When Less Is More

Like many people who write, I love language, and I especially admire writers that are able to compress details and time into just a few words.

Look at this example from Jim Henry’s story, “The Flood.”

“When I got home from the gym there was a message for the other Jonathan Patrick from a guy named Willie who said he’d had a prophetic dream and absolutely had to talk to me.”
One sentence. Lots of stuff going on. Notice the use of the word “other.” The other Jonathan Patrick. Immediately you know the narrator’s name. You know there’s someone else named that, you wonder who it is. You wonder who Willie is. You also wonder what the prophetic dream was. This opening sentence is working on so many different levels, compressing time and info information a compact, intriguing sentence.

And this from James Salter’s “Foreign Shores.”

Mrs. Pence and her white shoes were gone. She had left two days before, and the room at the top of the stairs was empty, cosmetics no longer littering the dresser, the ironing board finally taken down. Only a few scattered hairpins and a dusting of talcum remained. The next day Truus came with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. It was March and cold. Christopher met her in the kitchen as if by accident. “Do you shoot people?” he asked.

From this paragraph, which is the story’s opener, we know so much. For starters, there was a “Mrs. Pence,” who is now gone. Notice the use of the word “finally.” The ironing board was finally taken down, as if it had been a point of contention during her entire stay. And then Truus arrives with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. Splotched! You have to love this word. And even though you don’t know right away who Christopher is, you understand immediately that he must be a child, because no grownup would ask such a question! Lastly, notice how much time is compressed in this short graph. We get this idea of Pence having lived there, of Truus arriving and meeting Christopher, all in 6 sentences. It’s truly amazing.

During revision, one of the things I try to ask myself is, Are the sentences working as hard as they can? Is each word doing its job? Would less be more?

Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr Creative Commons

Read Your Sentences Aloud

I read this post from a friend of mine and was reminded of something John Cheever wrote in the forward to his collection of stories. He said, “My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud.”

At about the same time that a read that post, a poet friend of mine suggested reading my sentences aloud while composing. I’ve found that the technique works best when it comes time to hone and shape a sentence, not necessarily in the first draft. For me, the first ugly draft is about getting the ideas on the page as best I can. But at some point, I’m interested in crafting beautiful sentences that contain just the right words. That’s when it makes sense to start reading them aloud. Try it and let me know if it works for you.

Related Post: Sentences Are the Pack Mules of Literature

Photo: Wonderlane / Flickr Creative Commons

The Right Word

I’m always so impressed with writers who construct amazing sentences comprised of exactly the right words. I try to do this with my own writing, but know it’s a talent that needs much developed. I recently asked my writing friend Kim Davis, who writes beautiful poetry, for advice on polishing my word-choice skills. She had some simple advice.

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Sentences Are the Pack Mules of Literature

On Tuesday, I wrote the post, 100 Most Beautiful Words, and tried to make the case that although words are wonderful, sentences are what’s important. That night, I sat down with Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction and read the chapter devoted entirely to the sentence. Some things Bauer said stood out for me and I wanted to share them with you. First, Bauer says that “…sentences do the most utilitarian of work: they carry the story from our imagination to the reader. They are the pack mules of literature. They are principally and finally beasts of burden.” He goes on to say that “if we understand that sentences are our tools of utility, and I think we must, we can still get real exhilaration, and I think we should, from the breadth and the capacity of their utility.” He goes on to give examples how a writer can “shape and modulate sentences” so that they convey the story with clarity and impact.

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100 Most Beautiful Words

This isn’t my list. But a friend passed it along and I thought it was interesting. It’s one person’s collection of the 100 Most Beautiful Words. I’d have to agree that many of these words roll over the tongue in a pleasing way. Desultory. Efflorescence. Lissome. I love words, but more than that, I love sentences. I believe that while a single word may be lovely or conversely hideous, may be firm or feeble, it’s the sentence that creates the aesthetic.

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