10 September 2013

Crafting a sentence is just like solving a puzzle. Except that puzzles are solved by arranging every piece in the box until they form the picture that appears on the cover, and sentences are solved by fumbling with the limited set of words in your repertoire until the shifting idea in your head stops moving.

When I read great sentences, I am always surprised at how graceful they seem and I imagine the hours the author spent crafting them to sound just right. So I decided to start with a sentence I liked and go backwards. Consider this one, written by Simon Winchester in his book Atlantic. It talks about the maritime paintings of a Dutch master:

Even now, nearly five centuries on, these are paintings that grab the attention: invariably there is the hungry sea, its waves translucent green and white-capped, the troughs between them deep and dangerous and all providing a savage contrast to the distant comforts of cow-grazed meadows and church steeples.

Now read a variation I won’t publicly confess to having written:

Even though these paintings are almost five centuries old, they are still striking. The sea is usually stormy and full of tall green waves. It seems very different from the calm meadow and the village that are usually in the background.

The first sentence resonates with my monkey brain; the second one is entirely unremarkable. When I first read Simon’s sentence I didn’t know why I liked it so much, so I decided to geek it out until I understood what made it so appealing. I’m still not sure I uncovered all its secrets, but here’s what I have so far:

  • nearly is classier than almost
  • five centuries on is more elegant than, say, five centuries ago
  • The now plays well with the five centuries on. I like that the scene is set on now, then there is a reference to the past, and then we keep going. It’s more satisfying than saying Even though these paintings are almost five centuries old
  • grab the attention is a more powerful visual than are striking.
  • grab is a more powerful verb than are. I also like the attention more than one’s attention
  • the colon after grab the attention introduces the explanation for why they are striking. That connection would be lost by using a period.
  • hungry is not an adjective typically used to describe the sea, it makes the sentence more vivid.
  • using a comma and describing the waves with its makes room for a richer description than simply appending adjectives (tall green)
  • The mental image I get from waves with white caps, and menacing troughs is of sharp teeth
  • there is a nice simmetry between its waves translucent and the troughs between them (them refers to the waves). troughs is precisely the right word to describe the negative space between two waves. They also each have five syllables, which helps.
  • there is a nice alliteration with and: translucent and green, deep and dangerous and all providing
  • savage contrast: another unlikely adjective-noun combination. It perfectly describes the feeling of comparing a dangerous sea with a quiet meadow.
  • distant comforts is a better mental image than in the background
  • I like the three adjective-nouns in a row: savage contrast, distant comforts, cow-grazed meadows
  • the all providing rounds up the description better than it seems.
  • describing a meadow as cow-grazed is brilliant, and more vivid than a calm meadow
  • a church steeple gives a crisper mental image than a village

A lot of pieces make up that puzzle. There are also no huge brilliant pieces; it is the combination of many good word choices and efficient structure that compounds the appeal of the sentence. I feel like knowing what the pieces are improves the chances of being able to use them to build my own sentences.

Here is another pearl by Simon, talking about an ocean liner. Feel free to tear it down:

But from the bustle of last-minute activity around her and the smoke being torn urgently from her single yellow funel, it was clear she was already straining at the leash: with her twenty-five thousand tons of staunchly riveted Clydeside steel, the Empress was readying herself to sail three thousand miles westward, across the Atlantic Ocean, and I had a ticket to board her.

And these are just two sentences, imagine a whole book of them! I thoroughly recommend it.