Learning from Chekhov

“Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flock flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with such joy, offered anything new and interesting to Maria Vasuilyevna, who was sitting in the cart.”

“The Cart” by Anton Chekhov

I really like this sentence.

  • The sentence gives readers a landscape and a character and her mindset.
  • The semi-colons set the stage. They control broad establishing temporal shots, letting readers know about the time of year without allowing that information to be presented in a static way. We know what winters are like in this world Chekhov is building and we know how this spring has arrived. But the seasons are presented abstractly at first
  • For most of the rest of the sentence, a world is presented in images. Those images are built from actual, specific objects (woods, flock, fields, puddles, sky), sensory language (warmth and black, most obviously), and some metaphors.
  • The sentence is also structured to present a mystery. The phrase “but neither the” leads readers into the rest of the sentence wondering what the elements implied by it will be. The mystery begins to be answered with a character’s reaction to the world. The images didn’t offer “anything new and interesting to Maria.” We read on, at least partly, to see why and how there could be nothing new or interesting for her here. Chekhov presents a place that is likely to interest readers and then lets them know this character is not interested in it.
  • “Joy” appears in the sentence to create engaging contrast with the character’s state of mind.
  • Anti-climax is used strategically as the sentence ends with “sitting in the cart.” At the same time, it almost immediately reminds readers of the title of the story.

Chekhov certainly took the advice that “sentences should do more than one thing” seriously.

What might you add to these ideas about the sentence?

100 x 100 II

Since my last “current projects” post, I’m at 82/100. Some of these are certainly going to be tossed, but I like others. Given teaching and other business, I feel good about what I’ve done so far. Hoping for more revision over the summer and more attention toward submitting work for publication, my biggest weakness.


It’s the experience of writing that I’m addicted to . . . the spying into character’s lives, the living dangerously while always having reality as a safety net, the falling in love, the falling in hate. Writing lets me feel what my life hasn’t. It lets me experience what my life couldn’t.

            –Peter Miller

Reading Like a Writer: T. Kingfisher

“If you have ever tried to stay afloat on a pair of magic bread slices, then you know what it’s like.”

from A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

The equally delightful sentences before this one provide some context. Basically, the main character is trying to escape pursuers and persuades two pieces of bread to act as tiny pontoons (one for each foot) so she can cross a river.

Here are some thoughts about this sentence:

  • This is an excellent example of incidental, non-infodump worldbuilding. It appears organically in the text. It is not boring or long. It does not impede the narrative’s momentum. The best worldbuilding happens similarly.
  • An impossibility for readers is not one for characters. This creates surprise for readers out of the mundane for a character. The subtext, or the character’s assumption, is something like “You might have done this. What? No?” That assumption of the possibility of common experience–even this experience–helps create a closeness between readers and this character.
  • The cliche “you know what it’s like” does at least two things. The first is a surprise as readers realize that no, they can’t know what it is like. The second is an appealing gesture of good faith: What’s possible for me might be possible for you. The characterization in the gesture of good faith outweighed any distancing caused by the realization that the character and I are in different worlds. I was instead charmed by it.

Consider an mundane possibility for a character of yours that is probably impossible for readers. How might it be casually, incidentally presented in a way that indicates good faith and community?

Remember the best part

I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part.

–Anne Lamott

Learning from William Faulkner

That title is misleading since it would be easy to teach a class on Faulkner (indeed, people do) and this it just one post. I do recommend reading his work as a Creative Writing textbook. Even a sentence is a good place to start.

From The Sound and the Fury, “His hands were jabbing at my face and he was saying something and trying to bite me, I reckon, and then they hauled him off and held him heaving and thrashing and yelling and they held his arms and he tried to kick me until they dragged him back.”

Trying to read this as a writer, here are some thoughts.

  • I have not written many violent physical confrontations, but this sentence seems to emphasize the visual images of a character in a specific moment rather than fight choreography. In other words, rather than a second-by-second description of who was where when, readers are within one of the character’s consciousnesses.
  • This sentence characterizes both the character being attacked and the one attacking. Faulkner gives us the experience through words his character would choose, through the vocabulary of a specific character: “reckon,” “thrashing,” repetition, and the alliteration of “held him heaving.” Described actions characterize the attacker, whose “hands were jabbing,” “trying to bite,” and, once they held his arms, he kicked.
  • The conventional wisdom in Creative Writing seems to be that events that happen quickly are best presented in many short sentence (see, for example, Heather Sellers’s excellent The Practice of Creative Writing : “. . . you use short sentences to indicate fast-paced action . . . And when you want to slow down the pace, in order to show a process that is taking place over a long period of time, use a long sentence” [203]). But, I wonder. Here is Faulkner again in short sentences:
    • His hands were jabbing at my face. He was saying something. He tried to bite me, I reckon. Then they hauled him off. He heaved and thrashed and yelled. They held his arms. He tried to kick me. They dragged him back.
    • Perhaps the experience of reading these short sentences and the moment being described contrast too sharply for me, but the periods jerk the fast-paced action to a stop. That Faulkner’s longer sentence doesn’t stop gives the experience of reading it and what it describes greater speed than the shorter sentences.
  • Since I’ve quoted Sellers above, I’ll also mention the excellent Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively by Hans Ostrom, Wendy Bishop, and Katharine Haake. More specifically, their exercise “Sentence Sounds: Exploring the ‘Conjunctive’ and ‘Disjunctive,'” on 171-173, mentions Faulkner in interesting ways.

Grimly determined

“I was turned down for ten years. I couldn’t get a thing in print. My writing went nowhere. I guess you have to be persistent. Talent is just one element of the writing business. You also have to have a stubborn nature. That’s rarer even than the talent, I think. You have to be grimly determined. I certainly was disappointed; I got upset. But you have to go back to the desk again, to the mailbox once more, and await your next refusal.”

—William Gass, from a 1995 interview with BOMB


“‘I simply imagined,’ [Faulkner said of As I Lay Dying] ‘ a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes which are flood and fire with a simple natural motive [burial] to give direction to their progress'” (111).

Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction

Learning from Steve Martin

This is the first sentence from one of his novels, An Object of Beauty:

I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.

What writing strategies does it suggest?

  • A character’s fairly direct statement of desire can be an effective hook, but this sentence includes, more interestingly, conflicting desires. The character seems to both want to forget Lacy and to think about her deeply enough to have written about her.
  • The sentence presents movement from one state of mind (“tired”), to another (“worry”), to a third (a dedication to a task/desire). “Yet” bridges two of these states of mind. “Unless” gives not completing the task or fulfilling the desire a consequence for the character. The sentence feels like a plan and includes something at risk for the character. Readers are likely to read on to see if the character gets what they want and how the plan unfolds.
  • The sentence also characterizes. The character, at least so far, feels comfortable trying to tell this story and hopes to see it “bound and tidy” on a shelf.