The Power of a Good Sentence

Why writing one isn't as easy as you think

A pile of books open on a table
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English was my worst subject (next to Health) in high school right through to my second year of university, when I stopped taking it. I’d fallen afoul of the empty-rule syndrome. Don’t use the pronoun I in an essay; don’t begin sentences with but or because; write paragraphs in the topic sentence, body text, conclusion pattern (even if it bores you to death to say the same thing three times); vary sentence structure. The trouble with these rules is that no one told me why any of them would be especially useful.

“Vary sentence structure” was a rule I puzzled over for years. No one explained grammar and syntax to me well enough for me to be able to make useful connections. At first, I thought, Well, I can write long and short sentences, something like Hemingway. Then I practiced emphatic placement of important material (at the beginning or the end of the sentence, I was told) and inversion (writing the sentence backwards). None of this got me anywhere, because I could not join the spirit of a sentence—what emotional and factual impact I intended—with the idea of sentence structure.

I puzzled through instruction books. I discovered the wonderful distinctions between simple, compound, and complex sentences and the even more mysterious cumulative and periodic sentences. I practised writing periodic sentences until I was blue in the face without actually being able to discover how that made them interesting for readers. They weren’t very interesting to me. And my stories did not seem any better for having good topic sentence paragraphs, long and short sentences, and a scattering of lovely periodic sentences.

The rules remained irretrievably inanimate, void of life. The nexus of intention and form escaped me. Above all, the whole idea that you had to know what you were going to write before you wrote it was like a lock on my soul. It made writing drudgery.

I was writing fiction all the while and making other discoveries: for example, the fairly elementary fact that stories need drama, that they eventuate out of conflict. Not just conflicted characters, mind you. You need a character in conflict with other characters in an ongoing action. The spirit of conflict is what drives a story and illuminates character, a desire meeting a resistance. Once you have a desire and a resistance, a certain logic follows. Spirit and form fuse. I understood this in terms of a story as a whole before I began to see that the same principle applies to sentences.

One day, I happened to read an essay called “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a “knot” Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.

Suddenly, I understood both how to write those lovely lengthy compound-complex sentences and also how to write paragraphs that had nothing to do with topic sentence, body, conclusion patterns (because I could construct a paragraph the way Stevenson constructs his long sentences). Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.

The first technique I learned and applied consciously was the list. This was in an early story “Pender’s Visions” from The Mad River and Other Stories that begins with “Pender is a bottle, a glass, a table, a gun, a house.” The line becomes a refrain through the text, only to modulate, in the last section of the story, into, “Pender, a bottle, a glass, a table, a gun, a house, a world.”

This was, as I say, a first attempt (no apologies for being young), but you can see the rhythmic effect of a long series that becomes a structural effect by the repetition of the line throughout the text and then becomes a thematic effect by the modulation of the series at the end. The modulation is especially significant because a series (of vaguely similar or parallel entities) creates reader expectation, and the reader always enjoys having their expectations tweaked.

François Rabelais was a gargantuan list writer. In an early chapter of Gargantua and Pantagruel, the French Renaissance-era writer gives a paragraph-long list of plant matter the boy Gargantua uses to wipe his butt. “Then I wiped myself with sage, with fennel, with dill and anise, with sweet marjoram, with roses, pumpkins, with squash leaves, and cabbage, and beets, with vine leaves, and mallow, and Verbascum thapsus (that’s mullein, and it’s as red as my ____)–and mercury weed, and purslane, and nettle leaves, and larkspur and comfrey. But then I got Lombardy dysentery, which I cured by wiping myself with my codpiece.”

This is complex and hilarious—hilarious because it is a long silly list that contains some very odd choices. Pumpkins? Note also that list makers pass on conventional punctuation and grammar. Instead of a series of items separated by commas right to the end, Rabelais modulates to comma-and breaks, then reverts to the earlier convention, then goes to comma-and to the close of the sentence. A lot of ands. Rhythm is everything in a list, but you don’t want the rhythm to send the reader off to sleep, so you syncopate.

Rabelais also disrupts the list with the Latin name for mullein and inserts a comical parenthetical and comments directly to the reader, creating a syntactic drama that breaks the rhythm temporarily. Then he adds a but construction that gives the list a plot. Instead of an endless repetition of the same wiping act, the boy gets dysentery (with an ethnic slap at Lombards). Then we come back to wiping.

This is brilliant list writing because it’s outrageously funny, rhythmic, and has plot. You can use lists to enliven sentences and paragraphs to no end (they don’t all have to be comic, but it’s always salutary to remember that some of the earliest novels, the works of Rabelais and Cervantes, were comedies). But you can also deploy a list as a larger structure, almost as substitute for plot. I recommend especially two list stories: Steven Millhauser’s “The Barnum Museum” and Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties.”

Parallel construction was another one of those structures English teachers taught me in high school without also telling why it was in the least useful or beautiful. Drone, drone, eyeballs rolling back in my head, another C- on a test. Later, I learned the lesson. Here is an example from Mark Anthony Jarman’s great short story “Burn Man on a Texas Porch:” “I’m okay, okay, will be fine except I’m hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I’m burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape—am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke.”

