by Sarah Ruhl and from the Jan/Feb 2023 Poets & Writers.
Sometime I forget why I should keep writing. I hope you make a list of your own. Here is mine.
Write for God. The cave. The envelope.
Write for your mother. Your father. Your friend who is sick.
Write for the future. Write for the past. Write for the present, but sideways.
Write for the child who saw cruelty, and for those dispossessed of language.
Write for your daughter. Write for your son. If they don’t exist, write for the dream of them.
Write for your uncle to weep, for your aunt to laugh. For your babysitter to cover her face with recognition.
Write for the church you walked past with a sign that read: THEATER AT SACRAMENT. And you misread it as: THEATER AS SACRAMENT.
Write for the accountants whose eyes are too tired at night for numbers. For the farmers who grow your corn.
Write for your teachers. Write for every single hour they left off writing their own sentences so that they could read yours.
Write to thank the books you love.
Write for yourself.
Write for God. The cave. And the envelope.
The last few months I’ve been revising by reading aloud and line-editing as I go. This is surprisingly satisfying, especially when I can read in big blocks of time, like three or four hours. Before these sentence-level changes, I made bigger structural changes by dragging and dropping or cutting large pieces of text. Once I had chapter-level changes made, I started on the sentences.
Once I’m done with the sentences, I’ll write a synopsis. Then I’ll write an elevator pitch.
I like this approach, but I think that the next time I start something big, I’ll begin by drafting pitches, then the synopsis, then a manuscript. I’ll do structural changes and proofreading in the same order as I am currently.
And then they were eighteen, and not just leaving home but desperate to begin three permanently separate adult lives, which is exactly what would’ve happened if the Oppenheimer family hadn’t taken a turn for the strange and quite possibly unprecedented. But it did – we did – and that has made all the difference.
The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz
These sentences end a prologue about triplets that seem to dislike each other, or are at least indifferent toward each other, notwithstanding one parent’s efforts. The prologue hooked me, and I’m enjoying continuing to read the book.
What do these sentences teach about writing?
- The longer sentence clearly announces a desire and immediately complicates it in a way that implies questions: Strange how? Unprecedented? Really? Readers are likely to read on with an interest in the answers to those questions.
- A process–leaving home and establishing independent identities–is interrupted. How that process might continue or how it might become something new or what happens if the process is stopped . . . these are all potential sources of tension. The sentences have implications the rest of the book can explore.
- The second sentence is much shorter, which provides a nice contrast. It also narrates from a self-effacing “we” which appears for the first time in what had seemed a third-person text. The “we” is also in tension with the dislike the triplets have stated for each other. In some sense, they, it seems, speak together. It’s also possible that one of them is comfortable claiming to speak for the others. Which of these two possibilities is the case? Readers read on to find out.
- Finally, the last phrase is an allusion to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which emphasizes the theme of “a turn for the strange” verses remaining typical that seems to be developing.
In other words, people naturally create stories, breaking up those clock-ticking seconds and replacing them with dramatic rising action, heart-stopping climaxes, and resolutions. Storytellers “lengthen time” with focus and careful description and contract time with descriptive brevity, summary, or even absence. The simple choice of when to start and when to stop the story imposes significance and value on certain events and diminishes others.
Kylie Nielson Turley
“Equally important, the scene is required for what it does to the reader’s emotional involvement with these two people. As they become friends, they win our friendship. As they impress each other with their warmth and generosity, they impress us as well” (107).
–Wayne Booth on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India
Notice this strategy for beginning from “Ghosts and Empties” in Lauren Groff’s collection Florida: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.” Good first sentences, like this one, contain tension (both within and external to the character here) and something at risk (the narrator’s relationships, maybe, and sense of self almost certainly).
Notice this first sentence from later in the same collection: “The storm came and erased the quiet. Well, the older sister thought, an island is never really quiet.” The sense of tension, as in the world being more complicated than the first sentence might suggest, at least to these characters, is something these two sentences from Florida have in common. It’s a good strategy, one Groff uses often.
