Sentences are the veins of fiction. They carry the lifeblood of the story to the reader so that he or she may become filled with the experience. And a sentence is a writer’s most important tool for making that happen…so we should be constantly trying to make our sentences better.
The best way to study is to look at the masters of this craft and see how they use sentences. One thing you will learn very quickly when you do this is: every sentence has a goal. Sometimes that goal is carrying the action forward and sometimes its giving deeper meaning to the story but no sentence is arbitrary. Each one has a purpose. Here are some of my favorites:
Goal: Create a Visceral Image
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
—Toni Morrison, “Sula”
I love this sentence. It makes me think of an ever-expanding wave that keeps getting larger and larger the more it goes on. When you apply that image to a cry, you can see just how encompassing it is so you experience it as well.
Goal: Express Emotion
Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.
—Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
After reading this sentence, you feel the sense of failure and shame the author is expressing. His use of “bones,” “straining,” and “weight” all add up to an overwhelming burden of expectations that he cannot carry, making the reader feel genuine sympathy for him.
Goal: Reveal a Universal Truth
Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.
—John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
What I love about this sentence is it is said by a simple character, yet it is truly profound. A universal truth is uttered in the most clear and straightforward way possible. That’s a damn good sentence.
Goal: Shock or Startle
And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.
—Martin Amis, London Fields
I haven’t read this book but this sentence hit me right between the eyes. It shocked me enough to want to find out more about the book. While it is startling, it also is very true. Time does destroy us on some level, doesn’t it?
Now you try it! Think of a goal for a sentence. It doesn’t have to be for something you’re currently working on, it could even be for a blog post. Once you have that goal in mind, write a sentence that accomplishes that goal.