Still Loyal to the Sentence

By Susan Scarf MerrellNovember 25, 2013

Still Loyal to the Sentence

IN THE BUSINESS OF STORYTELLING, the sentence is the perfect employee — no job too big or small, independent though part of the whole, pitching in as needed: star employees represent for the company and bring glory to the entire team.

Think of “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s much-mulled-over opening sentence to Anna Karenina is a marvelous set-up of parallel ideas — the repetition of sound and word and phraseology is bold in terms of language-making, and the idea itself stated so confidently that it is not until we are far into the novel (perhaps even finished with it) that we begin to doubt the original assertion.

When the work is at its best, an opening sentence tells you everything you need to know about the story that follows, as in Hawthorne’s opening to “Young Goodman Brown.” “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.” The biblical language — came forth — the fact that the village is Salem, the hesitance that takes Brown back over the threshold to home for a reminder of the happiness he has found there, the underscoring of the word young by its repetition — all these details tell the reader that we’re off on a journey begun in innocence, that good and evil are in play, that what is at stake is love. Hawthorne sets the terms; the reader isn’t even conscious of accepting them.

In Amy Hempel’s profoundly moving story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried, the first line subtly establishes very high stakes: "‘Tell me things I won't mind forgetting,’ she said.” So the narrator does, entertaining her dying friend with impossible bits of trivia, trying to mask her own anxiety in the face of death, but in such a way that every bit of insignificance adds up. Throughout, Hempel shifts from past to present tense without regard for storytelling “rules,” the shifting disconnected from the actual past and present in the story’s world. Hempel is so adept we barely realize that she’s toying with us, sentence after sentence. And the most important phrase is actually the one that follows the story’s ending, the dedication “for Jessica Wolfson.” It is this transformative moment, after the apparent life of the story is over, that carries the reader over the wall of fiction into the room of experience, a place where each of us harbors a memory of a time when we failed to make the right gesture, to do the right thing. Summed up in a three words (not even a full sentence!), held apart from the world of the story, is the universal experience of grief and regret: this singularly bold move is the detail that informs the transcendent whole.

“There are those of us who are still loyal at the level of the sentence,” Hempel once said, and it’s clear from her work that she is one of them. Of course, it is sentences that create the parts of story that we readers and writers readily identify and love — characterization, tension, description — so many things to do with them: use them as incantatory charms, as thematic elements; turn them into paragraphs (short or long); vary their rhythms; change tenses, move clauses; alter point of view. And every so often, a sentence becomes a story’s reason for being. To wit, the exquisitely crazy opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

That sentence — it isn’t merely a sentence; my god, it’s a doctrine — and guide to every word that follows. It lays out the conditions with which the novel will toy, and does so with complete commitment to language, and with an aplomb few writers have matched.

But sentences can’t always be glorious. They also have to work as connective tissue. As Ursula Le Guin puts it in her marvelous (and marvelously titled) book, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, “the basic function of the narrative sentence is to keep the story going and keep the reader going with it.” Sentences, as much as they can be gorgeous in isolation, must sometimes plainly serve, so as not to exhaust us before we reach our destination.

Some of the best writing about sentences that I know is contained in the briefest of writing books: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by the literary theorist Stanley Fish. Many lovers of rhetoric could take issue with the basic idea of the early chapters, that to learn how to write beautiful sentences, one can practice building them from basic noun-verb relationships, layering in more and more complexity by adding clauses and descriptors. True, this is not the way to create art. But it is the way to create an artist. Just as learning to draw teaches the aspiring artist technique — about form and proportion and tone and color and composition — mastering the forms of sentence-making is the first step toward writerly accomplishment.

A Fish exercise I find surprisingly illustrative is this simple one: Pick four nouns and a verb OR an auxiliary modifier (such as should, could, must, would). Write the five words down. Now write five different sentences using all of those words, adding other words, as needed, making the sentences simple or complex.

For me, there are two general ways in which enlightenment can come: First, with the same five words, the variations in meaning that can be derived are as close to infinite as I can imagine. Second, with the same five words, the alterations in sound and rhythm are equally limitless. I didn’t have to do this exercise more than once to understand that the way I put language together can be molded and remolded, for rhythm, sure, but also to modulate meaning and to build tension. If I was already awed by the power of words in combination with words, doing the exercise gave me a trick for remaining aware, and memory of the exercise helps me to be playful, to examine the structure of my sentences as I write, and to think constantly about flipping the order of things. “After the storm, I cleaned the windows” does one thing in a sentence; “I cleaned the windows after the storm” another. And “After the windows were cleaned, we no longer discussed the storm” is radically different from “I cleaned the damn windows, Ethel; now shut up about the storm!” While none of these sentences is particularly beautiful, they do demonstrate that thinking about construction in the abstract, separate from the idea of meaning, can produce more meaningful, interesting writing.

