My wife, a school counselor, came home from work this week with an anecdote about an event called The Battle of the Books, an oddly militaristic moniker for a reading activity, but an undertaking that has the students fired up about literature. She said one of the boys on her school’s team, a fourteen-year-old freshman, looked up from what he was reading and said to her: “Wow, what a great sentence!” Fourteen years old. I want that kid in the MFA program. Now.
What makes a good sentence? I’m sure there are a hundred opinions on that. But I know exactly how to tell when you see one. You know you’re looking at a great sentence when you elbow your spouse—sitting up in bed next to you, also reading a book—and basically say, “Stop reading whatever you’re reading. It is insignificant and unimportant compared to this fabulous sentence in this book that I’m reading. Listen to this!” (Note: for safety reasons, don’t try this more often than perhaps once or twice each evening.)
The writer Ron Carlson says that his goal is to write “one good sentence a day.” As always, Carlson, a both wise and hilarious teacher of writing, is joking. But only partly. He may not actually be suggesting that you keep track, but he almost certainly thinks that attention to word choice and rhythm and syntax is essential to the overall quality of the work. Sentences are pretty much the main building blocks of prose writing, in the way that the line is for poems. It does not take too many weak ones to undermine the foundation of a story or essay.
One of the most obvious and salient features of any sentence is its length. In an effort to encourage a historical appreciation of fiction writing, each month I ask my grad students in the writing program to choose and read a book written before 1900; together we are reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the moment. Contemporary readers accustomed to more current fictions which tend to feature short sentences, short paragraphs, and even very short chapters, are quick to note the sometimes astounding lengths of the sentences (and the massive paragraphs that result from them) found in 19th century fictions.
A famous long sentence begins one of that century’s most beloved novels, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in which Mr. Dickens hurls sixteen comas and a dash at the reader in his opening salvo.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
In Dracula, some sentences loiter on the page in a similar 19th century way. But Stoker was also deadly with well-timed zingers, employed for great dramatic (some would say melodramatic) effect, as in this line ending the chapter in which John Harker the hapless English narrator visiting Count Dracula’s creepy castle comes to realize his predicament: “The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!” You simply have to read on after that.
Not everyone thinks memorable sentences necessarily indicate fine writing, and length alone is no substitute for quality. In a rant against prize-winning contemporary authors, published in the Atlantic Monthly and titled “A Reader’s Manifesto”, the cantankerous critic B.R. Myers says, “The decline of American prose since the 1950s is nowhere more apparent than in the decline of the long sentence.” One of his favorite targets is prize-winning author Annie Proulx, whom he excoriates throughout the essay. Among his complaints is that her long sentences are merely “simple lists of attributes or images.” Of a particularly lengthy example he gives from her Accordion Crimes (1996), Myers says, “you are meant to read the sentence in one mental breath and succumb, under the sheer accumulation of words, to a spurious impression of what Walter Kendrick, in an otherwise mixed review in The New York Times, called ‘brilliant prose.’”
As you can see, not even highly credentialed critics agree on what makes a sentence good, or bad. But all of that begs the question of how important great sentences really are. Myers goes on to say this:
The critics’ admiration for Proulx reflects a growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context…. In 1999, K. Francis Tanabe kicked off the Washington Post‘s online discussion of Proulx’s work by asking participants to join him in “choosing your favorite sentence(s) from any of the stories in Close Range.” I doubt that any reviewer in our more literate past would have expected people to have favorite sentences from a work of prose fiction. A favorite character or scene, sure; a favorite line of dialogue, maybe; but not a favorite sentence. We have to read a great book more than once to realize how consistently good the prose is, because the first time around, and often even the second, we’re too involved in the story to notice. If Proulx’s fiction is so compelling, why are its fans more impressed by individual sentences than by the whole?
I don’t know. Myers may be right about our fascination with memorable snippets of prose. Maybe it does indicate a certain shallowness to our reading habits, possibly encouraged by the snappy, fast-paced fiction writing of today. But I do love running across a sentence that prompts me to do what I’ve been doing to my wife for thirty-six years: jab her out of her reverie in whatever she is reading and say, “Hey listen to this!”
All of which makes me want to end this post with a really short sentence. How about this one? She hasn’t killed me yet.
Richard Chiappone is the author of the collections Water of an Undetermined Depth, Opening Days, and Liar’s Code. His stories have appeared in magazines including Alaska Magazine, Playboy, the Sun, and Gray’s Sporting Journal, along with literary magazines including the Crescent Review, The Missouri Review, South Dakota Review, ZYZZYVA, and others. His work has been featured on BBC Radio, and made into a short film featured at international film festivals. An Alaskan since 1982, he is proud to be a member of 49 Writers, and lives in Homer with his wife and cats. He teaches fiction and nonfiction writing for the University of Alaska Anchorage, and for the Kachemak Bay Campus of the Kenai Peninsula College. His latest book, Liar’s Code, is published by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. of New York City. It is available in both hardbound and electronic editions.