The sentences that compose novels aren’t analogous to the ingredients in cupcakes. Because some wonderful sentences say very little. Others convey a great deal despite cliché, repetition, clumsiness, or worse. The good news? While there’s no manual for acquiring voice and vision, everyone can improve at syntax. And probably everyone should. Who wants to bake cupcakes with inferior ingredients? Or write a novel deadened with a lousy sentence here or there?
Folks agree more about quality in cupcakes than sentences. Genre, reading rate, tolerance for ambiguity, enthusiasm about complexity, ear for rhythm, and other factors all contribute. And novelists won’t improve syntax by saying, “Well, it sounds okay to me.” A writer’s tolerance for “okay” is often greater than a reader’s. Put yourself in the ear of someone who didn’t write the sentence.
Listen. Really listen. Without rationalizing or shrugging off. That’s the first step toward prose like Neil Gaiman’s description of Fat Charlie seeking a more accurate name:
He would introduce himself as Charles or, in his early twenties, Chaz, or, in writing, as C. Nancy, but it was no use: the name would creep in, infiltrating the new part of his life just as cockroaches invade the cracks and the world behind the fridge in a new kitchen, and like it or not—and he didn’t—he would be Fat Charlie again. — Anansi Boys,
Sentences needn’t be long or complex to resonate. In Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier uses the external world to capture the internal: “The memory passed on as the light from the window rose toward day.” Tracy Chevalier’s creates character in The Lady and the Unicorn with “Jean Le Viste’s jaw is like a hatchet, his eyes like knife blades.”
Which elements do all these sentences share in common?
Create sound patterns without relying on passive voice or words that fail to supply both meaning and sound. Read authors you love aloud. Read your own work aloud.
If it’s not adding, it’s subtracting. Make every word work.
One good verb can replace a chain of adjectives and adverbs. Energize.
In the end, though, the sentence is as elusive as Amy Tan’s description of love in The Hundred Secret Senses
It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.
A lovely sentence floods the senses, too, by wedding content to presentation. What makes some sentences “irresistible”? That’s beguilingly unknowable. But the mystery of sentence beauty isn’t permission to disregard it. Keep chasing the solution to that mystery. By revising.