How to Write Sentences That Surprise the Reader

4 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies, by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree, is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

The novelist Hanif Kureishi recently made news when he complained to the British newspaper The Guardian that his writing students lacked the necessary focus to become writers: “They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'” It’s undoubtedly true that sentences don’t make much sense without a story to hang them on, but it’s also true that stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them.

You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a new collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. The writers (a poet and a fiction writer/film scholar) attempted to watch the entire Criterion Collection of films while writing short fictions inspired by the films. The collaboration eventually took shape as one of the most beautiful and idiosyncratic books you’ll ever read. One of the stories, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space,” written after Vagabond by Agnès Varda, was published at Tin House, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A staple of film is the twist ending or sudden reversal. Some films like Memento feed the audience a steady diet of these reversals so that every time we think we’ve found solid ground, the bottom is snatched out from under us again. Classic films use reversals as well (just watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). One way that reversals and unexpected twists work is by pushing a scene past the point where we’d normally expect it to stop. The same is true of novels and stories—and it’s also true of sentences. You can see this at work in the first sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space”:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes.

The sentence could have ended with “threw them at me” or “one after the other.” Instead, it adds that last clause about where the shoe lands. Even then, the sentence keeps pushing past the expected ending, past “back of my head,” where it could have stopped for comic effect. When all is said and done, the sentence has moved past three potential endings to finish with “unwashed dishes.”

So, why does this matter? It’s not as if we’re stunned by the realization that someone who hides morphine under the sink also does not wash his plates. There are two answers, I think: 1) The additions fill out a scene that might feel sensational without them. It’s easy to turn fictional addicts into something that borders on caricature. The dishes ground the scene in detail. 2) The additions set up the structure for subsequent sentences in the story, which continue to push past expected endings.

For instance, here is the next sentence:

She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie.

Again, the sentence could have ended with “on the counter.” The addition of the comparison adds humor and a manic energy. Again, these aren’t shocking reversals of the information that came before, but they color and deepen the reader’s perception of the scene. The next two sentences keep with the trend:

Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten.

The first sentence did not need to add “while screaming, ‘Happy Birthday,'” in order to make sense, and the second didn’t need “kill a kitten” to complete the image. The sentences could function without those phrases, but their presence helps set the tone and even change it suddenly. (I’m willing to bet no reader expected the “Happy Birthday” song in that moment.) After all, it’s not initially clear how we ought to view these events: an addict getting kicked out of the house by his girlfriend, licking up some leftover morphine after she burns the bottle, and spending the night in an abandoned mansion. Are the events tragic? Comic? Both? Should we feel sorry for the character? Angry at him? The additions to the sentences actual prevent us from settling onto a simplistic reading of the scene—and it’s this uncertainty that is key to the story.

For contrast, here’s a sentence from a novel that runs away from uncertainty and toward absolute certainty: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This sentence is on the second page and describes Howard Roark’s face:

“It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.”

This sentence, too, could have ended earlier than it does—with “hollow cheeks” or even with “cheekbones.” Instead, it keeps adding descriptors, finishing with two options for how to understand the face: “executioner or saint.” Unlike the sentences from Our Secret Life in the Movies, however, this sentence does not deepen our understanding of the character. Instead, it points us in a firm direction. Executioner and saint are more or less complete opposites of each other. As a result, the character is limited to two black-and-white options. If you’re at all familiar with Rand’s work, you’ll recognize how this sentence sets up the novel’s didactic message: you’re either an individual or a collectivist.

But literary fiction like Our Secret Life in the Movies isn’t interested in a message, at least not one that can be easily distilled into a political motto. Instead, the prose tends to open possibilities, rather than limit them. Because McGriff and Tyree’s sentences continually add details that complicate the initial details, the story gains richness and texture and keeps the readers on their toes. The final lines are beautiful but not easily categorized within the moral dimensions that we’re often tempted to read into stories of drugs and addiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move past expected endings using “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree as a model:

  1. Choose a scene. Stylish, complex sentences can be written in any scene. What is necessary is a knowledge of who and what is involved. So, fix the scene in your mind. What’s going on? Where is it set? Who is present?
  2. Write a two-part sentence. This happened, and then this happened. McGriff and Tyree write that a woman finds a morphine bottle and then throws her shoe. Scenes often begin this way: something happens that causes a character to act. That happening and its resulting action are the reason for the scene’s existence. Focus on the logical sequence: this happened, and so this other thing happened.
  3. Add to the first part of the sentence. The sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” adds a description of the bottle of morphine mentioned at the beginning of the sentence: “the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away.” This addition is actually quite crucial to the understanding of everything else that takes place in the story. The fact that it’s given as an aside suggests a kind of shrugging reaction by the narrator, who could have led with the fact that he’d hid a serious narcotic under the sink. Instead, he mentions this fact casually, which tells us something important about him. So, try adding an essential description of the first part of the sentence in an aside that is set off by m-dashes. Doing so can give your character or narrator layers: a layer that understands the immediate events of the scene and a layer that has unspoken opinions about what is happening.
  4. Add to the second part of the sentence. This doesn’t mean adding a third part: this happened, and then this and this. Rather, you’re adding to the reader’s understanding of the second part. The sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” adds to our understanding of the thrown shoe with “the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes.” So, stay with the image or detail that is introduced in the second part of the sentence. What does it do? How does it look? How do the characters react to it? Or, if you’ve already stated these things, what else does it do? How else does it look? How else do the characters react to it?

Remember you’re moving beyond the first and most obvious details in order to discover what else is present in the moment. It’s this exploration that will reveal the scene’s complexity, and it’s this complexity that we tend to pass by when writing sentences that end at the first opportunity.

Good luck and have fun!

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3 Responses to “How to Write Sentences That Surprise the Reader”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree | Read to Write Stories - November 6, 2014

    […] To read their story, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” and an exercise on writing sentences that push past expected endings, click here. […]

  2. 12 Writing Exercises from 2014 | Read to Write Stories - December 30, 2014

    […] When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.) […]

  3. How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive | Read to Write Stories - November 10, 2015

    […] When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.) […]

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