We prose writers spend so much time thinking about characterization and plot that we often overlook the importance of the artfully crafted sentence. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway famously said. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” His work strove for accuracy, honesty, and clarity, and it all began at the level of the sentence. William Barrett once said Hemingway’s style was “a moral act, a desperate struggle for moral probity amid the confusions of the world and the slippery complexities of one’s own nature. To set things down simple and right is to hold a standard of rightness against a deceiving world.” Think of the chaos of the world around us. Think of the mortality we all march toward. Think of our tenuous hold on this planet Earth. A clear, honest sentence begins to give shape, and perhaps even a moral structure, to an often shapeless and amoral world.
Let’s look at an example, so we can think about what goes in to making a true sentence. Consider the opening of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Notice the details—the house, the village, the river, the plain, the mountains, the pebbles and boulders, the road, the trees and leaves, the troops, the dust, the soldiers. True sentences are made of concrete nouns. Notice, too, the motion of the sentences—the swiftly moving water, the troops marching, the dust rising, the leaves falling. A true sentence is kinetic. It moves. We might also look at the spare use of adjectives—dry and white, blue, dusty, bare and white. A true sentence does just enough to create a visual image and no more.
The second sentence, the one that describes the riverbed, relies on the caesura of an appositive—“dry and white in the sun”—to emphasize the details of the pebbles and boulders. The appositive asks the sentence to rest a moment while it offers the reader additional information before it resumes. If we read this sentence aloud stressing the accented syllables, we hear its points of emphasis. Try it—“peb-bles and bould-ers, dry and white, in the sun”—and listen to the heavy syllables marking points of emphasis. Poets aren’t the only writers who pay attention to the sounds language can make. Prose rhythm can contribute to the authenticity of a sentence by affecting the rate of delivery while pointing to what the readers should pay attention to.
Finally, notice what the sentences don’t say. They describe the passing of a season from summer to fall, but they don’t say a word about those marching troops and all they portend. Hemingway lets the details do that work. The fallen leaves on the bare road become an ominous image of what’s to come.
The world so often slips away from us, but a finely shaped sentence—a muscular sentence? That’s something we can control.