Let’s take this to the extreme, shall we? In the 1920s, the Dadaists created poems by drawing random words out of a hat. And this collagist technique has subsequently been used by artists as varied as William S. Burroughs and David Bowie and Julio Cortazar and Kurt Cobain. Here [click] is Jackson’s opening to Hill House (see above) run through a William S. Burroughs-like cut-up machine:

No long of katydids dream live to absolute are organism exist reality supposed can sanely even by continue under larks some for conditions and to


Of course, none of the artists named above simply “collaged” without strategic selection, choosing to connect those combinations where randomness would become most effective and rich. The Fish exercise and the cut-up technique are nearly opposite ways to think about the same question: how to make the most expressive, most consequential sentences?


Perhaps the reason so many of us find it difficult to think about sentences is the reprehensible lack of knowledge we have about the mysterious parts of speech that can be shape-shifted to change the way a narrative is understood. To remedy this lack, I recommend without reservation Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte. I can’t remember the name of the writer who said that he begins each workday examining a page or two of this book, but I certainly understand why. With examples drawn from literature and self-help, from government documents and travelogues, the author provides the clearest explanation of the ways the parts of speech can be used to dramatically alter tone — through timing, pitch, repetition, and the placement of clauses — that I’ve ever had the good fortune to read. Not all my graduate writing students appreciate why Tufte is assigned at the beginning of the semester; but by the end, they do.

Take her demonstration of the uses of the passive voice: in bureaucratic jargon, she explains, we instinctively know when we’re reading it, and how it’s meant to make us feel — like cogs in a machine, not individual and unlikely to be seen as such. Tufte shows how that strategy differs from the passive voice as used by Ralph Ellison in the opening to Invisible Man. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.”

Tufte goes on to illustrate that we understand, without thinking about it, how a verb turned into a noun — a gerund — affects our reading experience by making the action ongoing; and that the identical-looking form, when used as a present participle, provides a heightened sense of immediacy and urgency. Here is her example of a gerund in action, underlining the grueling nature of book-writing, from P.G. Wodehouse in His Own Words: “I have never written a novel (except Thank You, Jeeves) without doing 40,000 words or more and finding they were all wrong and going back and starting again, and this after filling 400 pages with notes, mostly delirious, before getting into anything in the nature of a coherent scenario.”

And a Tufte example of the present participle, with its full-bodied engagement in the change of the seasons, taken from Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary: “A lovely soaring summer day this; winter sent howling home to his artic.” How confident Woolf’s writing is! She chooses her words with such specificity, an enveloping sprawl of language that opens visually in the reader’s mind.

The more time I spend reading Tufte, the more I am aware of good sentences as made things. Whether mind-blowingly ornate or straightforward as a Shaker chair, the best ones are able to do what Woolf’s does, limiting and expanding the reader’s experience at precisely the same time. Guiding the reader from the story’s beginning to its end with sure writerly intent.

In her 1978 Paris Review interview, Joan Didion declares that she believes, like Hemingway, that everything about a piece flows from the first sentence; that by the second sentence, the writer’s “options are all gone.” As for the last sentence, Didion says, “[it is] another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one.”

One of the smartest last sentences I know does precisely that: Donald Barthelme closes his short story “The Dolt,” with “Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.”

As endings go, it’s pretty hard to top.


Susan Scarf Merrell's novel Shirley, a literary thriller about the novelist Shirley Jackson, is due from Blue Rider/Penguin in June 2014.

LARB Contributor

Susan Scarf Merrell is director of the Southampton Writers Conference, program director of the BookEnds post-MFA novel-polishing program, and a professor in the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. She is the author, most recently, of Shirley: A Novel. Merrell is also author of the nonfiction work The Accidental Bond: How Sibling Connections Influence Adult Relationships, and the novel A Member of the Family. Articles, reviews and short stories appear most recently in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, East Magazine, Fifth Wednesday, and on the websites Electric Literature and The Common online.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!