What you have here are two sentences built on a series of parallels that invert briefly at the parenthetical em-dash and then modulate into a variant (I’m, I’m, I’m, am I, I am, I am). The simple meaning of the sentences is that the narrator is on fire. But Jarman uses parallels to throw the sentence forward in a series of waves of energy, each surge encoded with another grotesque and moving image of self-incineration. The parallels delay the end of the sentence and create a passionately dramatic telling. Instead of mere description, the sentences become a poem.

Each new iteration of the parallel creates more of that mysterious thing I call aesthetic space, a blank spot into which the author has to imagine new and surprising words. Form never limits a writer; it creates openings for fresh invention. It also creates an opportunity for what I call narrative yoking, syntactically juxtaposing two or more ideas to create astonishing new connections or psychological parallelism.

Here is a bit from Hubert Aquin’s novel Prochain Episode. Aquin made mad fun out of shifting from one meaning level to another with parallel constructions, shifting gears, as it were, at the commas. “I side-slip in my memory, just as I side-slipped in my Volvo in the pass through the Mosses…” And again from the same novel: “Laughter rose from the other table as I relaxed after my exhausting race by looking into the inert depth of the lake, by waiting to kill the time of a man whom I knew only by his ability to be someone else.”

Here is a passage of multiple parallels from The Loser, a novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Using successive parallels, he links the concepts of cage, catastrophe, and perversion. “So I go from one cage to the next, Wertheimer once said, from the Kohlmarkt apartment to Traich and then back again, he said, I thought. From the catastrophic big-city cage into the catastrophic forest cage. Now I hide myself here, now there, now in the Kohlmarkt perversity, now in the country-forest perversity.”

And, from the same novel, an example of psychological parallelism; Bernhard here contrasts Wertheimer and Glenn Gould by juxtaposing content within syntactic parallels: “Wertheimer always set about his life with false assumptions, I said to myself, unlike Glenn who always set about his existence with the right assumptions.”

The lesson is to inject conflict, rhythm, plot, and energy into your sentences by deploying relatively simple forms. Never leave a crude sentence snoozing on the page when there is the possibility of dramatic elaboration.

Writers create drama in sentences and paragraphs by using grammatical forms to juxtapose material with different shades of meaning. If you say, “Usually, Mel’s mother reminded her of a giraffe, but today, she seemed more like an elephant,” you force the reader to compare elephants, giraffes, and mothers. Power lies in the differential relation.

Here is Keats on modern love: “And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up”—a line of poetry that forces the reader to measure the distance between his idea of love and a dressed-up doll. And here is an aphorism from my story “Bad News of the Heart” in 16 Categories of Desire: “And what is love? An erotic accident prolonged to disaster.”

Aphorism, epigram, and apophthegm are words that refer to roughly the same set of constructs: short, witty statements built around at least one balanced contrast. I taught myself to write them after reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Someone called Durrell’s style “lapidary”; after I looked up the word, I wanted to be lapidary too. The Greeks wrote epigrams as epitaphs, to be carved on stones over the graves of heroes, hence the term lapidary, words worth being carved in stone for the ages.

The easiest way to teach yourself how to write aphorisms is to collect an assortment from your favourite writers, group them into formal types, and map the types. “Love is an erotic accident prolonged to a disaster” is a definition type. You get a lot that begin: love is, life is, women are, the world is, and so on. “The world is but a school of inquiry” (Montaigne). “Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants” (from “Woman Gored by Bison Lives” in A Guide to Animal Behavior). Here is one I stole from a woman I dated briefly and put into a story: “Love is like the telephone—more than one can use the line” from “Savage Love.”

The predicate contrasts with the subject of the sentence, or to be more precise, it contrasts with the common understanding of the term in the subject. Epigrams and aphorisms are always subverting the common understanding and reader expectation; their nature is to be provocative and ironic. In his Historie of Serpents (1608), Edward Topsell wrote: “Some learned Writers…haue compared a Scorpion to an Epigram..because as the sting of the Scorpion lyeth in the tayle, so the force and vertue of an Epigram is in the conclusion.”

A simple and fun type opens with the barefaced comparison of two or three classes: there are two kinds of ___; the one ___, and the other ___. “There are two positions available to us—either crime which renders us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy.” (de Sade) There is also a type of aphorism that goes straight to the heart of the form and begins with the word difference. Here’s me, from The Enamoured Knight: “The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if somebody does eventually manage to have an orgasm).”

The aphorism is at once artificial and inventive. It was Nietzsche’s favourite device; he called his little essays “Versuche,” attempts, trials, stabs, and their form was epigrammatic. Aphorisms are a form of thought, thought experiments. They have dash and panache. They render the author authoritative. They are the acme of the art of writing sentences. Nietzsche called them “the forms of eternity.”

Adapted from The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form by Douglas Glover. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved. Published by Biblioasis.

Douglas Glover