writers begin to internalize the artistic choices other writers make. For me, this process begins with the way in which I read other writers’ work. When I read, I’m constantly thinking about how a writer does what he or she does on the page. I’m interested in larger concerns such as characterization or structure, but today I want to focus on smaller, sentence-level choices and the effects they create.

I’ve said before on this blog that a writer has to read with an eye toward how something is made. When I read, I often find myself being profoundly affected by the way a writer has chosen to shape language via syntax, word choice, sentence structure, prose rhythm, etc. I find myself admiring the sound that a certain passage makes, and I start to consider how the writer achieved that sound merely by the arrangement of words.

Take this passage, for example, from Ann Beattie’s story, “In the White Night,” a story about Vernon and Carol, parents who are grieving their daughter’s death. A brief digression here: I first wrote a similar sentence about this story in my craft book, Telling Stories, only I wrote it like this, “This is the story of Vernon and Carol, parents grieving the death of their daughter.” When I wrote it in this entry, I decided that the sound of the word, “death,” made a more final stop for the end of that sentence. To my way of thinking the word, “daughter,” elongates, giving the impression of life going on; the word, “death,” on the other hand is more abrupt, more in keeping with the sudden loss that Vernon and Carol have suffered. I don’t mind revising myself here for the purpose of showing how a slight rearrangement of a sentence can better enforce the sentiment that it contains.

But back to Beattie’s story. Describing Vernon and Carol driving home from a party on a cold, icy night, she says, “They passed safely through the last intersection before their house. The car didn’t skid until they turned onto their street. Carol’s heart thumped hard, once, in the second when she felt the car becoming light, but they came out of the skid easily.” Here, I believe Beattie wanted the sentence to express a single moment of alarm before a return to safety. She achieves that effect with the two declarative sentences that begin the passage, sentences that are solid, trustworthy, sentences that put Vernon and Carol on solid ground. Those first two sentences have such a steady sound. A musical surprise arrives in the third sentence, the one that describes the precarious moment on the ice. This sentence disturbs the safety of the first two declarative sentences. The car’s sudden slide arrives with a thump, just like the thump of the heart that Carol experiences. The word, “thumped,” bangs its way onto the page. The very sound of the word hammers a beat into this sentence, a beat reinforced by the pause, or the caesura, if you will, of the word “once” that lets the sentence slide just the way the car is sliding. The last part of the sentence, the subordinate clause with its subject and verb echoing the declarative sentences that began the passage, returns us to steady ground once the danger has passed.

I hope this example will illustrate how, on a sentence level, writers can think more fully about the choices that lead to specific effects. Richard Ford, when asked in a Paris Review interview about the single aspect of fiction that was central to his writing process, stressed the importance of language: “I’m always interested in words, and no matter what I’m doing—describing a character or a landscape or writing a line of dialogue—I’m moved, though not utterly commanded by an interest in the sound and rhythm of the words, in addition, I ought to say, to what the words actually denote.” Ford rightly points out that the music of language isn’t solely the province of poets. The shape of a sentence is always directly connected to the expression of meaning.



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