The Calculus of a Great Sentence

HATE the idea that there is some formula that will yield a great story. Sure, there are blueprints out there that will allow you to make a story. And, depending on your talent with the actual language, it may even be a pretty good story. But the idea that there is some “great story” rubric out there, in the ether? Well, that whole thing pisses me off mightily. And not because it systematizes art in a distinctly capitalist mode, but because that stupid idea crushes so many would-be writers who spend days/months/years comparing themselves to Checkov/O’Connor/Saunders and feel they just can’t ever “get it right.”

So say it with me: There is no magical “right way” to write a story.

However, there is a right way to write each story.

Confusing? Yep.

But it’s true. Each individual story creates its own “rules” in collaboration with the individual writer working on it. In other words, if you and I were to write the “same” story, each of us would discover our own “right way” to tell it through our personal engagement with the work itself. In the writing, you unconsciously set up and agree to certain rules that come from your own reaction to the material you are discovering. And it’s a real chicken-and-the-egg kinda’ thing, where what you discover leads you to make choices about rules that lead you to more discovery that may lead to altering the rules and so on.

Let me offer a micro-example of this kind of “formula” on the page, and maybe it will make more sense. I’m currently reading Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Early in the book, during Anna’s visit with the Styles children, this sentence appears:

Beyond the windows of an adjacent front room, the sea tingled under a
thin winter sun(p. 5)

By itself, it isn’t a stunning sentence. It’s pretty, sure, and clear in its image, but something about it rang in my brain. After thinking about it for far too long, I realized that it was the word “adjacent,” a bummer of a word if ever there was one. We say that specificity in writing is important, but I think what we really mean is clarity. “Adjacent” is an extremely specific word, but it takes a LOT of work to make it sexy. Even with its fun D-into-J sound, you’d have to work your writing magic to make “adjacent” the centerpiece of a sentence.

So why does Egan, who knows her way around language, use “adjacent” here? The answer, I think, lies in the second half of the sentence.

“…the sea tingled under a thin winter sun.” Now, let’s give credit where credit is due. If “adjacent” is a dud, the back half of the sentence does all kinds of awesome things sonically. Sea and sun give you those sibilants at the beginning and end of the phrase, anchoring you. Tingled, thin, and winter have that -in- sound, and tingled and winter also give you the hard T sound. Under and sun rock the -un-. There’s even the -th- repetition in the and thin. It’s a compact little nugget of sonic joy that really hinges on the creative use of “tingled” as a reaction of the sea to the sun.

And it’s almost too much. Even divorced from the language around it, it’s jam-packed with intention. When you take it in context, it sticks out like a sore thumb: There is little else in the first few pages that reaches for that kind of sound/image.

So, Egan applies a little “adjacent” beforehand in order to soften the impact of that final phrase. I’d argue that “Beyond” has a similar effect to “adjacent” without being quite as awkward, creating a cumulative effect in the first half of the sentence that at once both diminishes and heightens the second half. It lowers the reader’s expectations so that the musicality of the back half is a pleasant surprise, not at all over the top.

So what does this little gem of a sentence have to do with the idea of making our own rules as we go? Well, there were approximately one million and forty-thousand ways (± 1,040,000) Egan could have pulled off this same sentence. However, from inside the work itself, through her engagement with both what she had already written and what she intended to write, she settled on this approach. She created her own math, the calculus of a great sentence for this passage, this chapter, this section, this book, etc.

Egan’s math may not work for you. It may do the trick nicely. It may simply suggest some ways your own calculus can and will shake out. But, remember, fellow writer, that her way is only the right way for her while writing this particular story. She may never use this particular math equation again. Just like you and me, she may well have to discover all-new math, exciting formulas, and ridiculous tricks the next time she sets out to write.

Paying attention to your process is almost as important, early in a work, as paying attention to the words on the page. It is through this attention to our own engagement with the story we’re telling that these rules are revealed/created.

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