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The Well Tempered Sentence

Sometimes when I'm writing I feel that typing the word "the" to begin a sentence one more time will cause my head to melt.  I become insanely sensitive to repetitiveness in my sentence patterns, and I'm convinced that every reader will see it too.  I sometimes stare at my prose in despair.

So, I go to the literature I love best to wash out my ears and to let me hear the rhythms again.  Here's a passage from The Hobbit that worked really well for me:

There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them.  But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers.  The dwarves and the hobbit, helped by the wise advice of Elrond and the knowledge and memory or Gandalf, took the right road to the right path.

From a grammar standpoint, this passage goes against some of my writing advice.  On the surface, it looks like it shouldn't function as well as it does--there are two linking verbs and a passive sentence--but somehow it hums along nicely anyway.

For some time I've been collecting sentences to remind me of their variety and flexibility.  Here are some of my favorites:

Introductory subordinate clause, post-noun adjectives, imbedded dialogue:

When I arrived I was met by the mother, a big, startled-looking woman, very clean and apologetic who merely said, Is this the doctor? and let me in.

     "The Use of Force," William Carlos Williams

Periodic sentence (delayed subject and verb), appositive:

Vast flats of green grass, dull-hued spaces of mesquite and cactus, little groups of frame houses, woods of light and tender trees, all were sweeping into the east, sweeping over the horizon, a precipice.
     "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," Stephen Crane

Post-noun adjectives, multiple subordinate clauses:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.

     "To Build a Fire," Jack London

Hyphenated clause, multiple prepositional phrases:

By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag--she gives me a little snort in passing, if she'd been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem--by the time I get her on her way the girls had circled around the bread and were coming back, without a pushcart, back my way along the counters, in the aisle between the checkouts and the Special bins.

     "A&P," John Updike

Multiple clauses, multiple prepositional phrases:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

      "The Fall of the House of Usher," Edgar Allan Poe

Listing, hyphenated interruption, parenthetical interruption:
So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 1975; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose--oh, what a wailing!--and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fair frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after), and Once Upon A Time became No More!

     "Usher II," Ray Bradbury

Periodic sentence:

By the time Marty ran up the stairs, past the dentist's office, where it smelled like the time his father was in the hospital, past the fresh paint smell, where the new kid lived, past the garlic smell from the Italians in 2D; and waited for Mommer to open the door; and threw his schoolbooks on top of the old newspapers that were piled on the sewing machine in the hall; and drank his glass of milk ("How many times must I tell you not to gulp!  Are you going to stop gulping like that or must I smack your face!"); and ran downstairs again, past the garlic and the paint and the hospital smells; by the time he got into the street and looked breathlessly around him, it was too late.

     "The New Kid," Murray Heyert

Interrupting dialogue tag:

"You've good eyes," said Whitney with a laugh, "and I've seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can't see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night."

"The Most Dangerous Game," Richard Connell
This seems related to my Practice and Theory of First Sentences post from a while back.



( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 20th, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC)
I guess that's why it's so hard to teach people to write creatively. It's like trying to teach them to have a better imagination. You can teach the fundamentals of grammar, sentence structure, etc., but there are so many instances in creative writing when the rules don't apply. Or rather they don't have to apply. Look at the spare but effective prose in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

I think it was Elmore Leonard who said something to the effect of, "If proper usage gets in the way, then it'll have to go."
Dec. 20th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
I'd rather have a better ear for rhythm than a stronger knowledge of grammar. My ear will save me when my knowledge falls short. Grammar is interesting on its own, though, for people whose interest lies that way. I like it because it helps me see what structures go into the good stuff.

Oh, since you brought up The Road, here's an interesting (at least from my point of view! *g*) review of The Road: http://www.geocities.com/fantasticreviews/road_summer_apocalypse.htm

Edited at 2007-12-20 06:41 pm (UTC)
Dec. 20th, 2007 07:02 pm (UTC)
And I think as a writer -- that is, as a creative writer -- you'll be noticed more for your voice and rhythm than your grammar. Never heard anyone recommend a book saying, "Oh, the story isn't so great, and the characters aren't believable, but the grammar, oh man, the grammar!"

That isn't an excuse to write poorly, of course. I like to think I write solid prose, but I am also aware of the rhythm.

Thanks for the review link. I'm going to check it out now.
Dec. 21st, 2007 12:45 am (UTC)
about grammar
People don't notice grammar because they expect it to be good.
Dec. 21st, 2007 02:45 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I liked your writing a lot, Jim. The passage the reviewer quoted was very good.

