Monday Motivation: How to write an effective sentence

 In All About Writing

I’ve been thinking about sentences recently. They are, after all, the building blocks of every story ever written. We all love a good sentence, I think. I particularly like dazzlingly long sentences, which I’ve written about before.

Today, though, I want to think about what makes a good sentence good.

Let’s be logical about this and begin at the beginning. What are sentences for? Well, basic to every sentence is the burden it carries of information. It means something – it tells us something about the world. Want something more specific? Well, there are any number of definitions to choose from. For instance, Christian Lehmann writes, “The sentence has been defined as the largest unit for which there are rules of grammar.” Others say that the test of a sentence is whether it can stand as a “complete utterance”.

Well, I’m not talking about the technical nature of sentences. Nor, when I sigh with jealousy after having read a great sentence, is it simply because of the information it carries – which can, after all, be banal. That would make of every wheelbarrow a thing of beauty.

I sigh because the writer has found a way of communicating a bit of information in an original or a striking or a rhythmical or a dramatic way. It is memorable. It serves as the model for sentences I might try my hand at.

But of course, within the context of a dramatic narrative, a sentence has a job to do. So the first test to apply to a sentence is: has it done its job?

The answer depends very much on what the job is that it was required to do. In this sense, you can say that a sentence should strive to mirror the dramatic objective of the passage of which it is a part.

If its dramatic context is humorous, then the sentence must work towards a comic effect; if dramatic, then a dramatic effect. If the moment being described is one of hectic action, then the sentences which together constitute that description should be similarly hectic: staccato, perhaps, short and sharp, perhaps broken and unfinished.

If your perspective character – your protagonist – has a certain temperament, then let the sentences that cluster round him reflect that temperament. If he’s a formal, antediluvian sort of gent, then the sentences describing him and his action in the world should likewise carry with them a certain old fashioned air. If your character’s a hip-hopster, let him similarly attract sentences that reflect the zeitgeist to which he contributes.

And so whether a sentence is economical and spare – or elegant and musical – or abrupt and staccato, depends very much on the dramatic mood of the passage of which it’s a part.

But these considerations aside, there is at least one other attribute of memorable sentences.

They sound good. There’s a rhythm to a good sentence that your eye will pick up immediately. Listen to this one, from The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini:

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Or this, from Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard:

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered.”

Strangely, we all know what a beautiful sentence is when we read it – and especially when we listen to it read. There’s a kind of inevitability about it – its rhythm leads us ineluctably to its end.

And then, of course, at the ineffable heart of every great sentence, lies a thought that is provocative, evocative, startling, original and seductive. Take this sentence from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

“He stepped down, trying not to look at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

The genius of that sentence lies as much in the thought that underpins it, as in its construction. You don’t have to look at the sun to know it’s there; it burns its way into your consciousness. And yet the construction of the sentence is also worth looking at. It is economical, it is balanced. It establishes in terms of a clear logic:

  1. That he tries not to look at Anna in the way we avoid directly gazing at the sun.
  2. And yet we know the sun is there without looking at it.
  3. Ergo, he was aware of her without looking at her.

Note also, the simplicity of Tolstoy’s sentence. He uses no big words, no “poetic” words. It’s a simple and direct and wholly accessible statement.

So perhaps I was wrong when I maligned wheelbarrows. There are many wheelbarrows as beautiful as the treasure piled within them.

Happy writing,


For more writing tips and a little motivation click here to read Jo-Anne’s Writing Secrets: Shut up and write – you’re not boring the readers

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