Finally, characterization also begins immediately, along with plot. Because the tension (sense of self in one sentence and a storm in another) is important to the characters and their actions or situation, the beginnings also provide an implied question and so the impulse to move forward into the story: how will the tension be resolved?
He said: the sky was this pink no painter could approximate, one of the detonation theorist used to try, a pretty fair Sunday painter, he never got it.
Democracy by Joan Didion
Democracy is about many things, but one of them is the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. I recommend the novel. Here are some quick thoughts about this sentence from Didion’s book.
- The comma splices rush readers to the phrase “he never got it.” Why? Where in your writing might you use this technique of moving readers toward a phrase quickly? Which phrase?
- This sentence characterizes the “he” who said it. One of the things he remembers from the nuclear testing is this painter’s efforts. It is an interesting enough memory for this character that he brings it back up, and that tells readers about him. But this sentence also characterizes the detonation theorist who paints. The response of the theorist to his own work is to try and capture the results of it (particles raised by the tests change the color of the sky). One sentence characterizes the person who said it and the person the sentence is about.
- “Detonation theorist,” at least for me, provides an interesting contrast with the rest of the sentence and the setting around it. The specifics associated with painting might be well known to readers (brushes and paint, canvas or houses), but fewer specifics are obviously associated with the work of a detonation theorist. What professions can contrast with hobbies or other activities? “Psychiatrist” and “serial killer” is one example Harris has used. These contrasts can provide an initial kernel of characterization.
- This sentence also demonstrates the possibility of quickly capturing big, philosophical questions. An entire manuscript isn’t necessary to ask about how humans respond to preparing for war or coping with, perhaps, difficult employment. The question can be raised quickly, though resolving or exploring it takes more time.
“She stayed and read. Nicholas Nickleby had seemed as endless to her as time must seem to him, and it had now been arranged between them, without words, that she was to sit there beside him and read – but silently, to herself. He too was completely silent while she read.”
from The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
I think these sentences provide enough context, but my memory suggests (though I’m not perfectly sure) that they describe a daughter reading to an aged father.
Here are some quick thoughts.
- Character’s reactions characterize them, including, here, the narrator’s reaction to Nicholas Nickleby. How your characters react to just about anything reveals them to readers.
- Characters that “read the minds” of other characters can be fascinating, both in the mind reading itself, but also in what characters assume is in the minds of other characters. The narrator thinks the book is endless; she thinks he must think of time as endless. Contrasts or harmony between what a character “reads” in another character’s mind and what is actually there (as shown through the second character’s actions or dialogue), can also characterize the characters and their relationship.
- What arrangements might your characters make without words? What might those arrangements and how they are made suggest about them?
- When are pairs of your characters silent? When do they speak? What are the implications of those silences? Anger? Comfort? Safety?
- I think when we talk about sentence lengths, what ends up actually happening is a short sentence after an extremely long one. The short sentence, especially if it contrasts with the long one can be funny. Length isn’t the only factor in this, obviously, but consider this from Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt: “Tova Sullivan preparers for battle. A yellow rubber glove sticks up from her back pocket like a canary’s plume as she bends over to size up her enemy. Chewing gum.” The contrast between “battle,” “enemy,” and “chewing gum” and the paragraph break between “enemy” and “chewing” also helps make this chapter opening funny.
- Both Van Pelt and Welty, rather than a short sentence after an extremely long one, give readers a short sentence followed by a longer one and then another short sentence.
- I’ve mention long/short sentence patterns and provided examples of short/long/short patterns. Can you find interesting examples of short/long or long/short/long sentences? How might those patterns influence readers experiences?
- What, if anything, besides the content of the sentences and the paragraph break makes the two sets of three sentences (one set from Welty and one from Van Pelt) so different from each other?