But I disagree with the reviewer on whether or not "The Road" was a meaningless trudge to nowhere. There was such meaning and power hidden behind every single word in that book. It makes me wonder how the reviewer missed so much.

If I was giving a review of The Road or trying (as this reviewer is) to tear it down, I would attack it from the weakest point -- the ending. Cormac McCarthy has vast talent, but that talent does not extend to making a satisfying ending. In some books his stories don't have an ending at all. In The Road, he gave it a shot -- but, even after his best efforts the ending feels both false and forced. I think I would have preferred a darker ending -- it would have been more real.

In fact, the contrast between your novels shows what each "genre" is better at. SFF has strong plots and satisfying endings. Literary fiction has srong imagery, style, rhythm, and voice. Both of them gain a lot when combined with strong characterization (present in both your book and McCarthy's book, IMO).

But I think SFF has lost a lot over the years as it moved away from stronger voices to the nigh-standardized "invisible" voice, and I think Literary Fiction's animosity toward Plot is nothing short of self-destructive.

I think there is fertile ground in briding the gap.
Dec. 21st, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC)
Perhaps in "bridging" the gap, too. ;)
Dec. 20th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)
Awesome post! I'm going to bookmark this one.

You know, these days a person is advised never to to write a passive sentence, which is generally wise, but because of that you rarely see that stately sort of prose like that Hobbit passage anymore. (heehee, long passive sentence) ;)
Dec. 20th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
Good stuff.

So, how important do you think grammar is for a writer? I tend to fall on the John Gardner (of GRENDEL fame) side, namely, that writers need to study grammar and vocabulary as much as possible. However, when I pass this bit of advice along to others, I usually get a scoffing look in return. Even when I mentioned this a big-time publish writer, he pretty much said to stick to writing and forget about the grammar and vocabulary.

On the other hand, I can see that studying grammar too much isn't necessarily a good thing. Fiction works best, I think, when a writer has a distinct voice, and sometimes that means forgetting about grammatical rules. Of course, not everyone can (or should) write like Harlan Ellison or Elmore Leonard -- but since I read Jay Lake on the subject of voice, I've noticed that the writers I like best have a very distinctive one.

So how does grammar and voice fit together? I suppose the easy answer is that you study a lot and write a lot and eventually, if you have a modicum of talent, you'll find your own voice.

Dec. 20th, 2007 04:03 pm (UTC)
I tend to fall on the side of John Gardner, both as a writer and as a teacher. However, I think the current anti-grammar trend comes from some studies that claim explicit instruction in grammar does not improve student writing.

I think those studies are wrong, and it only takes a look at poor-quality middle school writing to see the fallacy in those assumptions. However, even in those poorly-spelled, poorly-punctuated, page-long sentences without paragraphs, you can often detect the glimmerings of voice and a unique perspective.

For myself, I strive to develop a student's fluency and voice first. Then we discuss editing and rewriting. My perspective is that everyone has a particular voice, and grammar gives the voice tools to communicate more effectively.
Dec. 20th, 2007 04:44 pm (UTC)
Voice, then grammar. I like that.
Dec. 20th, 2007 06:25 pm (UTC)
I second this entire post. Nice reply.

Grammar study is most useful to me as a teacher when I talk about fragments, run-ons, and combining sentences. I have to be able to talk grammar to explain why punctuation goes where it goes, and why some of their constructions aren't working. Grammar gives writers a shared vocabulary. Without it, we'd be like a bunch of automotive students studying an engine but not having a name for any of the parts.
Dec. 20th, 2007 04:09 pm (UTC)
Here's my favorite quasi-quote on the subject: Criticism, at best, is identifying the qualities which seem to accompany success.

Sorry, no cite, but it does put the emphasis on what works for readers rather than what the rules say.
Dec. 20th, 2007 04:43 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree with the notion that there's a dichotomy between the rules of grammar and how readers respond to a story. Take the Harry Potter series, for example. Rowling could have used more than one remedial course in style and grammar, and I know many people who have sworn off her books, not because of the story, but because they couldn't stand the way she wrote.

Dec. 21st, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)
That quote is pretty subtle--it says "seem to accompany success". Part of what's hard about accurate criticism is distinguishing between what actually leads to people loving a book and what are mere incidental features.
Dec. 20th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
This is a wonderful post! I truly enjoyed it. It's a keeper.
Dec. 20th, 2007 06:25 pm (UTC)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )