Learning from Katherine Heiny

“The very next day, a woman ahead of Graham in line at the deli order a Reuben sandwich with French dressing instead of Russian, and Graham recalled that his ex-wife had often order that very sandwich, and then he realized the woman was his ex-wife.”

from Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Here are some thoughts about this graceful sentence.

  • The surprise in this sentence is a result of its shape, its structure. The information it presents is ordered so that readers move from “a woman ahead of Graham” and the details of a sandwich, to the memory of a woman, to the actual woman in the character’s present moment. In other words, readers move from trigger, to memory, to instance/event.
  • The process of recalling a memory takes place within the process of ordering a meal. The character’s mundane becomes a source of possible drama and his reaction to this event characterizes. Graham, in the sentences that follow this one, vacillates between inviting his ex-wife to eat with him and avoiding her by slipping away.
  • The italics provide an emphasis that perhaps characterizes but also gives readers an additional clue that while we’re within Graham’s consciousness his ex-wife is also present before him and us.

Consider building a sentence using a similar structure, one that moves from trigger to memory to surprising presence.

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