Between the pages of most writing books, the majority of real estate is given to the finer points of plot, theme, characterization, setting and dialogue. But precious little space is dedicated to the nitty gritty of prose. I’m not talking about “don’t use adverbs” and “avoid adjective pile-ups”; I’m talking about sentence construction. It’s not enough to get the story right. You have to get the words right, too, and in the right order.
Consider my all-time favorite sentence by Ernest Hemingway in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”:
“His wife had been a great beauty and she was still a great beauty in Africa, but she was not a great enough beauty any more at home to be able to leave him and better herself and she knew it and he knew it.”
At first glance, the language seems simple. But go deeper and notice the repetition of “great beauty.” Sounds almost like poetry, doesn’t it? And the words “knew it,” repeated toward the end, add to the musical quality of the sentence. Then there’s the truth of his words, the verisimilitude of feeling, one that we’ve all surely experienced: that the opportunity to take our lives in a different direction has passed and will never, ever come again. Finally, Hemingway gives us a whopper of an ending, saving the most painful realization for last. It wasn’t bad enough for the wife to realize she was out of options, her husband had realized it, too. If Hemingway had reversed the order of the words, putting the husband’s epiphany first, it would have minimized the impact. As it stands, we experience the end of the sentence like a knife to the gut.
The next time you’re reading and come across a sentence that really sings, dissect it and figure out what makes it so successful. If you can do that, you’re half-way to writing one yourself. Practice will take you the rest of the way. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll share a few more of my favorites and why I think they work.