Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beauty and the Written Word

People rarely compare novels or the sentences composing them to sonnets or cathedrals, to sculpture or symphonies. Yet the artistry is parallel—meticulous engineering that results in capacity to mesmerize. Great plots amaze: A woman proves her loyalty by each night unraveling the tapestry she’ll reweave the next day; a man dooms ship and crew because he confuses the death of a white whale with justice; a boy travels down the Mississippi fleeing “sivilization” and finds it in a runaway’s heart, or a girl discovers how many kinds of mockingbirds exist and why they deserve protection.

What makes these plots gorgeous? For a start, each says something not just important, but profoundly so—about who people are and who they might become. Each plot synthesizes behavior and thought, proving its hypothesis with events both probable and essential—each incident leading inevitably to the climax. That has the haunting power of a symphony, no?

Novels depend on plot. But the best novels contain sentences rivaling the magnificence of scenario, scene, or theme. Here’s a tiny sample.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”  -- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“All he knew, really, was digging.  He dug to eat, to breathe, to live and sleep.  He dug because the earth was there beneath his feet, and men paid him to move it.  He dug because it was a sacrament, because it was honorable and holy.” -- T. Coraghessan Boyle, “The Underground Gardens”

“The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned.” --Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

How do you start producing increasingly beautiful sentences?

  • Know what you want to say—something original. Important. Yours alone.
  • Listen for rhythm—in everything you read or hear. It begins with noticing.
  • Explore all five senses, and “explore” never means the first thing that leaps to mind.
  • Replace vague, distancing constructions like “There were” and “It is.” Tighten up. Get close.
  • Take risks. But take them thoughtfully.
  • Never rationalize the weaknesses you pretend not to notice in your prose. Ever.

 Tip: Aspire to beauty. You’ll never let your readers down.

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