How to Write Better Sentences 10—sounds in lonely places

[My series on prose style begins here.]

This post is a cheat. I want to introduce the use of sound-patterns in prose, then hand the topic over to a writer far more capable of explaining it than me. In the last couple of posts, we looked at one particular form of sonic organisation—rhythm. But there are other ways to give sound back to your words, the way you notice an upper lip more urgently when it gleams with sweat. The way leather looks more like itself once it’s been marked.

In everyday life, prose is largely silent. We are taught to scan words without much mouth or tongue–if, during our reading, we breathed out the “w” in “way,” we would seem quite strange, or not wholly proficient. We all have favourite words whose musicality we enjoy, yet we are also able to comprehend whole legal documents without becoming conscious of the jostling soundy-ness contained in every syllable. However, skilled prose writers can force that awareness back, creating patterns of sound that reawaken the reader’s ear. Rhyme, for instance, is highly noticeable, and alliteration only slightly less so. Prose plods through pleasant pastures and all that. Assonance and meter are more stealthy mammals, working off sonic tendencies that few of us consciously process, and are of course less easy to confirm by eye.

The cheapest use of these techniques is to wave them in a reader’s face. Only-just-perceived sonic patterns can add an uncanny quality to sentences, a magical persuasive force, the way a musical score multiples the visual impact of a horror film. When Johnnie Cochran said,

If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit

the rhyme suggested that there was a pre-existing connection between the two ideas, a connection that pre-dated Cochran’s coining of the phrase, some design principle of the universe.

To learn more about the musicality of prose, and the strange “right-ness” that well-chosen sounds can bring, I would like to introduce the essay on prose style that first awakened me to the subject—“The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” by Gary Lutz. I am lucky enough to know the exquisite stylist who blogs at The Pop Filter, and she introduced me to Lutz’s famous lecture on sentence craft. It is intimidating, it is revelatory. You must read it:

The Sentence is a Lonely Place.

What? You’re still here? Click the link! Left mouse button. Go!

Best wishes,

Daniel Wallace

2 thoughts on “How to Write Better Sentences 10—sounds in lonely places

  1. Thank you so much, Daniel, for your series of posts, as well as the link to Lutz’s essay; I’ve been going through it all again and again for the past 72 hours, giggling aloud at times at the world of possibilities revealed by these lessons. After two or three years’ worth of writing and wondering why my prose fell flat on the page despite my most sincere of efforts, with your help I may have discovered the remaining materials to bridge the gap between idea and page. Even reading, which I did a lot of already, has acquired new layers of joy: in Lutz’s words, I am now a page-hugger rather than a page-turner.

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  2. Patrick, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much–it really makes doing the series feel worthwhile. Send me an email sometime–what sort of books are you reading / hugging?

    Best wishes with your writing,

    Daniel

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