Tag Archives: How to write a sentence

How to Write Sentences that Offer Unexpected Views

7 Jul
Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles writer who directs the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. Her Facebook posts about her son were republished in Rockwell's Camera Phone.

Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles writer who directs the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. Her Facebook posts about her son were republished in Rockwell’s Camera Phone.

I recently heard a discussion on a panel of writers, editors, and agents about the difference between literary and non-literary fiction. Someone said, as they always do when this question is posed, that literary fiction puts more focus on sentences, that it’s more interested in language. I agree with this statement, mostly, but it’s also vague. What does it mean to be interested in language? What do great sentences look like? The answer isn’t as clear as we’d like to think. Does language mean big words, as my freshman composition students like to think? Does it mean “poetic” language (whatever that means), as I often heard as a MFA student? Here’s another possibility: literary language is active on a sentence level. The very structure of the sentences elicits a response from the reader—not an intellectual response, though that may be the case as well, but an uncontrolled grunt or gasp. Good sentences catch our attention. Some of the most interesting sentences I’ve read lately were written by Natashia Deón. They were originally written as Facebook posts but were republished as stand-alone pieces in Rockwell’s Camera Phone, where you can read them here and here.

How the Sentences Work

Here is the first post, containing four sentences:

People will ask, “If your son uses more sign language than you know and doesn’t speak, how do you know what he wants?” This, just now, means, “Don’t go to the post office, mom, unless you leave your cell phone with me and another bowl of Cheerios. Dry. No milk.”

I’m claiming these are beautiful, interesting sentences, and perhaps you find this surprising. The language is straightforward, not lyric, and describes mundane things: sign language, post office, Cheerios. So what makes it noteworthy? The answer, in my view: The way the sentences pivot. The first sentence (“People will ask…”) asks a simple question. The second sentence answers it, and that answer is given in a direct way: “This, just now, means.” And what it means it something simple and clear: “leave your cell phone with me and another bowl of Cheerios.” But then something happens in the third and fourth sentences. The answer in the second sentence is clarified: “Dry. No milk.” Again, the language is simple and clear, but it has also moved in an unexpected direction. Remember, this information is being communicated from son to mother through sign language that only one of them knows. In other words, the first sentence has set up a problem: the speaker can’t understand the language her son speaks. But when we’re told what he’s saying, it’s incredibly specific. The incongruence between the problem and the answer isn’t clear until “Dry. No milk.” In that moment, the sentences pivot. They’ve been moving along in one direction and then, like a hinge, they swing open to offer a new view: the speaker intuits what her son wants because she loves and knows him well, not because of his literal ability to communicate. Here is another post, containing two sentences. Watch for the pivot:

There’s a tiny square of light that comes through our living room window in the morning at about 7:45 a.m. and stays for only about 5 minutes. Big Boy waits for it every day.

Again, the first sentence is clear and straightforward. So is the second sentence. But the connection is unexpected. The square of light is mundane and momentary, barely worth notice—except to the speaker’s son. The sentences are constructed and paired to highlight this unexpected connection. There is a pivot point, and the second sentence swings open.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure sentences around a pivot point, using the posts by Natashia Deón as a model. We’ll use two different approaches. Here’s the first:

  1. Pose a question. Make it something straightforward but not too simple, answerable with yes or no. Make it require explanation. Try beginning with “How do you…”
  2. Answer the question (Part 1). Make your answer just as straightforward as the question: “”Like this. Be specific. Imagine that you’re actually speaking to someone. If you answered them with metaphor or abstraction, they’d probably look at you funny. End the sentence with closure so that it can be read as a stand-alone answer. How do you ____? Like this: _____.
  3. Answer the question (Part 2). Add a clarifying note to the answer. This is your pivot. Add a detail that is unexpectedly specific or that shifts the answer in some way. For instance, if the answer takes place within a particular frame (day/night/in a house/in a park), use the pivot to shift the answer out of that frame. Here’s an example: “How do learn to keep your balance on a skateboard? Like this: Stand on it, every day. On the edge of your bathtub.” I don’t make any claim for these sentences’ greatness. But I hope that you can see the construction, the pivot.

Here’s a second approach:

  1. Make a statement about something that exists or happens in the world. It doesn’t really matter what the statement is about. The subject can be small (Water is dripping from the ceiling) or large (Greece is an island in Europe). It can even be vague (Love is kind).
  2. Make a second statement about the subject that contains a word or idea that isn’t implicit in the first statement. In Deón’s sentences about the light, the word wait isn’t implied by the first statement; the light is just predictably there. But when the second sentence introduces wait, we see the light in a new way, as something fleeting and worth seeing. That’s the power of the pivot. Here are two examples. Water is dripping from the ceiling. My brother won’t get out of the shower. The first sentence suggests urgency. The second sentence (and I make no claim for its artfulness) introduces the idea that someone could ignore the emergency. Greece is an island in Europe. When it’s underwater, the entire continent could go under. Again, this is not particularly artful, yet the second sentence does flip the relationships implicit in the first sentence. In the first, Greece is small, but in the second, it’s powerful. (And that is the extent of my political wisdom.) So, think about the relationships or attitudes present in the first sentence. How can you write a second sentence that introduces a contradictory or unexpected relationship or attitude?

Good luck and have fun.

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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