The Art of the Sentence

~Post by David Duhr of WriteByNight, Austin’s center for writers.

Poet Marianne Moore once said, “A man is a writer if all his words are strung in definite sentence sounds.” Setting aside the lack of gender neutrality in Moore’s era, what she’s saying is that if it sounds like writing, then it’s writing. I.e., if you can put some words together to form a proper sentence, then, by definition, you can write.

Well, we all know there’s much more to it than that. (Moore knew this too, of course. This quote sounds so simple only because it’s taken out of context.) Crafting a single sentence is one thing. Stringing sentences together to form engaging, narrative-building passages back-to-back-to-back until they equal a successful whole is quite another.

In the words of Anne McCaffrey, “Without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.”

Call Me Unimpressed

Google something like “best first lines of novels” and you’ll get well over a million results. (We humans do love our Internet lists.) But the opening line that gets the most attention is clearly Melville’s kickoff to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”

Why? I dunno. Something about how there’s an intriguing difference between “My name is Ishmael” and “Call me Ishmael.”

All right, it’s a pretty good line. But would Moby-Dick be considered one of the finest American novels if Melville had stopped there?

ToMo Arigato

Toni Morrison is probably my favorite writer, and not just because she named her Pulitzer-winning novel after me (David is Hebrew for “beloved”). Morrison is well-known for her short, punchy opening lines: “124 was spiteful,” from Beloved; “They shoot the white girl first,” from Paradise; “Don’t be afraid,” from A Mercy.

But anyone can write a strong opening line—what matters is what comes next. And next. And next. Do each of your sentences build interest and intrigue? Do they advance the story? Does each line contain information that the reader needs to know?

And if not, what is it doing in there?


ToMo’s Jazz, like her other novels, opens with a pretty cool sentence: “Sth, I know that woman.” (Really, a tongue-click dismissal to open a book? Brilliant.)

So, what do we learn here? That we’re dealing with direct address, for one thing (i.e., a narrator speaking to the reader). Also, that this narrator disapproves of whoever “that woman” is, and that she’s probably gearing up to tell us more. But how did the topic come up? Did “that woman” just walk by? Or did the direct-addressee bring it up of his/her own accord? That’s a lot of info and questions to get from a four-and-a-half word sentence.

But it’s what Morrison does next that counts. Here in its entirety is the opening paragraph of Jazz (numerals mine):

[1] Sth, I know that woman. [2] She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. [3] Know her husband, too. [4] He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. [5] When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. [6] She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”

We’ve already explored Line 1. Let’s see what we learn from the rest.

2: So we’re talking Harlem, most likely. Why did this woman live with so many birds? And why is she no longer doing so? (“She used to live with … birds”)

3: If the narrator knows the wife well enough to speak authoritatively about her, it stands to reason that he/she knows the husband, too. Right? Or are they estranged? If so, why?

4. How’s this for a powerhouse sentence? Okay, so, love triangle, violence, personal torment, and happy/sad deepdown, spooky love. Yes, please.

5. Identifies the protagonist by name and hints at more violence—not to mention corpse desecration!—and kinda/sorta confirms that Violet’s husband not only shot the young girl, but killed her.

6. Clearly Violet was in a frenzy after this incident at the funeral. But how does the narrator know that this is what happened next, in Violet’s private home? What kind of narrator is this? And what is the significance of setting free a bird that mimics “I love you?”

If you’re anything like me, all it took on Morrison’s part were six excellent individual sentences, working together, to get you hooked on the story.

Death and Art, or Go Faulk Yourself

William Faulkner is quoted as saying “Kill your darlings.” What he meant is, delete from your story those sentences that you love only for their own sake, the ones that sound lovely but fail to advance your story.

But how do you know whether or not a sentence is acting in service of a story? On Tuesday nights in May (the 8th, 15th and 22nd, 6:30-8:30), WriteByNight instructor Joel Weinbrot is going to help writers learn to judge the narrative value of their sentences in a three-part seminar called “The Art of the Sentence.” Using examples from writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Hannah and Donald Barthelme, and workshopping original writing from participants (in Sessions 2 and 3), Joel will provide tips for identifying what makes individual sentences worthy of our attention and admiration, and how we can learn which ones are benefitting the story and which ones are, well, darlings we should kill.

If you’re ready to explore your writing on a sentence level, click here to learn more and register:


WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is Fiction Editor for the Texas Observer and Managing Editor at Fringe Magazine. He contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and others.

4 thoughts on “The Art of the Sentence

  1. Powerful. I like short sentences. My challenge? Long ones. I wish I could be down in Austin, among the hills, among the writers who care and focus on the detail of a sentence, (not diagramming sentences, not parsing out clauses like so many slivers of cherry pie), perhaps I’d learn where to truly place a comma or perhaps its about the idea of a sentence, a complete thought or the beginning of thought you will discuss in bearing down on the sentence, understanding why certain nouns and verbs juice a story, an opening line? I wish I could be there — in Austin among the sentences and writers like David, who’s name, I just learned, means beloved.

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