September 21, 2012
By Mary Hutchings Reed
We talked in July about letting a scene build gradually in order to give the reader the experience of being there, and in August we talked about finding words. Today, I’d like to write about the sentences that hold those words and how to write a sentence in your novel that’s different from the sentence in your brief.
Most of us have been taught to write short sentences, using simple words, a minimum number of adjectives, the active voice, few subordinate clauses, fewer figures of speech. Our legal writing instructors further encouraged us to hone this style. Because we’re good legal writers, the first drafts of our novels might sound like Ernest Hemingway, but miss the mark artistically. Why? Because we haven’t done it on purpose.
One of the best writers on the subject of sentences is Florida International University law professor and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish. With dry humor, he says the Strunk & White rules serve some purposes but are “unfortunate” with respect to others. We write sentences to create certain effects and the test of a sentence, he says, is whether it creates that effect.
In other words, the effective legal sentence convinces the judge. The novel’s effective sentence makes the reader want to know more, to read your next sentence, and your next. How the novel’s sentence does this is worth in-depth study, and we can only offer a few tips here.
My novel coach, Fred Shafer of Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies, is fond of saying, “Every sentence has a plot.” I understand this in several ways. The content of the sentence may be a plot in and of itself, or the sentence may be structured as a plot: it has a surprise, a twist or a climax at the end.
In sentences in which the content is a plot, there is a physical arc — the action culminates in some climax or peak of emotion. Shafer offers several examples from Colum McCann’s “National Book Award” winner, “Let the Great World Spin.” Here is a sentence with a plot covering a long time span (the character is reflecting on his family):
“Over the years there were the usual tantrums and bloody noses and broken rocking-horse heads, and our mother had to deal with the whispers of the neighbors, sometimes even the attentions of local widowers, but for the most part things stretched comfortably in front of us: calm, open, a sweep of sandy gray.”
Such a sentence pulls the reader through the character’s life with emotional details strung together to a heightened plateau of awareness. Another of Shafer’s examples follows the emotional arc of an aerialist in the same novel:
“The wire was about pain, too: it would always be there, jutting into his feet, the weight of the bar, the dryness at his throat, the throb of his arms, but the joy was losing the pain so that it no longer mattered.”
In the second category, sentences with plots, the form of the sentence is all. The most extreme (and fun) example of the sentence plotted to surprise is the “paraprosdokian.” The PPDK (my moniker) is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase causes the reader to reinterpret the first part. My favorites:
• To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
• Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
• If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
Fish doesn’t call it a PPDK, but he cites a sentence from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which, though taken from his dissent in Lee v. Weisman, is an example of a wonderfully plotted sentence (worthy of a novel). This stunning sentence delivers its final bullet at the end. Objecting to the majority’s fear that even voluntary secular prayer in schools was “psychological coercion,” Scalia fired: “Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.” If he’d said, “My fellow justices are practicing amateur psychology,” or even “Their psychology is amateur,” it just wouldn’t have the same punch as when the insult is the final pop.
These sentences work, in part, because of their plot: they lead you in one direction and surprise you at the end. A great example offered by Fish is from Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus”: “The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.” Not at all what the reader expected from “The first time … ”
To switch gears from legal writer to novel writer, we need to be conscious first of the effect we want the sentence to have, and then of the mechanics necessary for the sentence to achieve that effect.
As Fish says: ” … there are sentences that go in a straight line and sentences that surprise … sentences that reassure and sentences that disturb, quiet sentences and sentences that explode like hand grenades, sentences that invite you in and sentences that exclude you, sentences that caress you and sentences that assault you, sentences that hide their art and sentences that ask readers to stand up and applaud.”
I think the simplest way to think about writing sentences that belong in novels is to think about leading a reader through the experience of a story — teasing them on, if need be, and then, just when they thought it was safe … kaboom! Straight line sentences and sentences that demand applause sound like sentences meant for a judge; the sentence that surprises, entertains, includes, explodes — now we’re writing novels.
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