Can You Write The Perfect Sentence?
A Flash from the Past
As a human being and perpetual student of life, I love the nuns who taught me at St. Patrick’s Elementary School back in the 1950’s.
As a writer, I hate the nuns who taught me at St. Patrick’s Elementary School back in the 1950’s.
How can this be you ask?
Regarding the first of my statements, the nuns really did provide an excellent education. They demanded, they cajoled, they praised and they never, ever, settled for less than our best. How could I not be appreciative of their efforts?
As a writer, however, I have some issues with Sister Mary Elizabeth and her peers. Diagram this…diagram that….participles and adjectives and adverbs, all in their proper place and all serving a specific purpose, slice and dice it here, over-analyze the crap out of it here, until by 8th grade I just wanted to projectile vomit at the thought of writing one more sentence.
What they had done in their own inimitable style was strangle the love of writing out of my very being.
They meant well. It was important, and still is today, that the English language be used correctly….but….not at the expense of quality and creativity.
So when I ask you if you can write a perfect sentence, rest assured I am not talking about grammatically perfect but rather stylistically perfect. Big difference my friends, and one that is well-worth some time contemplating.
We get so wrapped up in content it seems…ideas, plots, organization, characters, settings, and on and on we go, churning out the words and pushing forward to some personal goal of 100,000 words, or three articles per week come hell or high water….but….what about the small tasks, the intricate techniques, that determine whether our content is actually any good?
So much goes into a really superb sentence.
When I am reading novels, and believe me I read a great many novels, I love it when I come across a passage that stuns me. I will read a sentence or a paragraph and my mouth drops open, drool starts forming, and I find it impossible to utter a sound. Have you ever read such a sentence? More importantly, have you ever written one?
So let’s take a look at that quest: writing the perfect sentence. Let me toss a few ideas out at you and then you can stuff them in your writer’s tool box. Use them when you feel the need, and hopefully, some day in the not-so-distant future, you can stun your readers as well.
Choose Your Words Wisely
For this lesson I’m going to borrow from an article that appeared in Esquire in 2009 called “The Man Who Never Was” written by Mike Sager:
“The Fallbrook Midget Chiefs are fanned out across the field on a sunny autumn day in southern California, two-dozen eighth-graders in red helmets and bulbous pads. Whistles trill and coaches bark, mothers camp in folding chairs in the welcoming shade of the school building, younger siblings romp. Fathers hover on the periphery, wincing with every missed tackle and dropped pass. Into this tableau ambles a tall man…..”
Please note the verbs used in that paragraph. We have fanned, trill, bark, camp, romp, hover, wincing and ambles.
That, my friends, is a thing of beauty.
He could have used spread out, blow, yell, sit, play, hang out, grimace and walks, but instead he made a superior effort and it paid off.
From “Lolita” we have the following: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Oh how easy it would have been for Nabokov to write “Lolita is the girl I loved,” and oh how wrong it would have been if he chose that route.
Short sentences, long sentences, sentence fragments, all are tools that a writer has at his/her disposal. Sentence structure can greatly affect the rhythm of your writing. Sentence structure controls the flow, controls the sound and controls the mood.
From “A Simple Act of Violence” by R.J. Ellory:
“And when it ends, as I know it will, there will be talk in the canteen. They will ask each other questions, and they will guess and assume and try their best to figure it all out. But they won’t come close. Not even close. And the students will gossip and trade rumors, and wonder how many I killed. Or if I killed any at all.”
There is a starkness to that paragraph that makes it nearly perfect. From the killer’s voice, it could not have been written any other way. No use of fancy adjectives or adverbs was needed, and it was written just as a cold-blooded intellectual killer would have said it.
A great camera for a writer
The Poet in All of Us
I am not a poet, but I have a poet’s heart trapped inside of my prose body. Realizing that fact, I naturally gravitate towards similes and metaphors.
Have you ever written an original simile or metaphor? The key word here is original. I challenge you to do so, and in so doing release the poet trapped inside of you.
“That girl was hot! She was hotter than my Aunt Maria’s tamales.” I just made that one up; now you try!
We do not have to write in rhyme to be a poet. One of my favorite styles is called free form prose, a stream of consciousness style of writing that reminds me a bit of the old coffee shop beatniks of the 1950’s. Let me give you an example from my yet-to-be-finished new novel.
“So you lay in your bed with the shadows creeping across the walls of your life, and the realization comes that all of your searches have been in vain. The roadmap you were given was incomplete, lacking focus, lacking the right coordinates, lacking some damn thing that you can’t find on Mapquest and no damn gps unit will steer you to the straight and narrow. Only one way to get there boys and that’s take a left at tomorrow and enter the inner city, the scariest damn real estate you are ever likely to see, those six inches located from one ear to the other, a jumble of circuits composed of memories and lessons learned and emotions so powerful you just can’t face them, but you must, you must, because therein lies the answer, therein lies the secret, therein lies the reason why you are slip, sliding away.”
Give it a try. It really is a fun way to write and quite effective if used sparingly.
I have seen writers write an entire chapter with sentences that did not exceed ten words in length. I saw one sentence, I swear to God, that was 259 words long, and it was highly effective.
A very helpful video
Variety Is the Spice of Life
Just for giggles, take a sentence you have written and toss it up in the air. See how many different ways it can land.
In other words, try an adverb in a different place; try an adjective in a different place. Move a prepositional phrase to the start of your sentence. Dangle a participle. Begin with an adjective before you name the subject. Use commas to control flow and use a semicolon instead of a period. Use alliteration of s and d for sound effects…..seal-skinned suit….play and have fun, but always in search of excellence.
These are tricks and experiments that just might pay dividends, for variety is essential to quality writing.
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What say you? Can you write one perfect sentence today?
Remember, Always, Our Purpose
And what is the purpose of writing? If you said communication then give yourself a pat on the back.
Trying for the perfect sentence is ambitious and praise-worthy, but never forget that our chief goal is to communicate. If we dazzle our readers with a bombastic display of showy, flowery words but lose the meaning, we have failed.
Our goal should always be to call attention to the story or idea, and never to ourselves. Use all of the tools you have in your writer’s tool box, but never lose sight of the main objective.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”