Feb 6 2016

In search of the perfect sentence

What makes a perfect sentence in a work of fiction? Should writers care? Do readers care?

Stanley Fish in a New Statesman article (Feb. 17, 2011) says: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships. Fish is the author of the book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Those well-crafted, logical sentences are what conveys the story in a way that pulls the reader in.

Well-crafted sentences with well-chosen words have a purpose: to engage readers with the story and characters. Sentences aren’t meant to stand alone so we can admire the sentence and think, “What a beautiful sentence. What a brilliant writer.” Well, perhaps in the realm of poetry, but not so much in fiction.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, a writer can spend so much time finding the perfect word or perfect sentence that they never finish the story, or have a blah story filled with perfectly crafted but blah sentences.

I’ve read several John Grisham novels. No one has ever accused him of being a great literary writer. But his words, sentences, paragraphs, and scenes are tight and serviceable – in service of the story. I can read one of his books, be caught up in the plot and action, and enjoy every moment in the story. At the end, I never noticed his writing. Not good, not bad, but invisible. A fun read. But neither are they stories I remember for life or have a desire to re-read time and time again.

I’ve read several Dan Brown novels, and enjoyed them the same as I would a Grisham novel, except for that occasional clunker, amateurish sentence that stops me cold, takes me out of the story, and I wonder how a writer (and numerous editors) missed it.

I’ve read books – I won’t name the writers or titles – that were so caught up in making a pretentious point of exhibiting all the writer’s glorious literary skill that I was bored in minutes. Often those sentences come across as amateur middle-school poetry. Blah.

And then there are writers like John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Tan, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and countless others – writers who craft a story and characters that draw you in from the first sentence and carry you away in another world until the last sentence, with unique insights and perspectives and an art in their writing that never interferes with, but adds to, the beauty of the story and the depth of the characters.

Most novels are made up of thousands of sentences that are ‘good enough.’ Simple, straightforward, functional, and taken as a whole, they tell a story that engages readers. That’s what matters.

All sentences need to be ‘good enough.’ Every sentence needs to convey information in the best way possible while still conveying the individual writer’s unique style and voice. A few clunkers or confusing sentences in a novel can ruin an otherwise good story for readers.

Even what might be a simple, straightforward sentence might be ‘perfect’ in context – it was exactly the set of words in the right order for that specific moment in the story. If you read that sentence alone, it might be grammatically correct and clear but not particularly memorable or powerful. But in the context of the story, connected to the sentences preceding and following, it might have tremendous impact on readers.

The Bible verse “Jesus wept” is a simple, declarative two-word sentence, the shortest verse in the Bible. Editors today might say it’s “all telling and not showing.” But in the context of the scene and story, that two-word sentence is emotionally powerful and conveys layers of depth.

While the sentence “She cried” probably isn’t going to have that level of power in your novel, it could, depending on context.

But now and then, while reading a good story, a particular sentence will so perfectly capture a moment that it can take your breath away. Or make you see something routine in a whole new way. Or describe a scene or setting or action or emotion in a way that resonates deeply. A sentence that you can stop and re-read two or three times to savor it, wallow in it, and doing so doesn’t take you out of the story, but pulls you in even more. The sentence that, as a writer, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Why have I never thought of saying it that way?”

These are the sentences you can read “standalone,” with no context, and they still resonate. These are the ‘perfect’ sentences I have in mind.

A perfect sentence may be a longer, complex sentence with several clauses, lots of big words, commas, and, for crying out loud, even semicolons. It may use words that are clear but unusual, not the most obvious word choice, but going for something different, and it works especially well. Or that perfect sentence may be a simple sentence using common, ordinary words to describe something those words aren’t normally associated with.

The perfect sentence may be a simile or a metaphor, or a simple declarative sentence. It may have a rhythm or cadence that sings in the reader’s mind.

In short, there is no formula for the perfect sentence or we’d all be writing perfect sentences all the time. There’s no book or course that teaches how to write a perfect sentence. What’s perfect in one writer’s style and voice won’t match another’s.

What do some other writers say about the ‘perfect sentence’?

Diane Nelson: “Rather than ‘perfect’—which is too subjective, too prone to popularization, too cultishly precious—my metric is based on how a particular arrangement of words slices through the fog of banalities and reveals some essential truth.”

Matt Sinclair: “I will revise often, which might involve changing words, revamping the sentence, removing perfectly good sentences that don’t add to the story. Rhythm, pacing, selecting “le mot juste,” etc., all factor in. And I pray that others think the story is as interesting as I do.”

Jim Murphy: “The goal for me is to get the idea into the reader’s head with the least possible effort. If the reader has to stop and think about what the sentence meant because of some ambiguity of wording, then that presents a hurdle for the idea.”

Marj McRae: “It depends on what sort of story you are writing. I want my reader to be so absorbed that they never give a thought to the actual words or the arrangement of words, but are seeing the action in front of their eyes. If they stop to think about the perfect sentence, then the action is interrupted.”

Rick Pieters: “For me, anyway, when I hit that kind of sentence, it doesn’t take me out of the story, it immerses me more deeply. The pause is no more than a brief, deep breath, a moment that lets me ‘see’ more deeply what the author is saying. If it stopped the flow, interrupted the story, my pause would more likely be to throw the book across the room.”

 

I asked some writer-friends on social media to submit examples of their best sentences. Most writers are willing to share their work, their favorite passages, even their favorite sentences. Writers can have egos, but they can also be very insecure. Ask a writer to provide a perfect sentence they’ve written, the insecurity rises to the top.

No writer wants to say, “Here’s a sentence I wrote, and it’s perfect!” That’s opening yourself up to a barrage of critique, criticism, and snarky derision–mostly from other writers.

But the examples below are sentences the writers felt, and I agreed, are better than the average sentence, a sentence with some degree of depth or new perspective that makes the sentence stand out, even when read with no context of the surrounding story.

 

This night, this time and place, the music and the slow rhythm of not belonging ached in ways that sinned. – Good Boy Bad, Nya Rawlyns

His blue eyes danced with merriment and he smiled, revealing dimples at the corners of his mouth, held slightly open, as if he were weighing the effect of his pretense on this unsuspecting observer. – A King in Time II, Mary Enck

Arson was sounding a lot more sensible than living with a pothead and his Jesus freak boss. – Cassia (publishes March 2016), Lanette Kauten

And whom shall I fear if not the devil, the grim torturer who conquered my aspirations and left me without a recognizable world of my own? – Forgive Me, Alex by Lane Diamond

The silence while they ate occupied palpable space in the room, a constant guest at their table. – “Winter’s Birds,” Summer’s Double Edge short story anthology, Rick Pieters

Turning my back to you, I sought to distance myself from the beat of your irregular heart. – “Bedtime Story,” from Alalitcom, Alabama Writers’ Conclave 2008, Deanne Charlton

The bourbon smelled like a hangover and a fight with my wife. – Untitled work in progress, Matt Sinclair

Very little of what you learn is ever useful or important, Nikolai. – Sin Eater, P.K. Tyler and Jessica West

 

I’ll even toss in a couple of my own to wrap things up.

As the baby waves ran back to their ocean mother, they erased my footprints and left only a faint trace, a distant memory of where I’d walked. – Carry Me Away, Robb Grindstaff

She’d learned to shoot left-handed after he’d removed her trigger finger with a pair of pliers. – “Desert Rain,” from Sonoran Dreams: Three Stories from Exile, Robb Grindstaff

 

Do you have a favorite sentence from fiction, whether something you’ve written or from someone else’s work?

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