How to Write Better Sentences—conclusion

Thank you to everyone who has read these posts. I have covered almost everything I planned, and am now taking the quite different journey of teaching these techniques to a class of talented undergraduates. Future posts on this blog will offer more varied flavours and concerns, though prose style may return for visits.

You can start the series here, or see a list of every post by clicking the Style tab at the top of the screen.

To round up and conclude, I’d like to discuss one last sentence, the opening of Dan Simmon’s sci fi classic, Hyperion. Reading these posts, or listening to literary types in general, you may start to think that only tortured New Yorker authors care about prose style, and that, in contrast, every writer of what is called “genre fiction” is just a hack hurrying through a formula of plotting and fight scenes—Hyperion’s opening reveals such a view to be quite silly. Although its content and sensibility are outlandish, the style offers much to study.

Here is the novel’s opening sentence:

The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.

Simmons does a lot in these 36 words. In partial accordance with Strunk and White’s advice to put the key word last (described in essay one of this series), he puts the most dramatic information last, saving until the end the menace of monsters gnashing their teeth nearby. The sentence breaks into two significant parts at the word “while,” the word which separates the Consul’s world from that of the monsters. Prior to “while,” we are in his world of concerns, noting that the Steinway is “well-maintained,” but after it, we enter a world of inhuman rage and struggle.

Before “while,” there are only two verbs, and they are both bland (sat, played). After “while”, in the sentence’s remaining third, come another two verbs, and they are vivid and bold (surged, bellowed). This means that Simmons uses a noun-based style for the sentence’s first part, when describing the Consul’s static, serene, calm situation, and then switches to a more verb-based style for the alien world, to show its energy, its constant motion. The placement of verbs of differing strengths emphasises the precariousness of this future human civilisation, at once both powerful and fragile—which is the theme of Hyperion and its sequel.

In terms of setting out its meaning, the sentence is quite paratactic, with no causal linkage offered (the monsters do not roar because of the piano), yet it remains well ordered. The two clauses describing the Consul use a parallel construction, each starting with a compact subject-verb that is modified with right-branching prepositional phrases. The prepositions in bold:

The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship

and

played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway

The sentence is not technically cumulative, but these initial two clauses do adhere to Christensen’s vision of a sentence that starts off simply, and gets its specificity from the way the following phrases modify it.

The sentence’s sonic qualities also alter at the “while” turning point. Before it, the sentence is quite sparsely stressed, largely due to its many long words and prepositional phrases. And while there is some assonance between, say, “ancient” and “maintained”, this sonic pattern is not so vivid. But after the “while,” the alliteration becomes pronounced, and the stress much more dense, warning us about dangers dimly seen. The strong stresses are in bold:

while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below

Simmons also uses one, or maybe two, instances of “consecution,” the great feat of prose engineering beloved by Gordon Lish and Gary Lutz, where a word, or pieces of a word, after having entered a sentence once, reappear later in the same sentence, or later in the same paragraph, as if following the passage of the text, looking for a chance to resurface. In this sentence, “bellowed” reappears as “below,” and “balcony” comes back as “ebony.”

Lastly, the sentence advises us whose point of view we are in. What the consul sees clearly, we see clearly. But he does not really know what is in the swamps, and so there we get the vague word, “things.” The sentence is a guide from our world to the story’s world, leading us from the almost-familiar to the bizarrely strange, promising to show us the unknown, but to keep always within human, comprehensible concerns.

Style lets you do many things at once.

Thank you for coming along with this series.

Best wishes with your writing,

Daniel Wallace

3 thoughts on “How to Write Better Sentences—conclusion

  1. Hey Daniel, I haven’t read the latest post yet, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve been following them all. I think they are very useful and with some modification, you have material suitable for a short book, perhaps an ebook, that would be helpful to many people studying writing. I’ve certainly learnt from your posts. If you like, I could give you some more detailed feedback later. Btw, after one of your earliest posts, when you quoted Cat in the Rain by Ernest Hemingway, I decided to buy one of his books, then another, then his complete short stories! That guy is awesome!

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