How much weight can a single sentence have? Is there a formula or method for writing powerful sentences?
Sentence (n.): A set of words that is complete in itself…conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command.
That definition takes care of the essentials, but how do you define an exceptional sentence? I can’t give you a real answer because the attractiveness of a sentence lies in the mind of the reader, but I can try to point out some patterns.
I often find myself jotting down sentences I find compelling into my overloaded Evernote, so I loved seeing that last week The American Scholar posted an article listing the “Ten Best Sentences” in fiction and nonfiction literature. It included sentences from many of the best classics and a few from more contemporary pieces, most recently Tim O’Brien’s famed The Things They Carried.
My favorite picks from the article:
“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
– Toni Morrison, Sula
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
“There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.”
– Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
We all have read sentences that stopped us in our tracks, made us reread and reread until they were ingrained in our grey matter. Instinctively, these compelling sentences are highly subjective to our experiences, but even with the subjectivity, there are certain attributes that we all tend to gravitate towards. Of the four novels I listed above, I’ve read or partly read three because they naturally struck me more, having read them is part of my experience. However those are just my favorite picks from the article, not of all time. My favorite sentences tend to be concise but thought provoking–I like the contradiction of size and strength. When I look through the heap of comments people posted on the TAS article, it seems that short but strong sentences are compelling to most of them as well. I also sense other patterns that I’ve tried to condense and list here:
Compelling sentences tend to…
1) Accord with our experiences
2) Employ good grammar (parallel structure, appropriate punctuation, etc.)
3) Tend to be shorter or at least concise in meaning (by concise in meaning, I mean that the author puts across one or two central points in the sentence, but may illuminate with several examples)
4) Employ engaging imagery or metaphor
I think that the most important take away derives from my last observation, engaging in imagery or metaphor for the reader. Metaphor pauses the reader’s flow and obliges him or her to make connections. It also tends to reduce ideas to their most elemental form by appealing to the reader’s senses, holding the power to make once complex ideas easier to absorb. Imagery similarly appeals to the reader’s visual sense—you remember what you can see, even if it’s only imagined.
Now, these observations aren’t highly scientific, and none of them is all that surprising, but they could be things to keep in mind. Consider what you enjoy reading next time you feel your brain shriveling beneath the intensity of a 10-page paper as each sentence you crank out drains more and more of your seemingly minute creativity.
For now, you may want to think about your favorite sentences, and why they’ve stuck with you. And if that’s only easy for English lovers or weird bibliophiles like me, broaden the task to looking at your favorite books. You might discover something surprising about their allure.
To read the article, visit The American Scholar’s website: here.
Photo: Jonathan Kim via Flickr