Monday, May 21, 2018

What Makes a Sentence Work?

How does a sentence, a string of words, hold a reader’s interest and compel a reader to keep turning the pages?

In the hope of finding an answer, I pulled a book off my shelf at random and opened it (to a random page) and selected a few sentences, just to see what I might be able to learn about the construction of sentences. Here they are:
“Rachel catches a whiff of toothpaste and onions. Izzy is a big, bulky man with wild gray eyebrows. His hands are broad, grayish from cement, and still strong-looking, although it’s been almost twenty years since he has worked as a stonemason.” (from Norma Fox Mazer’s After the Rain, page 38)
What do you notice about these sentences? Would you say they're compelling? Do the sentences work? Do you want to read more of the story after reading them?

Let's take a look at the first sentence: "Rachel catches a whiff of toothpaste and onions."

It doesn’t seem earth-shatteringly important, does it? And yet the unusual combination of aromas—toothpaste and onions—piques the reader’s imagination. The combination is kind of odd, isn’t it? A unique juxtaposition of smells that you don’t smell every day.

What else is unique? Not just the smells, but we have a character—Rachel—who notices this unusual combination of smells. And the act of noticing these smells is framed as “catching a whiff.” Why not simply say “Rachel smelled toothpaste and onions.” What does “catching a whiff” do for the reader? It’s a compelling expression, I suspect, because the act of smelling is described as an active rather than passive act. Rachel doesn’t sit back and let the smells come to her. She catches them. Like catching butterflies. Or lightening bugs.

So, this first sentence paints an interesting portrait, and we read on, curious about what we’ll find next.

In the second sentence we see how Mazer continues her skilled crafting of sentences. She keeps each sentence short. She uses a minimum number of words to create maximum effect: “Izzy is a big, bulky man with wild gray eyebrows.”

Again, we aren’t given anything earth shattering, per se, in terms of details, are we? But the details are offered in a way that makes for an interesting picture: a big, bulky man and wild gray eyebrows. The repetition of the “b” sounds in big and bulky. The echo of Izzy and the “y” sound in bulky. The echo of the “g” sound in big and in gray.

Six words. But we have a strong picture of Izzy in our minds. It’s a picture that is as clear as if he is standing in front of us. And we are now curious about him. We know he is big. Not just big but bulky. How does his bulkiness change our view of big? And what about his eyebrows? Not just gray but wild gray. As if the man himself has something of this wildness about him. Again, Mazer has intrigued the reader with her descriptions.

And then comes the third sentence, which happens to be much longer than the first two, but Mazer has earned the reader’s trust with the first two sentences. We trust the author’s vision of the world, and we understand that the descriptive words that Mazer has selected not only serve as descriptors but as ways of understanding the story, the characters, and the underlying plot.

So, perhaps, this is one of the keys to understanding how a sentence works: it can operate on multiple levels simultaneously.

Let’s take a look at the third sentence: “His hands are broad, grayish from cement, and still strong-looking, although it’s been almost twenty years since he has worked as a stonemason.”  

Here we are given a more detailed description of Izzy, with the focus on his hands, and the description gives us a deeper understanding of him and of his life, which involved working as a stonemason with cement. His hands are a workman’s hands, and they are still strong, even though Izzy hasn’t worked for almost twenty years.

They are hands that are “broad, grayish” and “strong-looking.” These details build on the earlier details that we were given, adding to the picture in our mind of Izzy with his wild gray eyebrows. And they create a kind of bond between Izzy and the reader, as well as a kind of sympathy for a man who has worked and aged and is now gray and a little wild still.

And we feel a bit of the same feelings that Rachel feels toward him. And the reason we feel these emotions is because of the way that Mazer has crafted these sentences.

What is it about any sentence that compels you to keep reading the story?

Word choice, pacing, emotional weight, sentence length and rhythm of the words… these are only some of the reasons why a sentence might work (or fail to work).

Do you have an author whose work you admire? Why not take a look at a few of his or her sentences and see if you can explain why the sentences work so well.

If you get a chance, share your favorite sentence in the comment section, and remember to include a brief explanation of why you think the sentence works.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.